2 Corinthians 12:19 – Building Up the Church

Building a Church

Building a Church

Looking back on everything he has written thus far, Paul says his defense of himself is really intended to “upbuild” (ESV) the church.  Paul considers his letter to be a legal defense against an attack coming from his opponents in Corinth. He describes it as an apology in the legal sense of the word (ἀπολογέομαι). Acts 24:10 uses the word for Paul’s legal defense before Felix, the Roman governor. Paul has been defending himself, but not for the purpose of winning the argument with the church and proving himself to have been in the right all along. His goal in this defense is to build up the church in Christ.

The word Paul uses is used for buildings or structures (οἰκοδομή), the ESV uses the odd word “upbuild” the NIV has “strengthening,” the KJV has “edifying.” Paul uses this metaphor frequently to refer to things that “build up” the church in contrast to tearing down the church (1 Cor 14:12, spiritual gifts, 14:16, orderly worship). In Romans 15:2 it refers to speech which “builds up” a neighbor.

Paul has used architectural metaphors in 1-2 Corinthians several times (the temple of the Holy Spirit, etc.) Sometimes to construct something new old things must be destroyed. Old structures need to be demolished and the ground needs to be properly prepared for a new structure to be built. Edification therefore requires Paul to occasionally knock down old ways of thinking (especially the pagan worldview of the Corinthian church) before he can build up the church to maturity.

Change EverythingIf the church felt they had been wronged by Paul or they were offended by his change in plans, it was because their suspicions about Paul were wrong or the accusations coming from the opponents were wrong. Paul’s defense in the last few chapters was to allay their fears so that their anger with Paul will no longer hinder their maturity in Christ. If Paul has hurt the church, it is because it as necessary to tear down their existing ways of thinking in order to replace those structures with a Christ-like world view.

This is a very difficult aspect of ministry to get right since most people in the church feel attacked if a pastor tries to deal with tough issues from the pulpit. I think Paul has it right, he preaches Christ crucified seeks to apply the death and resurrection to all aspects of life. In my experience, preaching through the text of the the Bible will raise issues in context churches need to hear.

To a large extent, any pastor who is leading a congregation needs to worry less about their reputation or legacy than the spiritual growth of their congregation. A pastor who is seeking to pad out a resume for the next (bigger and better) church has completely missed the point of being a servant of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 12:14b-15 – Paul as Father

Paul has refused to accept gifts from the Corinthian church in order to avoid a patron/client relationship. Rather than patronage, Paul describes his relationship with Corinth as a parent and child (12:14b-15).

Roman FatherIn the Corinthian letters, Paul uses parent/child metaphors frequently, more than in any other of his letters. One reason for this is his desire to avoid patron/client language, but also because the family relationship reflects the body of Christ. If we are indeed new creations in Christ, then the image of brothers and sisters in Christ becomes the driving factor in our relationships with each other. Paul did not want to create a hierarchy in which he was the distant father figure who dispensed prestige and honor to his children, nor did he want the church to think Paul was a poor relative in need of assistance!

The children are not required to “save up” for their parents. This is not the daily needs of children, but rather the family responsibility for building wealth to pass down to the children. In a Greco-Roman context, family name and wealth was extremely important. The father was responsible for creating wealth and prestige for the family and the family name. This wealth and prestige could then be passed down to the children with they were mature enough to contribute to the honor of the family.

In fact, children were not able to contribute to the family honor until they were mature. Paul may be implying the role of the Corinthian church is to grow in maturity themselves! This is consistent with  how Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians began, they were still immature and not able to move on to the “deeper things.” In 1 Cor 4:14-15 Paul describes himself as a father to the church, even if thy have many other teachers.

Within the metaphor, Paul is the patron/father figure who is doing everything he can to create an environment where the Corinthian children can grow to maturity and contribute to the family for themselves. Looking ahead to the next generation, they will “have children” and the church’s responsibility is to maintain and grow the wealth and honor of the family so they too can grow to maturity.

Paul is willing to spend everything he has for the church because he loves them as his dear children. Paul sees his relationship with the church in terms of a family in which he is like a parent and the church are children. He does not want to accept patronage from the church because it changes the relationship and would give the Corinthian church certain privileges over Paul.

This is a powerful image of the relationship of a pastor and congregation. While Paul does want churches to care for the needs of the people who serve in the church, his model for ministry is a caring parent who does everything to give the children want they need to succeed. Pastors who considered the local church their personal kingdom or use the church to enhance their own wealth and prestige have failed to follow the model Paul gives here in 2 Corinthians or the model of humble service demonstrated by Christ.

 

2 Corinthians 12:14–18 – The Problem with Patronage

Once of the main reasons Paul wrote 2 Corinthians is because he cancelled his plans to visit the church (1:15-2:4). Paul’s reasons for the change in plans was to spare the church. He was angry with them and knew the visit would be painful indeed. Instead of a visit, Paul wrote a “tearful letter” and sent Titus to deliver it to the church.

His change in plans contributed to a rift between Paul and the church. Although the letter and Titus’s visit seems to have settled the church, Paul’s absence gave and opportunity for opponents of Paul make serious accusations against him. These “super-apostles” claimed higher authority than Paul primarily because Paul was not a polished orator and was always suffering some sort of calamity. They may have accused Paul of trying to extort money from the church by means of a collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Paul is forced into a foolish exercise of boasting in this weakness (11:1-12:13). Having concluded his boasting, and putting the claims of the “super-apostles” into perspective, Paul finishes the letter by telling the Corinthians he will visit them for a third time.

Money BiblePaul’s intention is to travel back to Corinth for a third time, but he does not intend to be a burden to the church.  Paul did not accept support from the Corinthian church, and this seems to have been a source of some conflict with the congregation. He did accept financial support from Philippi, but directly refused support from Corinth. Paul has already said he does not intend to be a burden (2 Cor 11:9). The verb Paul uses (καταναρκάω) refers to being a “dead weight” so Paul might mean, “I do not want to take money from you if I am not going to work for it,” as if the church wanted to offer him a retainer fee for his services as an apostle!

The background here is the patron/client relationship in the Roman world. If the church gave Paul gifts, then Paul has an obligation to the church. They are his patron, and he is their client. Paul wants to avoid the perception of patronage, so he refuses to take money from the Corinthians.

If the Corinthian church gives Paul support, then they are his benefactors. They could potentially boast in their support of Paul in the way a Roman would boast in the any public benefaction. Since the Christians are not yet building churches, there is no way for a Gentile Christian to offer a gift to the church in a way that makes sense in their culture. If they were worshiping a particular god, they could offer to pay for a sacrifice or a new statue of the god or to improve the temple in some way. Naturally they would get “their name on the plaque” and everyone would know they had benefited the community in this way.

There is nothing a Roman Christian can do to show his generosity to the church other than to contribute to the needs of the poor, and that is something which would not bring honor to a person in a Roman context. Really the only thing the church could do is to support Paul as his patron, a relationship Paul does not want to encourage at all!

If this context is correct, then Paul’s refusal of patronage would be seen as a kind of insult, and likely a painful insult at that. If Paul is “their apostle” then he ought to be thrilled to receive a gift! Paul says he does not want their possessions, but a genuine relationship with them.

The difficulty for a contemporary reading of Paul’s relationship with Corinth is that Paul does encourage paying those who minister. If a church as the need for one or more full-time staff members, it is important for the church to pay them appropriately. But can the pastor/congregation relationship devolve into a patron/client relationship? If a pastor puts a paycheck before the spiritual needs of his congregation, then there is a serious problem with the relationship with the church.

2 Corinthians 12:7–10 – A Thorn in the Flesh

A thornThe “thorn in the flesh” is directly related to Paul’s “great revelations.” This is not something Christians need to fear, Paul is unique in salvation history as the apostle to the Gentiles, and his visionary experience is unique as well. The “thorn” is a metaphor emphasizing the ongoing, painful nature of the oppression.

The noun Paul uses (σκόλοψ) refers to any kind of splinter or thorn that works its way into the body, but the thorn is also called a “messenger of Satan” of “angel of Satan.” By describing the thorn this way, Paul may be referring to a person who was harassing him, continually causing him to suffer.

This messenger “harasses” Paul. This verb (κολαφίζω) is a violent physical beating, the same word is used for Jesus’ beatings in Matt 26:67 and Mark 14:65.  Since it is not clear what Paul means by this thorn, Christians have suggested the beatings are not physical. Suggestions include: hysteria, depression, headaches, severe eye trouble, malaria, leprosy, and even a speech impediment (See BDAG for scholars associated with each suggestion). If this is a physical illness, it could be a sign of God’s judgment; the opponent could use something like this to call into question everything Paul teaches!

God allowed Paul to endure this suffering in order to keep him humble. This is an ongoing torment of some kind, since Paul prayed three times to have the thorn taken from him. The purpose of the thorn is to keep Paul from being exalted because of his visionary experience. The verb (ὑπεραίρω) refers to developing an “an undue sense of one’s self-importance” (BDAG). The thorn therefore was given to keep Paul from getting a big head about how important he is!

The only response to this prayer given by the Lord is “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  This is one of the most memorable verses in the New Testament and has helped many people through extremely difficult times. Like Paul, people who suffer physical or emotional torment consider this verse a great comfort since God’s grace is all they need. But notice it God’s grace does not guarantee Paul will be rescued from his thorn in the flesh! In fact, the comfort of this verse is that despite intense suffering, God’s grace is all Paul wants or needs!

It is when Paul is weak the power of God is most clearly seen. If Paul were an elite orator or a well-trained sophist, or a prophet who has the most glorious of visions, then the success he had in Corinth would be all his; he would easily slip into the error the opponents are making and glorify himself.

It is not that we ought to forego any preparation for ministry and only appoint the most unprepared people to serve; but when that preparation becomes a platform for boasting then the Lord is no longer glorified. Paul therefore concludes this chapter the same way he started in 2 Cor 13, boasting in his suffering all the more!

What is Paul’s point by boasting in his suffering in 12:10? As he concluded after his catalog of suffering in chapter 11, Paul claims his suffering proves he is a true apostle (and the “super apostles are not). As Barrett concludes, “The real point is that the requirement of self-sacrifice … marks out the true apostle from the false” (284-5). The pastor who works two jobs to serve a small country church is nearer to Paul’s model, his imitation of Christ, than a pastor who asks for 65 million for a private jet.

Would a Mega-Church pastor give up his wealth to care for a small inner city congregations for little or no money at all? Jesus gave up everything, as did Paul;  but Paul’s opponents would not. What makes them spiritual leaders is their wealth and prestige, the exact opposite of Paul’s point here in 2 Corinithians.

2 Corinthians 12:5-10 – A Vision of “Surpassing Greatness”

Paul says he was caught up to the third heaven and receive revelations of “surpassing greatness.” Paul reports this vision in a way consistent with other visions of heaven in the literature of the Second Temple period.

Like other prophets, Paul is “caught up” into the third heaven. He uses the same verb as 1 Thess 4:17, ἁρπάζω. This word has the sense of being snatched away and appears in the LXX in Gen In both cases the verb is passive, as expected in a vision report. In 1 Enoch 39:3 a whirlwind catches the prophet up and takes him into the “ultimate ends of heaven” where he sees the dwelling places of the holy ones.

garden of EdenPaul says he was caught up to the “third heaven” (τρίτου οὐρανοῦ) or into paradise (παράδεισος). The noun paradise is used for Eden and originally described the pleasure garden of the great kings of the Persians. T.Levi 18:10 refers to heaven as the “gates of paradise.” In 2 Enoch the seer is taken up to a “garden of righteousness” in his heavenly visions. In 2 Enoch 8 and “inconceivably pleasant” Paradise is located in the “third heaven.”

2 Enoch 8.1-3 And those men took me from there, and they brought me up to the third heaven, and set me down there. Then I looked downward, and I saw Paradise. And that place is inconceivably pleasant. And I saw the trees in full flower. And their fruits were ripe and pleasant-smelling, with every food in yield and giving off profusely a pleasant fragrance. And in the midst (of them was) the tree of life, at that place where the LORD takes a rest when he goes into paradise. And that tree is indescribable for pleasantness and fine fragrance, and more beautiful than any (other) created thing that exists.

In Paul’s vision, he heard “inexpressible words” (ἄρρητα ῥήματα). This may mean they cannot be spoken in human language (something like Spock’s real name?). But this might mean Paul was not given permission to report what he heard while he was in heaven. This second option is a common feature of heavenly vision reports, some things are so great the seer holds them back from people who are not ready to hear them. In Daniel 12:4 the prophet is told to “seal up the prophecy” and Revelation 14:3 John hears seven thunders but is not permitted to report what they said.

Even though Paul has had a visionary experience on a par with his opponents in Corinth, he chose not to mention it since it has no value for the church at all! Why should he boast in some spiritual experience they can never have? What spiritual benefit could possibly come from Paul telling them the details of the vision?

2 Corinthians 12:1-10 – Paul’s Vision

Paul continues his boasting in 1 Cor 12, this time mentions a vision in which he was transported to the “third heaven.” We do not know when this vision occurred, and the way Paul describes it is hard to place in the book of Acts. He describes his experiences as a vision (ὀπτασία) and a revelation (ἀποκάλυψις). The first word is usually associated with a god allowing himself to be seen by a human, or allowing a human to see something usually hidden (BDAG). Although a little later than the New Testament, the Martyrdom of Polycarp used the word to describe a “trance.” Paul calls his experience on the road to Damascus a vision (Acts 26:19). The second word is Paul’s usual word to describe his revelations from God, usually in the context of salvation history or eschatology.

VisionWhen did Paul have this vision? He says it was “fourteen years ago,” which is about A.D. 40. Paul is therefore not referring to his Damascus Road experience, but an experience after his conversion but before the beginning of the first missionary trip (about A.D. 48). Paul founded the Corinthian church 50-51 on the second missionary journey.

Why does he Paul suddenly boast about a vision he had some 14 years earlier? This is part of Paul’s “humble boast” throughout this section—he has had visions (just like the opponents) but his are un-reportable and from the distant past. Unlike the opponents, he is not “making up visions” to impress his audience.

Does Paul refer to his experience in the Temple as reported in Acts 22:17-18? Luke uses a similar word to describe Paul’s vision, a “trance” (ESV, ἔκστασις). Chronologically it is possible since it is after his conversion and we do not know how many years between the conversion and that particular Temple visit. A major difference is the vision in Acts 22 includes a warning to leave Jerusalem and go to the Gentiles. (Check out Richard Fellows’ comments on the chronology of 2 Corinthians 12. Fellows says “It seems to me that 2 Cor 12:2 lends a little support to the chronology of Acts.”) It is really impossible to know when or where Paul had this vision. Paul’s only point here is his vision came in the past and it is something he is not able to relate to the church.

Paul reports the vision in the third person and does not really give any details. He does not know if he was “in the body” or not, and really does not know what happened to him when he had the vision. Again, this is a completely different report than would come from the opponents who seem to boast in great detail about their own experiences. It is as if Paul is saying, “Sure, I had one of those visions too, but I do not really consider it worth recalling now…”