Paul’s Sorrow for Corinth – 2 Corinthians 7:5–9

After sending the tearful letter with Titus, Paul planned to meet with Titus in Troas for a report. When this meeting did not happen, Paul grew concerned the Corinthian church was upset with him. Titus was a Greek co-worker of Paul mentioned in several letters, including a short letter written to him while he was working with churches in Crete. Titus is a long-time co-worker, since Paul had taken Titus to Jerusalem before Acts 15 to show that God was working among the Gentiles (Gal 2:3).

Image result for apostle Paul weepingPaul said in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11 he was in “deadly peril in Asia,” probably indicating a time of suffering in Ephesus. This may have included an arrest although it is not mentioned directly in Acts, Philippians may imply Paul was arrested and placed in custody in Ephesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:32 he refers to “fighting the wild beasts in Ephesus,” which could refer to literal animals, or vicious opponents who behaved like animals. Paul listed many afflictions described in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, and perhaps even his “thorn in the flesh” (12:7) is in mind here.

“Fightings without and fears within” implies he had considerable internal fear concerning this persecution or even the success of his mission in Ephesus and later in Troas. Why world Paul be afraid? “It probably seemed to Paul that from the human point of view his whole future as apostle to the Gentiles was related to the Corinthians’ reaction to his assertion of authority in the letter delivered by Titus. And now the non-arrival of Titus tended to confirm his worst fears.” (Garland, 351, citing Harris).

Paul’s missed connection with Titus may have aroused fears for Titus’s own safety, since many thing could have happened to him when he traveled to Troas. This tends to be human nature, if someone is very late arriving we tend to create a worst case scenario and worry about that (perhaps unlikely) possibility.

Another aspect of this fear may have been a result of the attacks he faced in Corinth. What if his opponents convinced the church to reject Paul as an apostle and no longer listen to him as the Lord’s appointed representative? The very fact he is being challenged by someone in the congregation was humiliating to him personally, he has lost honor and been humbled by his challengers in the church.

Titus was not sent to the church to attack them or forcibly get them back in line with Paul’s orders. He was sent to deal with a serious spiritual challenge, there was real sin in the church that needed to be confronted and excised from the congregation. Paul is not like a medieval bishop who imposes an unwelcome order on a fearful congregation!

Paul describes his time of uncertainty as “mourning,” but the news from Titus was a cause for rejoicing. The church was not upset from the tearful letter, they were in fact comforted, Titus was comforted by their response, and finally Paul himself was comforted by the news from the church. This church was on grief over the letter, but the grief is “contrition over their past behavior or a sense of loss from Paul’s decision to continue to stay clear of Corinth” (Garland, 353).

In summary, the “tearful letter” was a necessary thing, but now that they have responded positively, Paul apologizes for the pain he caused the church. Paul was confident the church world respond to his tearful letter, even if there was come fear it might cause them pain. But not all grief and pain is bad, in fact godly grief produces a great deal of positive virtues. If Paul had upset them with his strong challenge, that pain is a positive benefit if they are reconciled to him.

 

Make Room in Your Hearts – 2 Corinthians 7:2–4

In 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 Paul says he went to Troas and after a long digression he picks up that thread again in 7:5. If we were reading the letter straight through, or hearing the letter read to us for the first time, we might have expected Paul’s response to meeting Titus and hearing the report that of a favorable response to the tearful letter.

Paul seems a little defensive in this verse, he claims to have wronged no one.

  • “We wronged no one.” To “wrong” someone (ἀδικέω) can refer to physically mistreating someone, but can also refer to a legal injury, with the sense of doing an injustice to someone. Perhaps Paul’s opponents in the Corinthian church accused Paul of being too harsh in dealing with the incestuous man, perhaps treating him in a way that damaged his honor in the city of Corinth.
  • “We have corrupted no one.” The verb φθείρω can mean either “ruin financially” or “corrupt” in the matter of doctrine or morals” (Harris, 517). This accusation has the connotation of ruining someone financially. It is true Paul has told his congregations to be wary of business relationships with the unsaved. If some in the church followed that recommendation, then his opponents could accuse Paul of intentionally ruining people financially.
  • “We have taken advantage of no one.” The verb (πλεονεκτέω) has the sense of cheating someone financially. This might be a hint of some accusation about the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem, a topic Paul will shift to after this section of the book. Paul’s opponents may have been suspicious of this collection since it was not at all common for someone to collect money and even less common to give collected money to another city.

Since he has behaved properly toward the church, Paul asks the church to open up to him so that he may be reconciled with the church. This is a common metaphor even in contemporary English, to be “in someone’s heart” is to have a close personal relationship; “openheartedness” implies such a close relationship that being completely transparent is possible.

Image result for open heartPaul had already opened his heart to them when he confronted them about their sin and what they needed to do to deal with that sin. Paul is now hopeful the church would also find some room for him so reconciliation can happen.

Paul’s love for the congregation leads to a level of frankness which could be understood as offensive. Since Paul had to correct obvious sins, the church could potentially be hurt by his words (v. 3-4).

The tone of the tearful letter could be interpreted as “putting them in their place.” Tone is almost impossible to convey in writing, and after the Paul’s last visit to the church it would have been easy to read the tearful letter as a harsh condemnation.

A factor modern readers may overlook is the social status of Paul and the church at Corinth. By speaking frankly, Paul could be interpreted as asserting his higher social status, perhaps “pulling rank” on the Corinthians. This was not the relationship Paul wanted to have with his churches. Paul and the Corinthians are “fellow-servants” of Christ and Paul regularly calls them “brothers.” Paul’s love is so deep for the Corinthian believers that he is willing to “live or die with them (v. 3). Some might think of this as a rhetorical flourish, but Paul was genuinely willing to lay his life down on behalf of the church, something he often demonstrated in ministry.

In summary, at the beginning of the letter Paul was concerned the tearful letter had caused the church sorrow, and perhaps caused the rift between himself and the church. After 2:14 he drops this feeling, only now expressing joy in the positive response from the church. But there was a long, tense period of time when Paul was unsure how the letter would be received, so in this next section he describes the depth of his sorrow and how that sorrow turned to joy when he finally heard from Titus the good news from the church.

Our Letter of Recommendation – 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

Unlike other peddlers of the Gospel, Paul does not need “letters of recommendation” to introduce himself to the church (2 Cor 3:1-3). This is a metaphor drawn from the common Roman practice of having a letter of introduction when visiting someone, especially if you intended to instruct and correct the new group. A letter of recommendation or introduction was common in the ancient world. A letter (συστατικός) would confirm a person’s identity and qualifications.

If a Christian teacher arrived in a church, it would not be considered rude at all to ask to see a letter of recommendation in order to confirm they are a legitimate teacher and qualified to teach. In the modern world, we might ask a pastor where they were educated and through what organization they were ordained. This confirms they are trained and authorized in a particular denomination. Paul wonders (sarcastically) if he needs to get a new letter of recommendation to the congregation, as if he were coming to the church as a complete outsider for the first time. This is to say, “Are we starting all over again”?

Instead of physical letters of recommendation, Paul says the church at Corinth itself his recommendation. He calls on the church to remember the fact he was the one who brought the gospel in Corinth in the first place and established the church. He spent eighteen months training the leaders of the church before moving on to Ephesus. He does not need a letter of recommendation, since the people in the church itself are his letter! The whole world can read Paul’s letter by looking at the Corinthian church.

“Written with ink” would refer to a letter written on papyri, but written on stone would recall the Law of Moses to a Jewish reader. If a Gentile was unfamiliar with the story of Moses receiving the Commandments in Exodus 31:18, then they might have thought of a physical inscription on a monument. These were so common they could not walk through Corinth without seeing an inscribed monument, placed in a public place for all to see.

Rather than written in a physical form, God has written this letter of recommendation in the hearts of the Corinthians by the Spirit of God. “Engraved on hearts of flesh not stone” is an allusion to Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26. In Ezekiel, the new covenant would be written on the heart, not stone as the old covenant was.

Paul has moved from a letter of recommendation to the idea of the covenant. He does not need a physical letter to be qualified to minister to the church because he has been appointed a minister of the New Covenant, which the Corinthian believers themselves participate in by having the Holy Spirit.

Rather than having authority coming from a letter of recommendation or a document like the Torah, Paul’s authority come from God through the Holy Spirit. God himself has recommended Paul through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and he has enabled him to be a ministry of this new covenant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we think about the metaphor of a letter of recommendation, the content of the letter is usually your qualifications and accomplishments. Paul has already said he does not have any personal qualifications to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, yet God called him anyway; now he denies any accomplishments since God has done everything, and apart from God Paul has done nothing!

If Paul were writing a letter of recommendation for himself, it would be something like: “I am not qualified for this job, but God thinks I am and he will accomplish the tasks assigned.” This is the opposite of the way the Roman world would think about leadership. For the Romans, one was worthy of respect because they had accumulated honors and held the right offices. For Paul, he is a minister, a servant, of the New Covenant rather than the Apostle to the Gentiles appointed personally by God, with 30 years experience as a church planter, and all the other resume-padding typical of the world.

Humble leadership like this is something often talked about in the contemporary church, but it is not as often practiced. It is easy for the leader to think too highly of themselves, to think of themselves as the boss, or worse, a CEO of a major corporation who expects an impressive compensation package all the perks that come with an executive position. By shifting his perspective from the way the Roman world thought to the way God thinks, Paul revolutionizes pastoral leadership.

A Captive in Christ’s Triumphal Procession – 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

In contrast to the uncertainty Paul faced in his daily work, God is always leading him in a “triumphal procession” (2:14-16). Paul uses a series of metaphors to describe his ministry drawn from the Greco-Roman world. Paul uses a Latin loan-word (θριαμβεύω) which refers to the Roman military triumph. The same idea appears in Col 2:15, although Paul’s point is different there since God is leading the disarmed “powers and authorities.”

A Roman general who has conquered an enemy is given the honor of a “Triumph.” Like an American “ticker-tape parade,” virtually everyone in the culture knew what this event looked like, even if they never witnessed one themselves. This was a very special honor originally only granted by the Senate, but in imperial times the triumph was highly politicized in order to reinforce imperial authority and legitimacy.

During the triumph, the general wore a crown of laurel and a purple, gold-embroidered triumphal toga picta which identified him as near-divine or near-king. He rode a four-horse chariot, leading his army, captives and spoils war through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession. At Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline Hill he offered sacrifice and the tokens of his victory to the god. The general was described as vir triumphalis (“man of triumph”) for the rest of his life.

At the time Paul wrote, had been no triumphs in Rome between the triumph of Claudius for his conquest of Britain (A.D. 44, future Vespasian was awarded triumphal regalia as the general during this campaign); Titus will be awarded a triumph after his destruction of Jerusalem in 70 (and also a Triumphal Arch built by Domitian in 83). Even though Claudius’s triumph was more than ten years past, the imagery would have been clear in everyone’s mind. Roman power was on display in order to demonstrate to the entire empire how powerful the emperor and the empire was.

Is Paul using this metaphor in a positive sense (he is riding along with Jesus as the victorious conqueror) or is he a captive slave being led to his death? It is possible to argue both ways, but it the context Paul has been describing his dishonor as a suffering servant of Jesus (1:8, the “troubles in Asia” and later, 12:7, his “thorn in the flesh”).

Paul’s opponents in Corinth would expect to be sitting in a place of prominence in Jesus’ triumph over his enemies, but Paul pictures himself ironically as a capture slave being led away to his death!

The fragrance of the sacrifices in this triumph is the “knowledge of God.” A “fragrance” sounds positive, but the Greek word (ὀσμή) can refer to a pleasing odor or a stench. In v. 15 it is used for the positive “fragrance of life” and negative “odor of death.”  Paul’s ministry is to preach the Gospel of the Grace of God, a pleasant thing for those who accept Christ and pass from death to life, but a stench to those who reject it since the same knowledge of God condemns them.

Ralph Martin points out similar rabbinical views of the Torah. In b.Yoma 72b, the Torah is like medicine, which can heal or can be a deadly poison. For the Jewish people, the Torah is an elixir of life, but for the Gentiles is it is a poison. As with any use of the Talmud in New Testament studies, there are potential problems with dating this tradition, and it must be proven that one can move from an odor to a medicine for this analogy to really work.

To me, it is better to stay within the world of Paul’s metaphor, a sacrifice. The sacrifice might produce an odor that pleases the god, or offends the god. If the sacrifice pleases the god then the worshiper will find favor, if they offend the god they are in grave danger.

In the context, the sacrifice is Jesus’s death on the cross, which Paul describes as a “pleasing aroma” (εὐωδία, the same word for odor with “good” prefixed). This word is used in the Septuagint frequently for pleasing sacrifices to God. For example, in Genesis 8:21 Noah’s sacrifice after the flood pleases the Lord (רֵיחַ הַנִּיחוֹחַ). Paul calls the sacrifice of Christ on the cross a pleasing aroma in Philippians 4:18 and Ephesians 5:2 as well, but here Paul and his fellow workers are the “pleasing aroma.”

From a Greco-Roman perspective it would be shocking to describe a crucifixion as a sacrifice and even more shocking as a sacrifice which pleases God. This is counter-cultural and another example of God choosing a foolish thing from the perspective of the world to reveal his plan of salvation.

Paul’s Opposition in Corinth in 2 Corinthians

The issue in Second Corinthians was not a doctrinal problem or a theological dispute. It appears some members of the church has attacked Paul personally. The double reference in 2 Corinthians 7:12  to an injustice shows the issue was disaffection between fellow Christians. Paul appears to have been so angry over this dispute he could not even travel to Corinth to discuss to with meet the church face to face.

The problems stem from a single individual as the primary reason for the disagreement. Second Corinthians 2:5, 6, 7, 8, 10; 7:12 all speak of a specific person. The problem was serious enough Paul changed his travel plans and instead wrote the “tearful letter” (1:23; 2:1, 3, 4; 7:8). In fact, the attitude of  one individual was so serious that it poisoned the life of the entire church (2:5). It is remarkable how even a single individual can destroy what should be a unified body of believers!

Who is this person that opposed Paul so strongly and was put out of the church? In 2 Corinthians 7:12 Paul says this person has wronged him, using a participle, τοῦ ἀδικήσαντος. The verb ἀδικέω as the sense mistreatment or injury, but the damages are to Paul’s reputation and honor rather than physical harm. The verb is used in Philemon 18 to refer to the damages which Onesimus might have caused when he left Philemon’s service.

The most common suggestion is the man is the incestuous man from 1 Corinthians 5. In 2:9 and 7:12 Paul refers to the fact he has already written to the church about this man, and we know from 1 Corinthians Paul did in fact recommend the incestuous man be expelled from the congregation. There is a connection between 1 Cor 5 (hand him over to Satan) and this passage, and it is very appealing to read this as saying that the incestuous man repented and returned to the church a changed man.

A second suggestion focuses on the situation in 1 Corinthians 6. People were suing one another in the courts over internal “family” matters which ought to have been handled by the church. It may be the case that an individual in the church disagreed with Paul so strongly he went to the courts and tried to overturn Paul’s commands for the church found in 1 Corinthians. It is shocking that a church dispute could have spilled over into the courts, but in the Roman world a perceived insult often did result in a lawsuit.

It is also possible there is a public attack on Paul’s ministry and authority in the background here, an attack so severe Paul must break off travel plans to the church. Some speculate the attack took place in front of Timothy or Titus, or even that Titus was the object of the attack. Whatever the attack was, it was interpreted by Paul as “an act of flagrant disobedience and revolt” (Suggested by C. K. Barrett, cited in Martin, 2 Corinthians, 34). This could include a party within the church that supported the incestuous man, or simply an attack on Paul’s authority as an apostle. Because the church has dealt with the problem, Paul feels that at least one hindrance to reconciliation is out of the way, he can return to Corinth now that the insult to him has been removed from the congregation.

It is quite remarkable to me that a church in the first century was so fragmented that someone might bring a lawsuit over a doctrinal issue or a leader’s decision or some perceived insult.I can think of any number of examples of this sort of thing in modern churches both in America and in the context of a mission church. People with strong personalities trying to lead a church as if it was a business will generate conflict. Although that conflict might be common in the world of big corporations and business, it is has no place in the local church and can only lead to he shame for the church in the community.

This is yet another example of the culture of Corinth warping the church which God established. The members of the church are still thinking like Romans not Christians.