Not a warm and fuzzy conclusion
2Corinthians 13: I want to get on with it, and not have to spend time on reprimands.
The final portion of this second letter to the church at Corinth isn’t just a warm, friendly closing. Paul writes with apostolic authority to the church there. He lays it on the line, telling them that he’s soon to make his third trip their city and that he’s already warned them that if habitual sinners don’t clean up their act that in the name of Jesus he’ll clean up the church there. He tells those who’ve been demanding proof that he speaks for the Lord that, unless things improve, they’ll get more proof than they want. This is pretty strong stuff and it’s not just a bluff. Some years earlier, for instance, on the island of Paphos a sorcerer named Elymas opposed Paul’s preaching of the gospel. The Apostle turned to him, and without laying a hand on him struck him blind. When Paul tells those who oppose his gospel at Corinth that if they don’t straighten up they’ll get plenty of reason to believe he speaks with the authority of the Lord he’s not just making a lot of noise. However, that isn’t how Paul wants it to be. His job is to bring people to the Lord so he can make them complete, not to strike people blind or worse. Paul’s approach here reminds me that spiritual things are serious and need to be handled carefully. It’s dangerous to be flip and irreverent. It may seem that people get away with stuff like that, but Paul warns them (and us) that it’s possible to go too far for too long and that to do so has real consequences. At the same time I’m reminded that that’s not what Christian leadership is all about. Paul has shown a great deal of patience in this situation. He’s prayed and pleaded and appealed to them as a father dealing with loved children. He’d much rather help broken people find restoration in Christ and, in fact, the only reason he warns them as he does in this case is that his mission of reconciliation is being threatened by some insiders who oppose this ministry.
Take Away: Be carefully reverent about the things of God.
Paul’s thorn in the flesh
2Corinthians 12: The weaker I get the stronger I become.
As Paul defends his ministry he describes a vision he experienced many years earlier. At least I think he’s describing a vision he had. His wording moves to third person, but the setting of the passage concerns visions and revelations given him by the Lord. Paul was lifted up into heaven and there heard things he was forbidden to share with others. The Apostle says that if he wanted to he could focus on such experiences and trump about anyone. Instead, though, he chooses to focus on his humiliations and, in fact has found his most troubling, humbling handicap (although he doesn’t tell us what it is) to be yet another great blessing. This handicap serves two good purposes in his life. On one hand it balances out the ecstasies he experienced in Christ, keeping him firmly grounded in the here and now. On the other hand, his weaknesses drive him to even greater dependency on the Lord. As he relies on the Lord rather than on his own experiences, as deeply spiritual as they might be, he finds strength. Blessings are, well, a blessing! However, they can also be a curse. If I think the Lord has made me a favorite because of some deep spiritual experience that experience can actually serve as a stumbling block in my life. Of course, the Lord knows this. I think he sometimes withholds some special intimacy from us for our own good. At other times, as it is in Paul’s case, the Lord works in our lives in wonderful ways but refuses to do something that would be precious to us to keep us from becoming so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good. We don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh is, but we can see it as he does: as part of God’s working in a life for the good of one he dearly loves.
Take Away: Sometimes the Lord does things for us because he loves us. Sometimes the Lord doesn’t do things for us because he loves us.
You get what you pay for
2Corinthians 11: My needs were always supplied by the Christians from Macedonia province.
One reason some of the members of the church at Corinth don’t value Paul’s ministry as much as they value that of others is that Paul served them free of charge during his time with them. Others have come their way with hard luck stories and claims of greater enlightenment. They’ve asked for and received offerings from the church there. Now, when Paul writes to them in authoritative tones they tend to discount his ministry to them because they didn’t pay for it. Paul’s about to join the traveling preachers in stating his credentials and sharing his hard luck stories, and both are much more impressive than those of the traveling preachers they’re listening to. The Apostle wonders if he cheated them by letting churches elsewhere support his ministry during his time in Corinth. He thought he was doing them a favor, making it clear that he wasn’t in it for the money, but now he wonders if they’d be more inclined to listen to him had they supported him during his time there. Paul makes it clear that he’s not sorry he ministered to them as he did, so I don’t want to make more of this than is there. Still, it’s a point worth consideration. Generally speaking, people value that which costs them something. If it’s just handed to them, they think it’s worth what they paid for it. In this passage, I see that, on one hand, sometimes it’s best to just give our ministry away, making it as easy as possible for people to receive it. On the other hand, though, it’s fair and right that people support those who minister to them and, in fact, their doing so increases the value of that ministry in their eyes.
Take Away: We tend to value that which costs us something.
The voice of authority
2Corinthians 10: I write in the gentle but firm spirit of Christ.
Paul’s first letter was rather stern and was, in general, well received. Most of the church at Corinth took it to heart and responded positively to it. However, we see here that not everyone received it in the spirit in which it was written. Some complain that Paul should mind his own business and that “them and God” will work things out. Others point out that there are leaders aside from Paul in their number who hold different opinions from him. Yet others say that Paul writes tough, but in person he’s not very impressive and his letters shouldn’t be treated as though they’re the final word on anything. The Apostle takes all this on in this passage. He wants them to understand that he’s being as patient with those who oppose him as possible, but that his words aren’t his own, but carry with them the very authority of Christ. He hasn’t tried to manipulate them and he hasn’t avoided the more sticky points. He knows that there’s opposition both outside and inside the church. After all, his teachings are radical and run counter to the world’s way of doing things. He’s not just putting band aids on severe wounds. Rather, he’s in a battle to the death with an ungodly culture that still has a foothold in the Church. All this he does under the direct authority of Christ. If they want to hear from someone with authority, he’s it! Paul’s self-assurance here is breathtaking. In spite of his obvious weaknesses he pulls no punches in claiming authority in this situation. I’m sure there’s a case to be made for humility and for letting people work things out between them and God. Here, though, I’m reminded that sometimes God chooses to use unlikely people to state his message. This, I think, is different than a preacher taking a text and, using its authority, delivering a sermon. This kind of prophetic voice is seldom heard, but when it happens people tend to recognize it. Beyond recognizing it, we’d better pay attention to it.
Take Away: It’s the Lord who gives authority to his message.
Hum “Family of God” as you read this one
2Corinthians 9: God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.
In spite of Paul having written some pretty stern stuff to them, he remains confident of his good relationship with the Corinthians. In fact, he moves from the topic of his first letter to them to encourage them to be generous in their giving to a special relief offering he’s collecting to be taken to the Christian poor in Jerusalem. If you think about it it’s quite an impressive thing he’s doing. These Gentiles wouldn’t have given a second thought to some Jews living in Jerusalem just a few years earlier. They felt no connection to them and they certainly wouldn’t have considered sending them a relief offering. Now, though, it’s all changed. Their lives are now linked to the lives of people throughout the region. Before it was “us and them” but now it’s all “us.” What has happened? Jesus! His presence in their lives has made them part of a family. These days, they not only know about fellow believers in distant Jerusalem, but they’re willing to send them some of their hard earned cash to help them through hard times. What Paul began so long ago continues to this day as Christians send offerings to people in distant places in the Name of Jesus. God’s people are the most generous people on the face of the earth. The reason, according to Paul, is that we’re behaving like our Heavenly Father who’s the most generous Being there is. We’re part of a great family and our Father has set for us a powerful example of giving. We give to all who are in need, but we’re especially willing to give, even sacrificially, to help our brothers and sisters. “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.”
Take Away: God’s people are wonderfully generous people.
2Corinthians 8: We don’t want anyone suspecting us of taking one penny of this money for ourselves.
Paul’s collecting an offering for the Christian poor in Jerusalem. The idea came from the churches in Macedonia but has now spread throughout the Gentile Church. There’s no pressure as to what individuals give. Paul just urges people to give the best they are able. He does note though, that in spite of the Macedonian Christians going through some hard times of their own that they’ve set the giving bar pretty high. Now, Paul’s sending some folks to Corinth to collect their offering and take it to Jerusalem. He’s quite business like in his approach and wants to assure them that Titus won’t be alone in caring for this money but will be joined by another trustworthy individual in handling it. The Apostle adds that he doesn’t want anyone to have any reason to think he’s skimming expense money off the top of this designated offering. He wants them to be confident that everything they give will go to its designated purpose. As a pastor I’ve always followed Paul’s approach in money matters. I try to stay away from handling church cash if at all possible. Also, in the church we deal with money handling issues using accepted business practices along with a dose of sanctified common sense. Like Paul, we want to handle money and other church assets in such a way that no reasonable person will have reason to question our honesty. Beyond that, of course, we’re well aware that the Almighty sees it all and that someday we’ll stand before him in Judgment.
Take Away: Good business practices are good business for the church.
2Corinthians 7: I know I distressed you greatly with my letter.
The book of 1 Corinthians is almost painful to read. It’s clear the there are some sick situations there and that this church is far from being a healthy congregation. The Corinthian church isn’t a prototype of what a Christian church is supposed to look like, although how Paul deals with them is a primer on how a spiritual leader is to deal with a difficult church situation. An insight in this passage is that as Paul writes to Corinth he knows the impact his words will have on the church. Beyond that, his words impact him as well. Administrating this strong medicine is painful for Paul too. The old “this hurts me more than it hurts you” line is literally true in this situation. Paul gets no pleasure in writing to his friends at Corinth as he does. He’s frustrated with them and somewhat fearful for them. Still, he expects his strong medicine to bring about, in the long run, good results. Sometimes parents have to be disciplinarians. It would be nice to always feel warm and fuzzy about things but to do so isn’t what real love is like. In his first letter Paul steps up to the plate, telling them the facts of spiritual life even though, in his words, “I felt awful at the time.” Sometimes preachers have to be disciplinarians. As it is for Paul and as it is for parents, proper discipline should never carry with it a sense of pleasure in causing pain. I imagine tearstains on the parchment that contains what we think of as 1 Corinthians. In the same way, there should be tearstains on the sermon notes of a pastor who preaches a sermon that will cause some pain. Otherwise, that sermon should never be preached.
Take Away: Sometimes discipline must be done but it should never be done with pleasure.
Living unreservedly for God
2Corinthians 6: The smallness you feel comes from within you.
These are emotional words from the Apostle. He loves this church. They’re his dear friends. In fact, he considers them to be his children in Christ. At the same time he’s frustrated with the smallness of their lives. The infighting, bickering, competing attitude of theirs not only breaks his heart but it also limits their view of God and what he does in people’s lives. Without reservation Paul has given himself to them and to the Church in general. He’s suffered physically for it but at the same time he’s been blessed beyond description. If the Corinthians feel their religion puts them in a straightjacket it’s their own fault. There’s so much more to being a Christian than trying to be first in line at church potlucks or getting to be the one who sings the special song. Paul calls them to a better way: a passionate life lived joyfully for the Lord. These words speak to church people throughout the ages. Am I going to make church about meetings and rules and authority or am I going to make it about living passionately for the Lord? The first binds and limits me. The second sets me free to live “openly and expansively.”
Take Away: The Christian life isn’t binding – rather, it’s wonderfully freeing.
Our number one motivation
2Corinthians 5: Cheerfully pleasing God is the main thing.
Having described himself as a “clay jar” the Apostle is well aware of his inadequacies. The day’s coming, he says, when these “tents” (that is our earthly bodies) will shut down and be replaced by bodies of heavenly construction. The weaknesses we deal with every day even to the point that we come to think of them as ordinary and acceptable will be gone forever, replaced by that which is amazingly superior. Paul says that we get just a taste of what it will be like as we enjoy the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As good as that is, it’s just a small sample of what’s coming. With such exciting prospects you’d think that that’s what Paul would think about all the time and that if he’s asked what motivates him his answer will focus on making the big move from the “tent to the palace.” Make no mistake; he likes thinking about it all. However, the big deal for him isn’t “exile or homecoming.” Rather, he declares, the big thing is pleasing God in all his life. His greatest motivation is the knowledge that there’s a way to live in this life that’s pleasing to God. There’s a possibility of standing before the Lord and hearing him say “well done.” For Paul, the big deal isn’t pie in the sky as much as it’s pleasing the Father in this life. Going to heaven is huge, no doubt about it. However, pleasing the Lord, our Creator and Master, according to Paul, is even bigger.
Take Away: When we live to please the Lord we’re living as we were designed to live.