Two Corinthians fits with the questions
we should be wrestling with as a church
2 Corinthians 1:1-2
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Why 2 Corinthians?
First, I believe that our steady diet should be the exposition of entire books of the bible, though topical sermons and topical series are of great benefit from time to time.
Second, 2 Corinthians fits with the questions we should be wrestling with as a church. So let’s work at getting a big picture understanding of 2 Corinthians – who wrote it and to whom and why.
Brief Corinthian History
- The city of Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and it laid in ruins for just over 100 years.
- In 44 BC Corinth had been rebuilt by Julius Caesar.
- By the New Testament era it had become a very important city in the Roman Empire – in fact, it was regarded as the third most important city in the Roman Empire after Rome itself and Alexandria.
- It was located on the Isthmus connecting the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the rest of Greece and it had two harbors (one on either side, called today: the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf).
- It became one of Rome’s most notable centers for banking and finance.
- In addition Corinth was home to the biannual Isthmian Games (2nd only to the Olympics).
- Corinth had an enormous theater (holding 18,000) and a concert hall (holding 3000).
- Because of its strategic location, tourists and merchants from every town and province in the Empire came through Corinth – bringing great diversity in race, religion, and culture.
- Corinth was well known for comfortable and debauched living.
- Striking similarities to our own western culture.
Brief Pauline History
- Saul of Tarsus, a young enthusiastic Pharisee who was (in his own words) zealous for God, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2) so that he even persecuted the church of Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:6).
- And Saul, breathing out threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord Jesus, was traveling to Damascus with the express intention of arresting both men and women belonging to the Christian faith and as he approached Damascus suddenly a light from heaven shone around him blinding him and he fell to the ground and Jesus the risen King spoke to Him and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
- Come to find out Jesus had chosen this man to be an instrument to carry His name to the Gentiles, to kings, and to the children of Israel.
Paul’s Second Missionary Journey
- And so it was this Saul, or Paul as we know him, who brought the gospel for the first time to those who dwell in Corinth.
- When Paul came bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to Corinth on his second missionary journey in AD 49-50, Corinth was only about 80-90 years old.
- Paul spent a year and 1/2 preaching and establishing the church there in Corinth.
- The church was made up mostly of Gentile believers and mostly of the lower socio-economic strata (though there were some with more wealth).
Paul and the Corinthian Believers
This first visit was just the beginning of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian believers and a careful reading of 1 and 2 Corinthians and Acts helps put the history of Paul’s interactions with the Corinthian church together.
- From around AD 50-52 Paul is in Corinth preaching and establishing the church.
- In AD 52-53 Paul travels from Corinth over the sea to Ephesus, from Ephesus he travels over the Mediterranean Sea to Caesarea and then onto Jerusalem and then finally to Antioch finishing his second missionary journey.
- In AD 53-55 Paul embarks on his third missionary journey, traveling by land through the region of Galatia and Phrygia strengthening the disciples (Acts 18:23).
- After this Paul arrives in Ephesus again and it is here that Paul hears news of Corinth and writes a letter to the Corinthians which is now lost.
- Titus takes this letter to Corinth and to establish a collection (2 Cor 8:6,10; 9:2; 12: 17-18).
- Then Paul receives news from Chloe’s people about the state of affairs in Corinth. It is at this time that Paul writes the letter we call 1 Corinthians (perhaps delivered by Timothy).“…although they were the Christian church in Corinth, an inordinate amount of Corinth was yet in them…” – Gordon Fee.
- Timothy returns from Corinth to Paul in Ephesus and it is at this point that Paul feels compelled to go to Corinth himself. This is what Paul refers to (in 2 Corinthians 2:1) as his painful visit. Apparently things were so bad in Corinth that Paul decided to changed his travel plans (which he had revealed in 1 Corinthians 16:5-7) in order to be able to visit the Corinthian church two more times rather then once more.
- Now back in Ephesus Paul sends Timothy and Erastus ahead to Macedonia (Acts 19:22), and Paul apparently thinks better of his change of plan and instead sends Titus to Corinth with another letter that we do not now have (a letter described as a severe letter – see 2 Cor 2:3-4 and 7:8-12). Paul himself travels at this time to Troas and then onto Macedonia.
- Titus meets up with Paul in Macedonia and reports about the Corinthian church and the news is a mixed bag.
- Some had responded well to the severe letter and repented.
- but some in the church believed Paul to be living according the flesh and depending upon earthly wisdom because he changed his plans (1:12, 17). Some thought that he was not fit for ministry because of the difficulties that Paul had been experiencing in ministry (2:14-16; 3:5-6) and because of the fact that he had not resolved the issues in Corinth on his second visit (10:2;12:20-13:5).
- Also some raised the question of why Paul didn’t take money for his ministry and some even suggested he has some dark scheme to take advantage of the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:1-27; 2 Cor 11:7-11;12:13-18; see also 4:2).
- Also the collection, that Titus had established the year before had ceased to be a priority (8:6,10; 9:2).
- There seems still to be some in the church involved in the immorality of the culture (6:14-7:1;12:2-13:2).
- But still worse was the news that recently a group of Jewish Christians that Paul calls ‘false apostles’ had come into the church and there influence threatened to undermine both Paul and the gospel that Paul had preached to the Church.
- This was serious indeed and this is when Paul writes 2 Corinthians.
- After this Paul does make it down to Corinth in AD 56 where he spent 3 months and where it is generally believed that he wrote the letter to the Romans.
Basic 2 Corinthians Outline
- A defense of himself as a NC minister (1-7)
- An appeal to resume the collection for the relief of the saints (8-9)
- An final call to the rebellious to repent before Paul comes (10-13)
Why 2 Corinthians?
So we come back to the question, why 2 Corinthians? Well, as true as it is that an inordinate amount of America is yet in us (as Corinth was yet in the Corinthian believers), that is not my primary motivation for wanting to study this letter (1 Corinthians would be a better place to start if that were the motive).
Instead, the circumstances (superintended by the Holy Spirit) and Paul’s response to those circumstances (being himself carried along by the Holy Spirit) forms one of the most helpful unveilings of what a genuine Christian minister looks like and what genuine Christian ministry looks like.
And let us mark that ministry is not simply what pastors do – it is what the saints are to be equipped to do.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
2 Corinthians must inform how each of us think about this local church’s ministry and our own ministry within it and without.
So, in 2 Corinthians we have robust theology, but here we get also to see the heart of one shaped by that theology and so we have a wonderful resource, not just about the what of Christian ministry, but also the how and the why of Christian ministry.
Incredible theological truth about the message of the gospel, the ministry of the New Covenant, as well as the manner of life that grows out of that message and ministry are clearly explained in this letter – but more than giving mere truth, we are given a glimpse into the heart of a genuine minister of Christ.
I think it is all too easy to speak abstractly about ‘truth’, but 2 Corinthians gives us a glimpse into the ‘true thoughts, intentions, motivations, anxieties, desires, greatest joys, and greatest disappointments …(Sam Storms)” of one captured by the Truth – that is captured by the Lord Jesus Christ and the New Covenant in His blood. We get to see a real man in the flesh (like you and me), but a man truly led by the Spirit of Christ. We get to see how the message of the gospel shaped his ministry and manner of life.
Its About Christ
But as we get into the heart of Paul and he exposes his inter motives what we will find is that 2 Corinthians is not really about Paul. It is truly about Paul’s Lord, Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians is saturated with the gospel –
It is saturated with the incredible love of Christ in the cross (5:14)
It is saturated with the incredible power of Christ’s Spirit in the New Covenant (3:3-9)
It is saturated with the reconciling work of Christ in the dawning of the New Creation evidenced by righteousness (5:17-21)
It is saturated with the wonderful grace of of God given through Christ evidenced by Christlikeness (1:12-14; 6:1,14-7:1; 9:13-15; 12:7-10; 13:4).
It is saturated with the glory of Christ – displayed in the church (9:23-24)
All this comes to us out of the heart of Paul who loves the person and work of Christ and truly loves the church, Christ’s people – and so as he teaches us of Christ he does it as one deeply invested, body and soul, in seeing the bride of Christ flourish and not at some detached ivory tower theologian.
The Central Theme
But what is the central message of 2 Corinthians? If we were to attempt to summarize the message what might we say? What does genuine Christian ministry look like?
Instead of just telling you my thoughts on that question, I’d like to read a number of really rich passages to you out of 2 Corinthians so that you hear for yourself Paul’s answer – with brief commentary. And then at the end I’ll attempt a summary statement.
2 Corinthians 2:14-17
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
The fragrance of the gospel will be received only one of two ways – as beautiful or putrid.
2 Corinthians 4:1-2
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
Even as some will absolutely hate the gospel we continue to spread the truth openly.
2 Corinthians 4:7-12
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus ‘sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Even our sufferings are designed by God to show the surpassing power of God in the gospel – God’s power is displayed in people who endure many suffering from the sake of the gospel.
2 Corinthians 4:17-18
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
People whose hope in heaven and whose faith is in God do not lose heart even as our lives our literally wasting away.
2 Corinthians 6:2-10
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise.
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
The external evidence of earthly success may be totally absent: known as imposters, unknown, dying, punished, sorrowful, poor, having nothing – yet that is in fact the context of fertile ministry and what shows the genuineness of gospel ministry is not praise and honor from people, but endurance in affliction, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, etc – with purity and knowledge and patience and kindness – that is the Holy Spirit. And truly known by God, truly alive, truly not able to be killed, truly always rejoicing, truly making many rich forever, truly possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 10:3-4
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
2 Corinthians 12:8-10
Three times I pleaded with 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.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may 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.
2 Corinthians 12:15a
I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.
So, in Second Corinthians we get to the heart of what our mission is as a church and we get to the heart of what motivated the apostle Paul to keep pursuing this mission in the face of conflicts, afflictions, slanders, rejections, and beatings. 2 Corinthians is really about the nature of ministry in the New Covenant.
- So how would you summarize the nature of Christian ministry?
- What should we be aiming at here?
- What should we expect to see here in our own ministries?
- And how do we judge success and failure?
Well, what we will find is that ministry in the New Covenant is aiming to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere, to manifest (display, make known) the treasure of Christ in His death and resurrection, to state the truth openly and without deceit (that is the aim) – but what we also will see is that this kind of ministry is going to be marked outwardly by suffering, affliction, weakness, and death, but inwardly marked by life and joy and power by Christ’s Spirit and this is by God’s design — to some Christ will be the fragrance of life to other the fragrance of death.
I think because of our history as Americans we are prone to think that successful gospel ministries will look like earthly power: whether that is large numbers of people, and nice buildings, and lots of money, and eloquent speakers, and nice music, and influence in the culture – and people liking us. But none of those things are essential characteristics to successful Christian ministry.
What are essential characteristics of Christian ministry are the clear presentation of the truth, Christlike conduct, and suffering!
Kent Hughes has said,
“The gospel does not ride on health and wealth but on weakness. The ministry of Spirit is not of splash or flash but of meekness and weakness.” –
May the Lord be pleased to use 2 Corinthians to more and more conform our thinking and conduct and ministry to that which will glorify Christ and be the means by which many are saved.