The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

February 3, 2023

Forgiveness is a choice, according to Desmond and Mpho Tutu, and there is no wholeness in humanity’s future without forgiveness. Since we are all broken, “forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again” (p. 3). Forgiveness is how we heal the world, according to The Book of Forgiving.

Often, we may want to forgive but don’t know how to do it. The process is mysterious and difficult, especially when we are trying to divest ourselves of resentment and bitterness toward others and their actions. “On this path,” they write, “we must walk through the muddy shoals of hatred and anger and make our way through grief and loss to find the acceptance that is the hallmark of forgiveness” (p. 4). They also addresses self-forgiveness as well as needing forgiveness ourselves.

Moreover, this father and daughter team raises the question how we pursue both forgiveness and justice. Tutu’s experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa informs his approach to this topic. His wisdom, gained both through theology and practice, has much to teach us.

At the heart of the book is the fourfold path. It is “simple, but it is not easy” (p. 5). They explore these practices through stories, personal experiences, and theological reflection.

  • Telling the Story
  • Naming the Hurt
  • Granting Forgiveness
  • Renewing or Releasing the Relationship

“Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed” (p. 71). The truth must be told, and the story must be heard. If we don’t tell the story to someone (family, friends, church, justice system, etc.), it will fester in our souls and damage the soul further. Listeners must create a safe space, listen attentively without cross-examination, acknowledge what happened, and sympathize with the pain.

When we name the hurt, we give a name to the emotion which helps understand how the hurt has affected us. Naming the hurt is the beginning of healing. This moves the story “beyond bare facts to the raw feelings” (p. 95). If we don’t express those feelings, they will come out in other, unhealthy ways. In this way, “grief is how we both cope with and release the pain we feel” (p. 102). Naming the hurt includes lament. Listeners don’t try to fix, minimize the loss, or offer advice. They listen well, sympathize, and love the one who names their hurt (p. 108).

Granting forgiveness is an act of spiritual formation; it is growth, and it is a process. The authors offer many examples of forgiveness by people deeply hurt by a loss or injustice. We choose to forgive as we recognize a “shared humanity” of brokenness (p. 125). When we can come to the point where we wish the other person well and when we can pray for their health and spiritual life, then we know we have forgiven. We can then tell a “new story” (p. 132).

We may either renew the relationship (which is a perpetual hope) or release the relationship (which is sometimes the only option). This step beyond forgiveness is important for healing since to forgive another is not the final step of healing. Renewal is not a return to what was before, but a new relationship borne out of the fruit of forgiveness (p. 148). Tutu offers some strategies for a renewal process. Sometimes, however, we must release the relationship; sometimes the person has already passed, or the person is impenitent (or refuses relationship). In such cases, “releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma” (p. 154).

This is a helpful book filled with real-life stories, practical wisdom, and a call for healing in our world without undermining the practice of justice. I highly recommend it.

Gender Ideology: “What is a Woman?”

January 9, 2023

Situation: the rise of trans people, especially among children (e.g., adolescent girls)

In 2007, there was only one pediatric gender clinic in the US; now, there are 300+ gender clinics (plus some services, like Planned Parenthood, dispense testosterone, depending on state laws, to minors without parental permission or a therapist note). Britain has seen a 4400%+ rise in incidences of gender dysphoria among adolescent girls (mostly teens) since 2014. This is called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD, teen girls with no prior history of gender dysphoria).

Gender Dysphoria: Severe discomfort with one’s biological sex.

  1. Classic/Typical Dysphoria:  appears in 1 in 10,000 (0.01%), overwhelmingly in males, begins in early childhood (2-4 years), persistent insistence on possessing the “wrong body,” and most experience same-(birth)-sex orientation. Typically, 75% become comfortable with their sex (most identify as Gay), while others transition to their desired sex (socially and/or medically).
  2. Social Contagion: “Trans Kids” (recently, they are mostly adolescent girls who have a long history of sharing their pain through self-harm, eating disorders, and anxiety about their bodies that is exacerbated by affirmation from authorities and social media influencers). In 2018, 2% of High Schoolers identified as transgender. Transition follows this form (not all fully complete it): (a) Self-identification and social transition (changing names, pronouns, gender expressions); (b) Puberty Blockers (when they have not yet gone through puberty); (c) Cross-Sex Hormones (androgens/antiestorgens; estrogens/antiandrogens); (d) Medical Transition (top surgeries; bottom surgeries).
  3. Activists: reshapes culture through the lens of gender ideology so that trans people are not only legally protected from harm but culturally affirmed and given space to flourish (e.g. sports, etc.).

Recommended Printed Resources

Abigail Favale (Roman Catholic), The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory.

Helen Joyce (atheist), Trans: Gender Identity and the New Battle for Women’s Rights.

Abigail Shrier (Jewish), Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.

Mark Yarhouse (evangelical), Understanding Gender Dysphoria.

Debra Soh (atheist), The End of Gender: Debunking Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society.

Preston Sprinkle (evangelical), Embodied: Transgender Identities, the Church, and What the Bible Has To Say

Recommended YouTube Lectures/Podcasts Abigail Shrier lecture Abigail Shrier and Jordan Peterson Helen Joyce Helen Joyce Helen Joyce Helen Joyce and Abigail Favale Abigale Favale and Preston Sprinkle Abigale Favale Abigale Favale Mark Yarhouse Lisa Littman (Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria) Debra Soh

Question:  What is “gender”? How is it related to biological sex?

  • a social construct that varies from culture to culture;

therefore, gender is a fluid state without objective boundaries.

  • a matter of self-identification based on a sense of self;

therefore, gender is grounded in a subjective sense of self (even “innate”).

  • a fixed biological reality;

therefore, gender is grounded in and tethered to one’s biological sex.

Gender Definition

Gender is a comprehensive word that includes (a) social elements (which are culturally fluid in so many ways) and (b) struggles to identify (as some wrestle with their discomfort with their bodies and their self-image), but (c) ought to include biology as its objective ground and basis.

Much of current discussion excludes the body from such grounding or collapses the body into social construction or self-identity (e.g., male brain in a female body). Yet, binary biology is part of the ground of gender, and social constructs mimic this to one degree or another across cultures.

Lovingly, we may care for and accompany adolescents who are caught up in this “social contagion” (just like female adolescents have been caught in other contagions exacerbated by social media, like cutting [self-harm] and eating disorders) in ways that compassionately and sympathetically address gender dysphoria. While there are genuine experiences of gender dysphoria (the classic cases), there is also such a thing as “social contagion” that rests on social constructions for gender fluidity and encourages adolescents who are uncomfortable with their bodies to reject their body’s sex and identity as another gender (nonbinary, trans, etc.).

We can lovingly process this dysphoria with people while, at the same time, affirming the biological grounding of gender in their embodied sex. It is a difficult decision to reject the reality of one’s body; I cannot imagine that struggle. I know it is terrifying for those who experience this struggle, and they want some peace about how to relate to their bodies. As people of peace, we listen, dialogue, and offer a vision of the gospel that heals wounds rather than creating them.

Theological Claim:  There are only two sexes (“male” and “female” per Genesis 1:27).

Biologically, male and female are binary because a body either has one type of gamete or another (sperm or egg). No known human being has ever produced fertility through both. This biological reality is affirmed in the Genesis identification of human beings as “male or female” as well as in the biology of creation itself. All mammals are either male or female. Intersexed persons (0.02% of the population) are not a third sex but variations within male and female sexes. There is no third sex. Some people (0.002%) are born with both ovaries and testicles, few are functional and never both.

Without biological grounding, “gender” (and even sex itself for some) becomes an internal sense that is expressed through social conventions or expressions. Consequently, not only gender but sex itself becomes a fluid category. As a result, there is no definition of male/female except one’s own internal sense of identification. Biological sex, then, is folded into gender such that “sex” is “assigned” at birth rather than a given, a gift from God.

People who transition, whether driven by classic dysphoria or by social contagion, sometimes detransition. Some who transition regret their decision; others happily embrace it. Whatever the case, the church may pursue a welcoming and healing strategy rather than exclusion, derision, and hate. The church must prepare for how it will help trans people and nurture them in the faith.

Struggling with God (Genesis 32:22-31)

October 16, 2022

[This is a guest post by Becky Frazier, who completed an M.Div. at Lipscomb University and is presently on staff at the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, TN. This is the sermon she delivered at the All Saints Church of Christ on October 16, 2022.]

This evening, I want to focus most of our time on the text from our Hebrew Bible, the story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God. Let’s read it again together. Pay close attention and see what stands out to you from this passage: 

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[f] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,and he was limping because of his hip. 

Whew! There’s a lot to unpack here out of 9 short verses. Who is this man that Jacob wrestles with? In a lot of traditional art and church history, the man is called an angel, but in the text, he is simply called a man, until the very end, after he has left, and Jacob says that in wrestling with this man, he has seen the face of God. The text doesn’t say where he comes from, he just shows up in the narrative as wrestling with Jacob. Who started it? Why were they wrestling? What is happening here? And why does it not warrant a whole chapter and some details please! Why, Old Testament, do I need to know how old every man was and the names of all the sons he begot, but you won’t tell me who this man was, or where he came from, or why he was wrestling or why Jacob thinks this man is God!?

It’s so interesting to me that, even after what the text describes as an extended time of fighting, all through the night, after a point where Jacob’s hip has been pulled out of place, causing what must have been excruciating pain, he still clings to this man, entangling himself and not letting go. When the man cries uncle and asks Jacob to get off of him, Jacob refuses saying that he won’t let go until he gets a blessing. 

Why would he ask for a blessing? How does he know that this man even has the ability to bless him? 

To help answer this, let’s situate this story in the narrative timeline. Jacob at this point in the story has left his father-in-law, Laban’s, house and gets word that he is about to run into his brother Esau. Now, if you aren’t familiar with this story, Jacob and Esau are brothers, twins in fact, and there is some bad blood there. And come to think of it, Jacob seems to have a pretty long history of wrestling. While they were still in their mother’s womb, their wrestling with one another was so intense that their mother, Rebekah, cried out to the Lord, asking what in the world was going on inside of her. 

Esau was born first which meant that he would receive the larger inheritance. But Jacob was right on his heels…literally. He followed Esau immediately with his hand wrapped around his brother’s foot. Jacob means “heel grabber”. Later in their life, Jacob twice wrests away from Esau what belonged to him through trickery: his birthright and his father’s blessing. After receiving this ill-begotten blessing, Jacob hightails it out of there to a far away land, knowing his brother was furious and would try to get vengeance. 

Jacob settles down and gets married to two sisters and has children… a lot of them…and grows his wealth (using some trickery again). But now it’s time to leave off on his own and in order to do that, he has to first encounter Esau, his brother who he hasn’t spoken to in perhaps decades, and who may or may not still have it out for Jacob (understandably in my opinion). So Jacob divides his family and all his wealth into two parties, thinking that if Esau attacked one, he at least wouldn’t be left with nothing, and sends them off ahead.   

And here’s where we find Jacob. Alone and in the dark. Wait… did you catch that? The text says, and I quote “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.” Jacob is alone and also wrestling with someone else. So…what’s going on here? In many Hebrew Rabbinic texts, they suggest that perhaps the person Jaocb is wrestling with, is himself. Jacob has been fighting his whole life. His brother (again and again), his father, his father-in-law. And now this man, all the while, demanding a blessing. He already had the birthright that had originally belonged to someone else and he already had his fathers blessing and he left his father-in-law with his blessing. And now here he is again. Desperately seeking another blessing. 

But here’s the thing. Jacob had already been blessed from the very beginning. When he and his twin were somersaulting in utero, his mom talked to God and God made it clear that there were two nations in her womb and that the older would serve the younger. He fought his whole life for what God had already given him. After fleeing his home in the aftermath of swindling his father and brother, God visited him in a dream and blessed him, saying that his descendents would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and that God would be with him in whatever he did and would never leave him. He had already been blessed. And blessed by God. 

I think that is one of the themes of the book of genesis and all of scripture. In Genesis 1, we read that God made humans in God’s image and called them very good. And then, not long after a deceiver comes in and makes the humans question what God had already told them was true. If you eat this, he said, you will be like God. So they stole something that wasn’t theirs to take and then lied and finger-pointed and hid in shame, when the truth was that they were already like God, having been made in God’s image. And haven’t we been doing the same thing all this time. 

I am more and more convinced that this is at the root of all of our sin. We do not believe that what God said about us is true. We do not believe that we have been blessed. We do not believe that we are worthy. We do not believe that we are God’s beloved. So we lie and we steal and we hoard resources.  We perform and we perfect and we pretend. We numb and chase highs and we lash out, all in an attempt to hide our unworthiness or prove our worthiness instead of resting in the blessing that God has said was true about us before we even drew our first breath. You are good. You are beloved. You are worthy. You were made out of divine dust. God dwells in you. 

And so we return to Jacob. Who, in the darkness and in the loneliness, was wrestling with himself. Who, for once, was perhaps willing to take a cold hard look at the darkest parts of himself. To stop pretending. To stop fighting everyone else. To let go of this need to seek approval and blessing from others and to find the blessing that already existed within himself. I can say from some experience that this is not a fun place to be. When we bring out into the light all the things that think we have been hiding from others and even from ourselves, it hurts. It’s painful. It’s exhausting. But it’s also necessary. 

In confronting himself, Jacob received a double blessing. In facing what he had done to his brother and his father, in facing the shadow side of himself and the person that he had become, he came away changed. Walking with a limp and a new name. Nevermore to be the same.

But Jacob also walked away declaring that he had also found God in the struggle. In wrestling with the darkness within, the very place that we assume is furthest from God, he actually ran smack dab into God. 

Thomas Merton writes “Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”

So today, I bless you. May you struggle. May you wrestle. May you experience the pain and the loneliness that comes from being willing to truly face yourself. May you lay down the lies that you have believed about yourself and surrender to the truth that God has spoken over you. May you have the courage to face the darkest parts of yourself, knowing that God is with you in the wrestling and in the hurting and that nothing that you find there can invalidate what God has already said is true. May you walk away changed, even if it means you limp a little. And may you, at last, walk away with the knowledge that you have come face to face with God. 

Introduction to the Story of God

September 26, 2022

Day One in Around the Bible in Eighty Days

Texts: Romans 16:25-27; Luke 24:44-49

The message is called gospel (good news) and the announcement (heralding) of Jesus the Messiah. Like an imperial proclamation of good news for the Empire, God announces good news for both Israel and the nations. Before this revelation of the work of God in Jesus by the Spirit, it was a mystery. This does not mean mysterious but unknown. Now, however, it has been revealed–it is now known.

This revelation comes through the appearance of Jesus the Messiah. At the same time, it is also made know through an exposition of the prophetic Scriptures. The prophets anticipated this moment, and we read the Scriptures in order to understand the outworking of this mystery in Christ.

God’s eternal purpose is to generate an obedient faith among the Gentiles. Paul heralds this good news about Jesus for the sake of bringing the salvation of God revealed to Israel to the ends of the earth and strengthening the faith of the disciples of Jesus. For this work, among many other things, God is worthy of praise.

The commission at the end of the Gospel of Luke affirms that the Scriptures—the Torah, the prophets, and the Psalms—tell this story, and we ought to search those texts for an understanding of how what was revealed there came to its fullness in the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and enthronement of Jesus of Nazareth. We listen to the story of Scripture to hear a word about God’s Messiah and the salvation God’s servant brings.

This salvation begins with the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in the name of Jesus, it produces repentance and the forgiveness of sins for all nations. The story of Israel is not confined to the Scriptures of Israel but continues in the work of heralding the coming of the Messiah and God’s salvation. That work continues in a community, first gathered at Jerusalem, scattered among the nations empowered by the coming of the Holy Spirit. The story continues through the witness of the church.

When we read Scripture, we are looking for that story. It is the main plot in Scripture. While we may become interested and even distracted by many particulars in the story, the main thrust of the story is the revelation of God’s mighty acts of redemption and salvation, which are first present in Israel, then fulfilled in Christ, and proclaimed by the church.

It is a drama on the world stage. It began in creation, was entrusted to Israel, climaxed in Jesus, is embodied by the church, and will be restored in new creation. These are the five acts of the drama: Creation, Israel, Christ, Church, and New Creation. I call it a theodrama because the main plot is the work of God, that is, what God is doing for the sake of the creation. God creates. God choses Israel. God becomes human in Jesus. God dwells in the church. God renews creation as a new heaven and new earth.

That is the story Around the Bible in 80 Days seeks to unfold. But the goal is not only for information but for formation into the image of God and participation in the mission of God.

Day One is the first step in the journey.

Obadiah, the Day of the Lord, and Juneteenth

June 18, 2022

[A Version of What was Delivered at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, Nashville, TN, on June 19, 2020.]

Continuing a series on the “Day of the Lord” in the Hebrew prophets, the text selected for this morning is Obadiah, and today is June 19, historically regarded as Jubilee Day or Emancipation Day in African American communities for over a century. To my mind, there is a connection. But first, we turn to Obadiah.

It is only a single chapter, twenty-one verses. It is the shortest book in the Hebrew Bible. It is often forgotten, and it doesn’t even appear in the lectionary cycle of the liturgical churches. It is, to say the least, a neglected book.

However, it is not only its brevity that accounts for this. It is also its topic. It has been received as a word of judgment against the nation of Edom, the nation who descended from Esau. As a word of judgment against a specific nation that had a specific history with the nation of Israel, it might seem a bit irrelevant to us. What does contemporary life have to do with the destruction of Edom over 2500 years ago?

This is where the theme of the Day of the Lord becomes important because that theme establishes contemporary relevance. The Day of the Lord does not only come to Edom, but the prophet Obadiah also tells us it comes for “all nations.” What happened to Edom—and the reasons it happened to Edom—lies in store for “all nations” (v. 15).

So, what happened to Edom? What happened to Edom is what happened to Judah at the hands of Edom. The rivalry between the nations of Israel and Edom go back to their ancestors Jacob and Esau. Though those two reconciled, the rivalry deepened and turned to hostility. When Israel wanted to pass through the land of Edom on the way to the promised land, Edom refused. Even when Israel promised to pay for any water or food they used along the way, Edom refused. At times, the nations warred with each other. Israel subjugated Edom during the reign of David, and Edom invaded Judah at other times. Sometimes they were allies but never friends. Finally, when the Babylonian empire invaded Judah three times over a period of 20 years and laid siege to Jerusalem three times, finally destroying the city in 586 BCE, Edom joined forces with Babylon to humiliate Judah.

Edom cooperated with Babylon, assisted them, and took advantage of Judah’s subjugation. As a consequence, on “that day”—the day of the Lord—the wise in Edom were destroyed, her warriors shattered, and everyone was cut off from Mount Esau (vv. 8-9). The day of the Lord came to Edom as judgment, destruction, and exclusion from God’s future story.

Why did it happen to Edom? Fundamentally, Edom mistreated his brother (vv. 10-14).

  • Edom stood aside and watched Jerusalem robbed and subjugated without helping or showing pity.
  • Edom gloated over the misfortune of Judah and rejoiced over their ruin.
  • Edom boasted about their own security and power on the day of Judah’s distress.
  • Edom participated in the calamity of Judah by entering its cities, including Jerusalem, and violently subduing the city and its land.
  • Edom prevented the escape of refugees and handed over survivors to the ruling power, the Babylonians.

In other words, Edom used their secure position in relation to Babylonian power to pillage, seize, and abuse their brothers in Judah. Rather than using it to show mercy, assist, and welcome their brothers, they used it to inflict power for their own benefit. Fundamentally, they failed to love their neighbors and honor the common brotherhood of Jacob and Esau as children of Abraham and Isaac.

They used their power—the privilege afforded to them as Babylonian allies—to enrich themselves, secure their own position in relation to that power, and take revenge against Judah for past offenses. And what drove this was a “proud heart” (v. 3). Their arrogance—their seeming invincibility (“who will bring me down to the ground?” in v. 4)—emboldened them, and they stole from and murdered their own brothers as a tool of Babylonian power.

For this reason, the Day of the Lord came upon Edom, and it meany their destruction. God judges the nations for their violence, arrogance, and cruelty. God sent out a messenger among the nations, the prophet Obadiah, to announce that the Lord will do battle against Edom for his sins. The Day of the Lod comes as judgment against Edom.

But not just Edom, and this is how Obadiah’s message about Edom is also relevant for us. Obadiah 15 says, “For the day of the Lord is near against all nations.” The standard of measurement for all nations is their own actions. Just as they have done, it will be done to them, and their “deeds shall return on” their “own head” (v. 15). What nations do to other nations, the Day of the Lord will bring to those nations.

This is a message not only about Edom, but it is a warning and a promise to all nations. When nations do what Edom did, when they gloat over the ruin of others, boast of their own power and standing in the world, mistreat others through violence and enslavement, punish refugees rather than help them, and participate in the calamity of other peoples, then the Day of the Lord will come for them as it did for Edom.

Obadiah’s message, though specifically targeting Edom, also speaks to all nations throughout all history. It speaks to our own nation. Juneteenth reminds us one of our nation’s original sins, the enslavement of people for the enrichment of plantations and the nation. Juneteenth celebrates the moment on June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger posted and publicly read throughout Galveston, Texas, General Order No. 3 which freed the remaining enslaved people and granted them the rights of a free people.

But before Juneteenth was a version of the Day of the Lord. The Civil War cost this nation over 625,000 lives, one out of every 50 people alive in 1860 died in that war. Abraham Lincoln recognized a divine judgment in his Second Inaugural Address.  It was a nineteenth century “Day of the Lord” for the United States.

“The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, H now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”

American slavery did to Africans what Edom did to Judah. When the Day of the Lord comes, it liberates the oppressed and judges the evil that oppressed them.

The Day of the Lord is a recurring event throughout history. It is not simply one day, but many days where the righteous judgment of God moves in history to deliver the oppressed, judge the wicked, and renew the hope of the righteous. Those days are part of history, both biblical and subsequent to the Biblical history. We don’t often see them clearly as we are so bound up in the wickedness and the wounds of this world that we are blinded by our own power and privilege.

I am no prophet, and I cannot discern the movement of God in the world to identify this is that, and that is this. However, we are all called to pay attention to the righteousness, justice, and mercy (e.g., Micah 6:8; Matthew 23:23). We are called to seek the kingdom of God first and God’s righteousness (Matthew 6:33). We pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We judge the nations in the light of the kingdom of God, a kingdom where power humbles itself and privilege serves the other; a kingdom that advocates mercy over sacrifice, love of neighbor over ambition, and empowerment of the power over the enrichment of the wealthy. We seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness–is is our allegiance as disciples of Jesus.

And that day—the day when the kingdom of God comes—is coming and is already here though it has not fully arrived. A day is coming when Mount Edom will belong to the Lord, and all the kingdoms of the earth will become the kingdom of our Lord (v 21).

The Day of the Lord has two edges to it. It will judge the nations for their violence, exploitation, and self-enrichment, and that day will also fill the earth with the righteousness, justice, mercy, and peace. On that day, the eschatological Day of the Lord, the earth will belong the Lord, the meek will inherit the earth, and the glory of God will fill and renew all things as an inheritance for God’s people. Until that day comes when God will set everything right, we continue to pray “Your kingdom come,” and we give ourselves to God as disciples of Jesus who pursue God’s kingdom and become instruments of that kingdom life in the present.

Until that day, perhaps that call of Lincoln in his second inaugural still rings true: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” let us pursue righteousness, justice, mercy, and compassion as we bind up the wounds, care for the poor, and seek the kingdom of God above all else.

2  Corinthians 13:11-14 – A Final Exhortation and Blessing

May 14, 2022

“Finally,” Paul writes. He has come to the end of the letter. In this letter, he has attempted to (1) help the Corinthians understand both the importance and nature of the ministry of reconciliation inaugurated by a crucified but risen Messiah, (2) encourage the Corinthians to renew their commitment to sharing their wealth with the poor saints in Jerusalem as they had promised they would, and (3) confront the claims of the super-apostles and warn the Corinthians that Paul’s third visit will test their commitment to the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah.

Paul’s letter ends with optimism, loving intent, and blessing. That seems rather strange in the light of what immediately preceded these final words, but it signals Paul’s authentic intentions. He does not want to beat up the Corinthians. Rather, the final exhortations reach back into the letter and invite the Corinthians to respond positively to Paul’s message, the gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

Final Exhortations

These final exhortations—including six imperatives (commands) and two indicatives (declarative statements)—summarize how Paul hopes the Corinthians will respond to his lengthy letter. These statements are not throw-away, meaningless formulaic endings to a letter but an invitation to embrace the message Paul has attempted to communicate.

It is rather typical for Paul to conclude his letters with a series of admonitions (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:13-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22), but they seem to relate, in some way, to the content of the letter—almost like a summary of sorts.

Six Imperatives.

Rejoice! Though some translations render this word “farewell,” Paul has just used this same word in 2 Corinthians 13:9, and it appears in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 at the head of a list of brief imperatives with the meaning “rejoice.” Though Paul’s ministry is filled with suffering, it is his joy that the Corinthians are strong though he is weak. The ministry itself is a source or joy rather than gloom and despair. The ministry of reconciliation is an occasion for joy. Paul works for their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24; cf. 2:3; 7:4, 13; 8:2). Joy, deep-seated peace and calm, arises from the reconciling ministry of God at work in Christ.

Put Things in Order! Just like “rejoice,” this word also occurs in 2 Corinthians 13:9 where Paul prays for their sufficiency, competency, or even restoration. Some render it, “mend your ways,” or “be restored” to God (as in “Be reconciled to God” in 2 Corinthians 5:20). It seems to refer to a sense of wholeness or completeness. Paul wants the Corinthians to embrace God’s restorative and transformative work in their lives, which is effected through faith and repentance but dependent upon God’s reconciling work.

Listen to My Appeal! Either Paul is asking the Corinthians to listen attentively to his letter, or perhaps he is asking to them to find encouragement from what he has said. Perhaps the language is sufficiently ambiguous to include both so that Paul has a fuller meaning here:  listen and be encouraged! Paul’s letter is filled with the language of exhortation or encouragement. He uses this verb in 2 Corinthians 1:4, 6, 2:7; 5:20; 6:1; 7:6, 13; 8:6; 9:5; 10:1; 12:8, 18. Paul does not intend to destroy but to edify and encourage. He calls the Corinthians into relationship, repentance, and renewal. His continuous call to encouragement throughout the letter receives its final mark here at the end of the latter.

Have the Same Mind! This is the only time Paul uses this verb in 2 Corinthians, though he did use it in 1 Corinthians 13:11 where he describes how Christian growth entails moving beyond a childish mind toward a mature one. This is a key point in Philippians: believers are called to have the same mind as Jesus and unite in thinking the same way about discipleship and life in the kingdom of God (Philippians 1:7; 2:2, 5; 3:15, 19; 4:2, 10). This does not mean there is absolute conformity in terms of opinions and varied understandings, but it is a shared approach to life in Christ, particularly where we have the same mind Jesus had (that is, the one who was rich became poor so that we who are poor might become rich). It is a life of service and care for others; it is living worthy of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, who emptied himself in order to become a servant.

Live in Peace! Paul uses this verb in three places: here, Romans 12:18, and 1 Thessalonians 5:13. Peace is something the Corinthian church lacks, it appears. Perhaps it is improving as Titus’s report to Paul in Macedonia indicates. But the church is still disturbed. Peace is an essential quality for the living church of God but one it often lacks due to internal strife, disagreements, and varied practices. Yet, peace is not found in conformity but in being conformed to the life of the Messiah.

Greet One Another with a Holy Kiss! This is also a common imperative in Paul’s benedictions or endings to his letters. It appears in three other letters: 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Corinthians 16:20; and Romans 16:16 (see also 1 Peter 5:14). The kiss is a holy (non-erotic) greeting—a sign of peace and welcome between family members. It is a sign of fellowship and communion.

Two Declarations.

The God of love and peace will be with you! Paul uses “God of peace” often (1 Thessalonians 5:23; Romans 15:33; 16:20; Philippians 4:9), and this is the only occurrence of the phrase “God of love” in Scripture. This is not a wish prayer but a promise. God responds with love and peace to communities that embrace the way of the gospel and pursue the ministry of reconciliation  with joy, peace, and restorative practices. Paul assures the Corinthians that God has not abandoned them but is still at work among them as they seek reconciliation and peace.

All the saints greet you! The Corinthian congregation is part of a larger community. They are not alone in the world, and it is important to remember that we are joined together in mutual welcome, love, and peace through mutual greeting.

Blessing, or Benediction

In English, we supply the verb to 2 Corinthians 13:14 (in some translations, the final verse is 13). There is no verb in the Greek sentence. It is legitimate to supply the verb “to be” as in “to be with” or to be present with, even to be overwhelmed by. It is about our existence in the life of the Triune God who is active and engaging. The Triune God is pouring out love, grace, and communion (fellowship). God’s activity is constant and dynamic. This sustains our relationship with the Triune God. We enjoy, experience, and are empowered as well as enriched by the life of the Triune God as that God pours into us grace, love, and communion.

In other words, by supplying the  verb “to be” we see the empowering and enriching presence of God’s mighty acts among us, the God who loves, the Christ who graces, and the Spirit who communes. This divine presence is “with us all”—a constant and abiding presence that secures our hope, empowers our ministry, and enriches our lives. This is Paul’s blessing, even benediction, for the Corinthians and all believers in Christ.

In Paul’s benediction, grace is associated with the Lord Jesus the Messiah, love is associated with God the Creator, and fellowship (koinōnia) with the Holy Spirit. This language, of course, is not unique to each because we can also speak of the “love of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14; Ephesians 3:19; Romans 8:35), or the “grace of God” (2 Corinthians 1:12; 6:1; 8:1; 9:14), or the “love of the Spirit” (Romans 15:30).

Nevertheless, though this language is not exclusive, perhaps Paul reminds us of the economic (the way the Triune God manages the world) work of the Triune persons in the world for the sake of the world. The love of God is the source of all redemptive work, the grace of Jesus is the means by which God accomplishes this work, and the fellowship of the Spirit is how we experience this redemption in both community and in our own lives.  This is the activity of the Triune God, the tri-personality of God (for the Threeness of God, see Galatians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Ephesians 2:18; 4:4-6).

The divine work is sourced from God the Creator, given through the Messiah, and poured out into our lives by the Spirit who unites us with God and the Messiah. Perhaps one way of saying this, without any attempt to be exhaustive, is the following hymn-like expression of the work of the Triune God.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ

  • Forgiveness for our transgressions
  • Mercy in our brokenness
  • Compassion for the poor and sick
  • Liberation for the oppressed
  • Peaceful reconciliation between enemies

The love of God

  • The source of creation and redemption
  • God’s delight in our belovedness
  • The unspeakable gift of Jesus for the life of the world
  • An unrelentingly pursuit to include us in God’s own loving community
  • Passion to form us into God’s own loving image

The communion of the Spirit

  • God’s love poured into our hearts
  • God experienced in the communion of community
  • The mercy and forgiveness we extend to each other by the power of the Spirit
  • A rich shared life together in the Spirit
  • The Spirit who groans with us and plants hope in our hearts

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Paul began this letter with a reminder that the God who raises the dead is the God of all comfort and ends the letter with a benediction that blesses the Corinthians with the love, grace, and communion of the Triune God. This is the community into which believers are called and where they experience authentic joy, peace, and restoration.

Glory to Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning and ever shall be worlds without end. Amen!

2  Corinthians 11:16-21a – I Can’t Believe You Put Up With . . .

March 26, 2022

Since the beginning of chapter eleven, Paul has been promising to boast if only for the sake of the Corinthians and his care for the church. The “super-apostles” have created a climate of boasting. This is quite suited to Greco-Roman culture where boasting is often how one announces their credentials and explains why they should be heard. The “super-apostles” have boasted that they are superior to Paul, and Paul feels the pressure to respond to their boasts.

But Paul is not quite ready to begin his boast. “I say again,” he writes, and repeats his point from verses 1-2. He thinks the whole project is foolish. The sort of boasting in which he will engage to satisfy the Corinthians is to play the fool, and since some already think he is a fool, he will “boast a little.”

In fact, the sort of boasting required by the Corinthians, and which Paul will do, is not “according to the Lord” (kata kurion) but “according to the flesh” (kata sarka). Paul’s “boastful confidence,” that is, his endeavor, undertaking, or substance, is not the sort of boast that “boasts in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17-18) but boasts in the flesh (or, “human standards,” NRSV).

Paul’s boast, in some sense, is going to follow the pattern (according to the flesh) of the “super-apostles” which accords well with the Corinthian (and Greco-Roman) expectations of traveling teachers or preachers. Boasting in external credentials (rhetoric, success, education, prosperity, etc.) is, to Paul’s mind, foolish boasting, but the Corinthians think it is wise and perhaps necessary. Indeed, they “gladly put up with fools” who boast according to the flesh because they think they are wise. This wisdom, however, is according to the flesh; it is the wisdom of human failings, Greco-Roman expectations, and the power-brokers of decision-making governance. It is boasting according to human standards.

Nevertheless, for their sake, Paul will proceed with this kind of foolish boasting, though his particulars diverge from the “super-apostles” as he will ultimately and most importantly boast in his weakness rather than his strengths.

Yet, before he begins his boast, Paul reminds them of who the “super-apostles” are. They have revealed their internal motives through their behaviors and demands. If the Corinthians were truly wise and strong, they would recognize their Satanic strategies and practices. But, unfortunately, the Corinthians have been deceived like Eve was by the serpent, and they have been played like weak fools.

In 2 Corinthians 11:20, Paul describes how the Corinthians have been played with five verbs which, in fact, draw a contrast between Paul and the “super-apostles.” In their supposed wisdom, the Corinthians have put up with the foolishness of the “super-apostles,” and have, therefore, put up with oppressive behaviors: enslavement (“makes slaves of you”), predatorial practices (“preys upon you”), exploitation (“takes advantage of you”), haughtiness (“puts on airs”), and abuse (“gives you a slap in the face”).

These verbs, which characterize the “super-apostles,” also draw a dramatic contrast with Paul’s own approach to the Corinthians, as he describes himself in 2 Corinthians.  The below chart identifies the contrast; the chart is adapted from Frank Materia, II Corinthians: A Commentary (p. 258).

Behavior of the  “Super-Apostles”Paul’s Behavior
Domineering EnslavementDoes not exercise authority over their faith (1:24)
Predatorial PracticesNot a Burden to the Corinthians (11:9; 12:14)
ExploitationNot crafty or cunning (4:2; 12:16)
HaughtyHumbles himself to work with his own hands (11:7)
AbusiveActs as their father (6:13; 12:14)

The contrast is stark. The intruders employ practices that seek to control and manipulate the Corinthians for the sake of their own gain and power. Paul’s practices arise from his passion for the gospel and its truth, and his practices conform to the ministry of Jesus himself who suffered and died for the gospel. Paul lives among the Corinthians as a co-worker, who earns his own keep, cares for them with the love of a father, and does not domineer over them like a master over a slave. This language reveals the hearts of the “super-apostles” in contrast to Paul’s own care and anxiety for the Corinthians.

Apparently, to use the barbs of the super-apostles or Corinthians themselves, Paul was “too week” to treat the Corinthians with the oppressive practices of legitimately credentialed so-called apostles. Paul’s passion for the Corinthians shines through his sarcasm but also his disappointment with some of them who have been taken in by these intruders.

Many today are disappointed with the church, just as Paul was disappointed with this Corinthian weakness. I, too, am disappointed with domineering leadership, ministers who exploit their position for financial gain, prideful power-moves, predatory practices in control and sexuality, and other abusive practices ranging from emotional manipulation to neglect to marginalization. While most have their own experiences of these sorts of practices, one only need to listen to the Mars Hill podcast by Christianity Today to hear the story of a contemporary “super-apostle” played out in the public square.

Nevertheless, Paul loved the church. He groaned over them, wept over them, and yearned for them like a loving father does for his children. He pursued the Corinthians in love and hope. And, at the same time, his pursuit included the confrontational style of 2 Corinthians 10-13. Paul does not avoid conflict. He neither excuses nor condones their practices, and neither does he ignore them. He identifies the predatory and exploitative practices of the super-apostles and calls the Corinthians to renewed service to the gospel of Jesus the crucified but risen Messiah.

Paul, as may we, loved the church with a passion that confronted its abusive practices while also calling them into more Christ-like patterns of behavior. The two are not mutually exclusive. Love will confront abuse, and love will also welcome the abused—and even the abusers as long as they bear the fruit of repentance.

2 Corinthians 11:1-4 – God’s Jealousy for the Church

March 12, 2022

Paul is about to do something foolish but necessary: boast.

Quoting Jeremiah 9:23-24, Paul has already disclaimed boasting except boasting in the Lord (2 Corinthians 10:17). But soon, in this letter, he will begin to boast in 2 Corinthians 11:21b-12:13. He is forced to play this foolish game because at least some of the Corinthians have welcomed those whom he calls “super-apostles” (11:5; 12:11). The Corinthians, apparently, relish the boasting of the “super-apostles,” and the Corinthians received them as representatives of Jesus. So, Paul must boast, but it is foolishness.

The word “fool” or “foolish” occurs eight times (11:1, 16 [2x], 17, 19, 21; 12:6, 11 in this section of 2 Corinthians (11:1-12:13). Those words only occur seven other times in the whole New Testament. By the time Paul gets to the end of his boasting, he exclaims: “I have been a fool!” (12:11). He spoke as a fool rather than “according to the Lord” (11:17). Yet, he does so because he is anxious for the health of the Corinthians.

However, this is all a bit of irony, even sarcasm. Paul will boast—and play the fool—but his boasting is of a different sort than the “super-apostles.” Paul does not boast for self-commendation but to defend his role among the Corinthians as their father in the Lord. His boasts are not lavish self-praise but his own set of credentials which are different from the “super-apostles.” Paul boasts because he is protective of the church rather than himself. In this way, he boasts in the Lord rather than in his own value.

The first four verses of chapter eleven explain why Paul will engage this foolishness.

  • Bear with me in this foolishness as I am divinely jealous,
    • because I am your father who betrothed you to Christ
  • I fear you have been deceived like Eve,
    • because you bear with any who preach another Jesus.

Paul asks the Corinthians to bear with him in his foolish boasting just as, it seems, they have borne with the preaching about a another Jesus. If the Corinthians have put up with and received the boasting of the “super-apostles,” then Paul expects them to put up with some of his own foolishness. This is especially true since Paul planted the church and is their father in the faith (1 Corinthians 4:15).

Paul compares himself to a father who has promised his daughter in marriage and thereby invokes a well-known cultural practice. First, there is an announcement—an engagement between the daughter and the man. Second, there is a betrothal period (typically a year in Jewish cultural) during which time the father protects the virginity of the daughter. Third, there is a marriage ceremony.

The comparison seems rather obvious. Paul betrothed the Corinthians to Christ when he planted (fathered) the church, giving birth to a daughter (the Corinthian church). As her father, his mission is to protect the chastity of his virgin daughter for the sake of Christ. On the wedding day, which is the day when Christ returns, Paul intends to present Christ with a virgin bride.

This explains Paul’s godly jealousy for the Corinthians in the face of his detractors and the intrusion of the “super-apostles.” He is like a father protecting his daughter from those who would seduce her into an illicit relationship.

But what is so illicit about a relationship with the “super-apostles”?

Paul fears they will lead the Corinthians astray from a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ,” just as Eve was deceived by the serpent through “its cunning.” Embedded in this language is a fairly weighty judgment against the “super-apostles.”

  • They use cunning deceptions to lead people astray.
  • They stand opposed to “pure devotion to Christ.”
  • They serve the same role as the serpent who deceived Eve.

Comparing the situation with Eve, who was tricked by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, suggests how seriously he assesses the situation in Corinth. The chastity of his daughter is on the line with these intruders. They play the part of the serpent, which is perhaps why Paul compares them to Satan who “disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). In fact, one of the reasons for writing this letter is so the Corinthians would not be “outwitted by Satan” (2 Corinthians 2:11). This, then, is a dire situation where the virginal betrothal lies in the balance.

Moreover, the tactics of the “super-apostles” are filled with deception and “cunning.” These are the vices that Paul disavows with regard to his own ministry. Earlier Paul wrote, “we have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Paul comes to the Corinthians with honesty and an open heart, but the “super-apostles,” according to Paul, come with deceit and cunning. They want to deceive the Corinthians just as the serpent deceived Eve.

Why does Paul fear the Corinthians have been led astray from their “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3)? Because the “super-apostles”

  • herald (announce) another Jesus
  • bring a different spirit/Spirit than the one previously received
  • accept a different gospel

Their message entails “another Jesus,” a Jesus other than the one Paul proclaims. Their practices exhibit a different (heteron) spirit/Spirit than the one with which God gifted the Corinthians. Their gospel is different (heteron); it is a different kind of good news, not the one Paul preached and practiced in Corinth.

Something is radically amiss here. What is “different?” I don’t think it is false teaching in the sense that it is a specific Christological heresy or a Judaizing group from Jerusalem. There is no indication in the letter that there was a doctrinal or dogmatic difference between Paul and the “super-apostles.” We know little, if anything, about the theological content of their teaching. On the contrary, the focus of Paul’s engagement with the “super-apostles” is focused on their self-commendation, comparative style of ministry, their disparagement of Paul’s ministry, and their deceitful practices.

If this is the case, then one may proclaim a theologically correct Jesus, a faithful gospel, and receive the Spirit of God (if “spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit), and yet herald another Jesus, embody a different gospel, and exhibit a different Spirit (or spirit). How is it possible to be a faithful teacher of the truth but lead people astray so that they give up their “pure devotion to Christ”?

The answer to that question lies in the rationale for Paul’s extended discussion of the ministry of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 2-7. The sort of ministry in which Paul engaged is the opposite of what these “super-apostles” are doing. The heart of this is revealed in the nature of Paul’s boasting which contrasts with the nature of the boasting by the “super-apostles.”

Essentially, Paul pursued the ministry of reconciliation for the sake of the Corinthians and humbled himself among them, even to the point of suffering for the gospel. He endured hardship, suffering, and abuse for their sakes. This is the ministry of gospel. It is not self-commendation and self-promotion in order to enjoy prestige, status, or prosperity. This is where the contrast lies—the way in which each has approached the Corinthians as ministers of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:19-21). One example of this is that while Paul refused money from the Corinthians, the “super-apostles” apparently did not (2 Corinthians 11:7). Paul refused to “take advantage” of the Corinthians, but the “super-apostles” did (2 Corinthians 12:18).

While the content of our ministry—the message we proclaim—is of utmost importance, it can be subverted by the way we minister. Our mouths may say one thing but our practices say something different. In this way, the “super-apostles” promoted another Jesus with a different spirit that embodied a different gospel. And the Corinthians, Paul says, put up with it!

The modern church has the same problem. While some preach a relatively “correct” gospel with their words, their practices say something different. When pastors revel in their credentials, status, power, and wealth rather than taking on the ministry of reconciliation embodied by Paul, they herald another Jesus with a different spirit that embodies a different gospel.

What Paul feared for the Corinthians is still a live problem in the contemporary church and seemingly more so now than ever.

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 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.