Toxic Triumphalism (2 Cor. 13:1-4)
We've had several opportunities in our study of 2 Corinthians to witness the destructive presence in that ancient city of what has been called triumphalism. For the sake of those who may have forgotten what the term means, it has in view, among other things, an over-realized eschatology in which the blessings of the age to come are presumptuously claimed as a spiritual entitlement in the present day. Along with this are an aversion to suffering as something beneath the dignity of a Christian, an emphasis on rhetorical excellence, an expectation of success more as the world defines the term than does the church, an authoritarian approach to leadership, a willingness to tamper with the gospel for the sake of monetary gain (yet another "blessing" to which truly spiritual believers are allegedly entitled), unashamed boasting in ecstatic supernatural experiences, topped off by a physically impressive and relationally assertive public demeanor.
If all that sounds scarily familiar it's because the church of our own day is badly infected with this toxic perspective on Christianity and what it means to be a child of God. One need only look at the flamboyant and opulent lifestyles of many in public "ministry" (there's an obvious reason why I put the word in quote marks), the charge that those who suffer, whether physically, financially or in whatever way, are at fault for a lack of that sort of faith that would otherwise bring routine victories, together with unsubstantiated claims concerning extravagant and bizarre religious experiences.
Before Paul concludes his letter he will once again confront this attitude in the Corinthian church. Read with me his opening comments in chapter thirteen:
"This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them - since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God" (2 Cor. 13:1-4).
Paul's "first" visit to Corinth resulted in the planting of the church there (Acts 18:1-8). His "second" visit was painful and humiliating and led him to resolve not to visit them again for a while (2 Cor. 1:23; 2:1). Now he contemplates his "third" visit and warns them of what will happen upon his arrival.
The reference in v. 1 to the "evidence of two or three witnesses" is obviously drawn from Deuteronomy 19:15-21, an Old Testament law designed to protect a person against unfounded or inadequate charges by a malicious accuser. So what is Paul's point in alluding to it here?
This use of the OT may imply Paul's anticipation of a public hearing substantiated by multiple testimonies. On the other hand, this may simply be an allusion to his previous two trips to Corinth and the impending third trip. Paul would thus be using biblical phraseology to issue his warning, something to the effect: "My third trip to you will serve as yet another witness against your behavior, thereby substantiating and endorsing the disciplinary measures you force me to take."
"Those who sinned before" (v. 2a) is probably a reference to the same unrepentant folk in 2 Corinthians 12:21 who had continued their wicked ways up to the point at which Paul wrote these words (which is probably the force of the perfect tense in the Greek text). The identity of "all the others" is less certain, but probably refers to the rest of those in the church who hadn't sinned in this way but who needed the warning as a means of deterrence.
The discipline Paul has in view is probably more than public censure and would involve, at minimum, removal from both the church and access to the Lord's Table. But there may well be more in view, something along the lines of the discipline he described in his first epistle to Corinth:
"For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Cor. 5:3-5).
Many in the church were seeking "proof" that Christ was "speaking" in Paul (v. 3a). The point is whether or not Paul, as Christ's ambassador and apostle, accurately represents the mind of the Lord. They are saying, "We want undeniable evidence that you are the mouthpiece of Christ." Perhaps they were hoping for miraculous signs or revelatory experiences "or aggressive authoritarianism (cf. 11:20) or polished rhetoric (cf. 10:10)" (Harris, 911).
The Corinthians' triumphalism is nowhere better seen than in v. 3a. Carson explains: "They were so sub-Christian in their thinking that Christlike gentleness and meekness meant little to them. They preferred manifestations of power, however exploitative and arbitrary they might be (11:20). Paul's gentleness they therefore misjudged as weakness, preferring the triumphalistic pushiness of the false apostles. Paul responds by saying that if it is power they want to see as the absolute criterion of genuine apostolicity, they may get more than they bargained for: he may be forced to display the power of the resurrected Christ, speaking through him in the thunderous tones of punishment, another version perhaps of the judgment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira" (174).
Paul's point is that his life and especially his relationship to the Corinthians mirror that of Christ. Jesus, says Paul, was the supreme embodiment and example of both weakness (in his crucifixion) and strength (in his resurrection and exaltation). Jesus was "obedient to the point of death" (Phil. 2:8b) and refused to retaliate or react against his accusers (Mt. 26:52, 67-68; 27:11-14, 27-31; 1 Peter 2:23). Herein was his "weakness" as well as the public demonstration of his essential mortality. But unlike us, he did not remain in weakness but came to life again through the resurrection "power of God" (v. 4a).
Yes, says Paul, I am weak, as Jesus was, a weakness you've despised and used to undermine my credibility. But "in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God" (v. 4b). The phrase "we will live with him" is not, as most triumphalists would prefer, a reference to the final resurrection and our hope of living in Christ's presence in the age to come. Rather "Paul is speaking of his imminent visit to Corinth when, in unison with Christ and with God's power, he would act decisively and vigorously against unrepentant evildoers within the congregation" (Harris, 916).
Don't let the errors of this sort of toxic triumphalism blind you to the breathtaking reality of Christ's power available to the believer today. The last thing I want to encourage is a defeatist mentality that fails to celebrate and embrace the countless blessings that are ours now, in this present age. We are indeed one with Christ by faith and his resurrection power is operative in and through us in marvelous ways (see esp. Rom. 15:18-19; Eph. 1:19-20; 3:20-21; Phil. 4:13).
But it is a power for purity, a power for witness, a power that energizes us to persevere in suffering, a power that enables us to triumph over the flesh and to resist the seductive promises of the Devil. It is a power that enabled Paul to confront sin in Corinth and to enforce whatever disciplinary judgments were called for. It is a power that resulted in humility and self-sacrifice and generosity and, yes, even spiritual gifts for the building up of the body of Christ.
It isn't always easy to know when we should rest content with the blessings we currently enjoy and when we should press forward, laying hold by faith of what is not yet in our grasp. We want to be neither passive nor presumptuous. We long to experience all that is graciously ours now, through Christ, but without demanding of God that he accomplish in and for us what will only come to pass in the consummation. There is often a fine, even invisible, line between the two. May God grant us the discernment to know the difference!