The Power of 2 Corinthians on I-35 (2 Corinthians)
The day after I wrote the 99th meditation in this series of studies on 2 Corinthians, I was driving north on I-35 from Oklahoma City to Kansas City, a five hour journey. To help pass the time, I decided to listen to the reading of the English Standard Version of the New Testament on CD. It seemed only appropriate that I start with 2 Corinthians.
I can't recall how long it took to get through the letter, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty-five minutes. As I listened, it suddenly struck me: "Is this how the Christians at Corinth felt when they first heard Paul's letter being read publicly to them?" Of course, I had a distinct advantage over those early believers. I had just spent the better part of a year carefully analyzing the biblical text, meditating on each phrase, reading commentaries by highly educated biblical scholars, and then carefully crafting written observations on Paul's words.
I couldn't help but wonder: "What was their initial reaction? Did they feel the sting of Paul's rebukes? Were they immediately embarrassed when they realized how unfairly they had judged him? Could they hear the passion and tenderheartedness with which he wrote? Were they prone to self-defense or repentance? Could they see that Paul meant what he said when he told them that he was laboring for their joy (2 Cor. 1:24)? Or were they still deceived by the false apostles in their midst and thus disinclined to believe anything Paul said? And how did the false teachers themselves react? What was their response on being accused of peddling God's word (2 Cor. 2:17)? Did they quietly slip out of the room? When they heard Paul speak of those who employed ‘disgraceful, underhanded ways,' did they know he had them in mind? Did they shout aloud in protest when he openly identified them as ‘deceitful workmen' and ‘servants' of Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15)?"
But perhaps most pressing in my thoughts was the question of how the Corinthians responded to Paul's repeated appeals. Did they repent and turn things around? We don't have any concrete evidence that would help us answer that question, but D. A. Carson thinks there are small bits of information we can piece together that may suggest they responded positively to his authority.
He points out that when Paul made his promised third visit to Corinth he found time to write his epistle to the Romans. In Romans he does have concerns for the future (15:30-31) but not about the present. "Moreover, in light of his remarks in 2 Corinthians 10:15-16a, Paul would not have been planning at that time to travel on to Spain (Rom. 15:24-28) if the Corinthian situation were still unresolved" (186). And "the fact that the Corinthians collected their share of the funds Paul was gathering for the believers in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:26,27) presupposes, to say the least, that there was no final rupture between the apostle and the Corinthians" (186).
In any case, listening to the reading of 2 Corinthians led me to reflect on what in the letter had exerted the greatest impact on my life. Four things came immediately to mind.
First, Paul was a masterful spiritual physician who diagnosed the disease in Corinth, took the necessary and often painful steps to treat it, all with a view to the long term health of the body in that city. As stated on numerous occasions, his aim was their joy in Jesus (2 Cor. 1:24; 2:1-4). He longed to see formed in them a deep, durable delight in the Son of God that would fortify their hearts against the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. Yet, getting there required deep incisions in their souls, a radical spiritual surgery, if you will, all without the use of an anesthetic. It needed to hurt to be effective. So he pulled no punches, softened no blows, minced no words, not because he enjoyed inflicting pain on his spiritual children but because he knew it was the only effective way to treat the moral infection in their body and to bring restoration and renewal in the knowledge of God (see 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 7:2-4; 7:8-12; 11:1-6; 12:14-21; 13:1-10).
Second, I've been repeatedly challenged by Paul's response to the arrogant triumphalism so rampant in Corinth. This isn't to say Paul didn't believe in victory for the Christian, but it was victory over sin, over pride and envy, victory over self-reliance (cf. 2 Cor. 1:8-9), triumph over despair (2 Cor. 4:1), the sort of "winning" that magnified the treasure of the gospel and the power of God, not the "jars of clay" in whom it had been placed (2 Cor. 4:7).
Paul was confident of success, but not as the world conceives it. Success for him was measured by faithfulness, not financial prosperity or numerical growth. Success was achieved even in the midst of angry repudiation of the gospel he preached, so long as he preached it in accordance with truth and in a spirit of humility (see 2 Cor. 2:14-16).
Times haven't changed that much. As it was in the first century, so it is in the twenty-first. To this day, many who claim to know and minister in the name of Christ regard it as an inexcusable lack of faith that a Christian should be "afflicted in every way," although "not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Cor. 4:8-9). Those who "are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:11) just need more faith, so they tell us, or perhaps a greater "revelation" of their entitlement as children of the King.
For Paul and his co-workers (and I pray for us as well), it was enough that Christ was proclaimed as Lord and they as the servants of others "for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5). What he lacked in physical appearance, oratorical skills, and financial gain, he more than made up in his commitment to present his people "as a pure virgin to Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2), a people known for their "sincere and pure devotion" to the Son of God (2 Cor. 11:3).
Third, it's impossible to read this letter and not be challenged in one's view of money and its place in the kingdom of God. Several truths stand out for special note. There is the startling fact that neither poverty nor affliction is an obstacle to generosity! We must never forget the churches of Macedonia who, notwithstanding "a severe test of affliction" and "extreme poverty", abounded in joy and overflowed "in a wealth of generosity" on behalf of the struggling saints in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:2). We must never lose sight of the fact that this was itself the product of divine "grace" operative in their lives (2 Cor. 8:1). We must never forget that God gives to us, not so that we might have and hoard (as many today would argue), but in order that we might get to give (2 Cor. 9:8-11), and that, cheerfully, I might add (2 Cor. 9:7).
Fourth, and finally, and surely the most important lesson of all, we see in 2 Corinthians a robust and unapologetic Christocentricity! All the promises of God "find their Yes in him" (2 Cor. 1:20). We preach "the gospel of Christ" (2 Cor. 2:12), not of Buddha or Mohammad or of health and wealth. It is "in Christ" that we are led in triumphal procession, and "in Christ" that we speak and serve (2 Cor. 2:17), and "in the face of Jesus Christ" that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God has shone (2 Cor. 4:6).
Our aim is to "please" Christ (2 Cor. 5:9) whose love "controls" us (2 Cor. 5:14). It is only "in Christ" that a fallen, broken rebel can become a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). It was "in Christ" that God "was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19) and on Christ that our sin was laid (2 Cor. 5:21) and to the obedience of Christ that every thought is brought captive (2 Cor. 10:5).
And to whom have we been betrothed, "as a pure virgin" (2 Cor. 11:2)? To Christ! And for what do we strive in his power and to what do we aspire by his grace? Nothing less than "a sincere and pure devotion to Christ" (2 Cor. 11:3)!
As the CD recording of 2 Corinthians came to an end, I rejoiced in knowing that the life-changing power of this letter never will. Its truths are eternal and abiding and ever effective in forming Christ in us and exalting Christ over us. So, now, may "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor. 13:14). Amen.