Lecture 25: 2 Corinthians
Lecture: 2 Corinthians
After Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the best reconstruction that I can think of is that he sent Timothy to Corinth. He mentions in 1 Corinthians that he’s going to send Timothy there; in 1 Corinthians 16:10, he writes, “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am.” So Timothy is to come, and when he goes to Corinth, he comes back and brings a very negative report to Paul. Things are not going well, and so Paul makes an emergency visit. In 2 Corinthians 2:1, he refers to this as a “painful” visit, “I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you.” He was not well received. And then in 12:21, “I fear that when I come again [after this painful visit], my God may humble me before you.” And then, “This is now the third time that I am coming to you,” (13:1). So what happens is that this painful visit of Paul doesn’t seem to resolve the issue, and so he writes this harsh letter which we call 1½ Corinthians. And Titus delivers that, and he plans to meet Titus at Troas, which is still in northern Turkey. But he can’t wait. He’s so eager, he says he’ll go over to Macedonia and meet him on the way. And there, Titus brings him good news, and so the Corinthians have repented; the harsh letter has apparently worked, and they would like to see Paul. And so Paul, in his joy, writes 2 Corinthians and sends Titus and two other people to deliver that, and tells of a future visit.
So in 12:14, “Here for the third time I am ready to come to you.” He established the church in the second missionary journey. After writing 1 Corinthians he found out that things were going badly. He visited them a second time – that was the painful visit. He then writes 1½ Corinthians, and now he’s ready for a third visit. And in 2 Corinthians 13:1, “This is the third time I am coming to you.”
There’s a funny story that said when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was to be installed as the President of the United States for the third time, they asked him when he swore his oath of allegiance where in the Bible he’d like it opened to. He said 1 Corinthians 13, but by mistake it was opened to 2 Corinthians 13, which says “This is the third time I‘m coming to you.” Whether that’s true or not is hard to say.
The outline of the letter again begins with a salutation, and then the normal thanksgiving. Even with all the problems in 1 and 2 Corinthians, there is a thanksgiving section in these letters. So you must know then how upset he must have been in the Galatian letter. Because if he can give thanks with all these problems here, and you can’t do it in Galatians, Galatians must really have been a difficult situation. In 1:8 and following, he has a passage about his being “unbearably crushed”, that he “despaired of life itself”, he “…received a sentence of death ….” We don’t know what that means. Some have suggested that Paul in Asia was forced to fight the wild beasts (because he makes a mention of fighting beasts in 1 Corinthians 15:32). But Paul was a Roman citizen; he would never have had to fight in the arena. He could be beheaded, but nothing like this. So again, what this experience is, they apparently knew about it and he doesn’t have to explain it. It’s not an epistle like we have.
In 1:22, he makes a reference to a passage that I want to comment on, because it’s found not only there, but in 5:5 and then in Ephesians 1:14. He says, “It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has commissioned us. He has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” This is the RSV translation; the NIV translates this final word as “pledge”; the King James Version says “…He’s given us the earnest of His Spirit.” And in 5:5 that same reference is made, “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” Now the word ‘earnest’, interestingly enough, is still used today in that old English sense of the King James Version. When you buy a house, what do you have to put down? Earnest money. Earnest money is both a pledge of the rest of it coming, but also part of the money that is to come. And it’s a very good old-fashioned term, which, as we understand it, fits the role of the Spirit well. The Spirit is both part of our inheritance as believers (the first fruits, so to speak, of our salvation), but also the guarantee that the rest will be coming. So the presence of the Spirit then in the life of a Gentile, apart from circumcision, indicated that they had already entered the Kingdom of God and were guaranteed that they would be part of the future inheritance, even though they were not circumcised. Therefore, circumcision can’t be a necessity for that situation (the coming of the Spirit that way).
Let me just read a little of what Paul says about his own experiences here. He is in chapters 10 and 1 rather harshly rebuking the church, and then let me read chapter 12,
“I must boast. There is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up in the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man [he’s talking about himself, having experienced that] I will boast, but not on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses – though if I should wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming too elated by the abundance of revelation, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.”
What is the thorn in the flesh? There are all sorts of suggestions. He didn’t have to explain it to the Corinthians – they knew it. We don’t. Was it malaria? Was it eye disease? Was it epilepsy? A lot of the critics would like the epilepsy theory, because that would explain his visions, etc. But he doesn’t explain. He continues in verse 8, “Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” Paul prayed three times to be healed of it, and he wasn’t. Now I’m not quite ready to say that if he really had enough faith he would’ve been healed. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ might rest upon me. For the sake of Christ then I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
In chapter 11, he talks about the same thing. There apparently were people, rivals, who were boasting things like, “I’m better-looking than Paul”; “I’m a better preacher”; “I’m more eloquent”; “He’s really not much”; etc. And so in 11:7, “Did I commit a sin in abasing myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel without coast to you? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you.” There’s only one church that we know of that Paul accepted money from – the Philippians. He would not accept it from others, to provide an example, and also to make sure that people would not accuse him of being “in this for the money”. “And when I was with you and was in want, I did not burden any of you, for my needs were supplied by the brethren who came from Macedonia [Philippi is in Macedonia]. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. …. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!” Verse 16:
“I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying I say not with the Lord’s authority, but as a fool in this boastful confidence. Since many boast of worldly things, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!
“But whatever anyone else dares to boast of – I am speaking as a fool – I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman – with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
In other words, Paul is saying “You put up with these people who are boasting all these things. And I’m not going to forgive you for making me do this, but I’m going to boast too, then. I’m speaking like a fool.” And then he boasts, and all you have to do is say, “Do you think that any of the people living in Corinth that were trying to steal a flock away from Paul could meet these kinds of things?” And then he says that his greatest burden is the anxiety of the churches – his love for the church and his worries for them. Even worse than the beatings and all of those things is the worry about the Corinthians and the Galatians, and things of that nature.
The letter ends in Chapter 13 with a reference to a third visit, and then verses 11-14, “Finally, brethren, farewell. Mend your ways, heed my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” And here you have a Trinitarian formula placed side-by-side with those three. It’s an amazing thing.
One final statement I’ll make on 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, where he talks about the state after death, in which he sees this as a state in which there’s a conscious existence with God after death, but where there is an awaiting and a looking forward to the resurrection. You can read that on your own.