Paul’s Vision – 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

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…”

Suffering As A Servant Of Christ – 2 Corinthians 11:23-33

In 2 Cor 11 Paul catalogs his suffering in this paragraph. Since this book was written while Paul was in Ephesus (Acts 19), we know he will face even greater suffering than this (two separate two-year house arrests and a shipwreck between!)

He says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countlessly and has been near death many times. Paul uses a series of adverbs (περισσοτέρως twice, ὑπερβαλλόντως once, and πολλάκις once) to overemphasize his difficult life as a servant of Christ. These were not one-time problems he endured for a short time. This is the constant state of his life since he began his ministry!

“Five time lashed 40 less one” is a reference to Jewish punishment. The Greek says, “I received the forty less one,” which is a clear reference to a lashing. Josephus uses the phrase twice in describing the Mosaic Law (Ant. 4:238. 248). This punishment came from the Jews—it was an attempt from synagogues to bring Paul back in line with his heritage. The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3).

whip_flagSince the Law says more than 40 lashes is degrading to the one giving the punishment, the tradition developed by the first century to stop short of 40 (m.Makkot 3:10 simply recommends a number near forty but less than forty; 3:11 gives some instruction for beating people who are physically unable to take a full flogging). If the punisher “added even a single stripe and the victim died, lo, this one goes into exile on his account” (m.Makkoth 3:14c). In the Mishnah there is a list of offences which could result in a flogging (m.Makkoth 3:1-9). While some of these are moral offences, there are quite a few violations of the Law which can result in a flogging (Including “He who makes a baldness on his head” and tattooing one’s body (m.Makkoth 3:5-6)!

What is significant is Paul received this penalty five times!  Early in his ministry Paul may have been expelled from the synagogue for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, and certainly if he taught God-fearing Gentiles they could be fully save without keeping the Law. This indicates he still was trying to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career, as Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.”

“Three times beaten with rods” is a reference to Roman punishment. The Greek (ῥαβδίζω) refers only to beating someone with rods, the Latin term fustigatio was distinct from catigatio, lashing, and verberatio, flogging with chains (BDAG). Paul received this treatment in Acts 16:22 for creating a “public disturbance” even though he was a Roman citizen.

“Once stoned and left for dead” refers to Lystra (Acts 14:19). Stoning was a typical way for a Jewish group to execute someone. In Acts 7 Paul himself participates in the stoning of Stephen and he is about to be stoned in Acts 21:30 when he is falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple courts.

His “frequent journeys” put him in danger typical of travel in the ancient world.  As Barrett says, “Paul does not exaggerate the perils of his day” (298). Despite Pax Romana and the Roman roads connecting major cities, it was extremely dangerous for anyone to travel in a small group.

“Danger from false brothers” refers to people claiming to be Christians who are looking to accuse Paul. This attack comes from inside the family, from people claiming to be Christians who attack Paul’s theology and missionary methods. Perhaps he has in mind here the troubles he has had with people in Galatia and personal attacks leading up to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. It is also possible he has in mind the opponents in Corinth who are attacking him without cause.

Perhaps the most suffering Paul faced is from his own churches (v. 28). He has a great deal of anxiety for the churches he founded, trained, and then left to themselves. He describes this as “daily pressure” (ἐπίστασις) and “worry” (μέριμνα). This concern comes from Paul’s deeply felt personal responsibility for his congregations. He is in constant contact with them and is well aware of the pressure they face from the same sources persecuting Paul.

Paul chooses to boast is in his only weakness (v. 29-30). Paul now returns to the problem which began this long section of foolish boasting. The Corinthian Church seems to have require Paul to put his achievements up against his opponents so they might choose who would bring them the most honor if they were to give them patronage. As C. K. Barrett says “Paul has finally worked off his fit of folly and has returned to his normal sound mind” (302); he will not engage in the typical Roman pursuit of honor with his opponents!

Why Does Paul Boast In His Suffering? 2 Corinthians 11: 16-21

It seems strange for Paul to deny the need to boast then go ahead and boast about his superior qualifications. But other than his heritage as a Jewish leader, everything he boasts in is the sort of thing that would have been dishonoring to a Greco-Roman philosopher. If you were a philosopher who was poor or was regularly attacked by people for his message, then you were not a very good philosopher!

CrowingRoosterTo be thought a “fool” (ἄφρων) in this case refers to someone who lacks prudence or good judgment (BDAG).  In the LXX, the word translates a wide variety of Hebrew words for foolish, insolent, naïve, stupid or even “young.” In the Testament of Job 26.6 uses the Greek word for a “senseless woman.” In a culture dominated by honor and shame, to be considered a fool is something to be avoided.

Paul says he is not a fool, but if the opponents want to boast in their achievements, he will boast in his folly! Think of this as a “fight fire with fire” strategy, but with a twist. Rather than boast in his achievements (as the opponents may be), Paul will boast in things considered by both Greco-Roman and Jewish culture as indications of failure. In verse 21, Paul recognizes all he will boast about is not honorable, but a shame. Paul could present a list of achievements which would put the opponents in their proper place, but is that really necessary, given his relationship with the church at Corinth?

  • Paul’s opponents in Corinth appear to be taking advantage of the Church, accepting privileges expected by their status as “apostles.” Paul says the church will “gladly bear with fools” like the opponents, because they think they are wise. The church is willing to put up with the opponents and their demands because they consider it a kind of honor these teachers are in their congregation.
  • The opponents “make slaves” of the church. This may refer to the opponents insisting on being served as any elite teacher might expect in either a Greco-Roman or Jewish context. Likewise, the word “devours” (κατεσθίω) can refer to literal eating, but probably has the sense of exploiting the church for personal gain. In Psalm 13:4 the word is used for enemies eating up the bread of God’s people.
  • The opponents take advantage of the church by “putting on airs.” This single Greek word (ἐπαίρω) has the sense presumption and arrogance, doing things to exalt oneself over others (1 Clem 39:1, for example, couples this self-exaltation with “Senseless and stupid and foolish and ignorant men jeer and mock at us.”
  • How literal is “strikes you in the face”? In Acts 23:1-3 Paul himself is struck in the face when he spoke to the Sanhedrin. Physical punishment was something used by teachers to correct their students, so it is possible Paul means Corinthians believers are willing to put themselves in the position of a young student learning from a cranky tutor!

Paul’s model for ministry is not at all similar to a Greek philosopher or a Jewish Rabbi or Scribe. Paul’s model is only Jesus, and Jesus crucified! As he has said in the previous chapter and in Phil 2, Jesus himself is the ultimate model for Christian service since he did not insist on using his status of “equality with God,” but rather he set that status aside in order to serve others.

This is challenging since most Americans see achievement and advancement as an honor to be pursued tenaciously. We are celebrating graduates this time of year. Most of us would expect every teen to graduate from high school and go on to college, and it is not at all unusual to hear someone graduated with honors, high honors, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, etc. Pastors are supposed to move up from youth pastor to “real pastor,” or from small “starter churches” to larger churches with more prestige. College professors are supposed to pad out their resumes with publications and honors and move up the academic food chain.

But is this pursuit of honor “biblical”? We do not often hear of top-notch pastors of larger churches with national followings boasting in their suffering for Jesus. In fact, do they suffer much?

Paul rejects any sort of rating system for apostles. He is not interested in comparing his resume with the opponents in Corinth, nor is he going to offer the Corinthian church an update on his personal achievements to prove he is the “better apostle” and they ought to listen to him and not the opponents. Rather, he compares his suffering to that of his Lord, Jesus Christ.

The Collection – 2 Corinthians 8:1-24

What is the “Collection”?

Paul initiated the Collection as a part of his mission to the Gentiles (1 Cor 16:1-4). Before the first missionary journey in Acts 13, Paul had delivered funds to Jerusalem collected by the Antioch church. This famine relief visit is the subject of Gal 2:1-10. In Gal 2:10 Paul said that the James had only encouraged him to “remember the poor.”  The “poor” likely refers to the community in Jerusalem, the people the famine visit was intended to help. This “famine relief” visit indicates the Jewish Christian churches in the Diaspora were not living in common as Jerusalem was, but they also felt a responsibility to support the Jerusalem believers financially.

The Jerusalem community appears to be still living in a sort of shared community, supported by gifts when Paul returns to Jerusalem in Acts 21. It is possible Judea was suffering from another famine and possibly the effects of a Jubilee year. If this was the case, then the poor in Jerusalem were even more dependent on Antioch than ever. Paul uses the word “relief” (ESV, translating διακονία, service, assistance) in 2 Cor 8:4 and in 9:12 the same word describes the collection as an opportunity for service for the poor in Jerusalem.

When Paul spoke of the “collection” in 1 Cor 16:1, he used a word (λογεία) associated with an irregular tax or contribution of money for some charitable or sacred purpose (MM, BDAG). In 2 Maccabees 12:43 Judas Maccabees takes up a collection from his men to be sent to Jerusalem to pay for a sin offering on behalf of the soldiers who had been killed in battle. The word appears in a Theban ostraca of date 4 Aug. A.D. 63 with reference to a tax for the priests of Isis (Deissmann, LAE, 104).

The Greco-Roman world used a system of public benefaction to help the poor, but there was nothing like a modern “fund-raiser” where people solicit money to be distributed to the poor. In Judaism the poor received alms from individuals, but money was not collected by any organization to be re-distributed to the poor. The only exception appears to be Queen Abiabene, who brought relief to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20:51-51).

It is possible Paul picks up this word from the word from a letter from the Corinthians themselves. They may have considered this collection as a kind of tax (a millage?) like a Greek temple collecting funds to meet the need of the priests. But that is not Paul’s point at all: this is not a tax but rather a special way to share a gracious gift in order to meet a very serious need in Jerusalem.

Since this collection was unprecedented, it would have looked very suspicious to outsiders.  What is Paul doing with this money? Paul is careful to bring representatives of the Gentile churches to assure the churches he was not going to disappear with the funds. Since traveling with such a large amount of money was dangerous, a large group would be required to protect the collection. During Paul’s second stay in Corinth he arranged for the Collection to be brought to Jerusalem (Romans 15:22-29; Acts 20:1-6). Paul plans to travel from Corinth to Jerusalem with an entourage of representatives of the Gentile churches.  The list of travel companions in Acts 20:4 includes Greek names, representatives of the now successful Gentile mission.

Paul’s plan, therefore, is to collect a gift for the poor believers in Jerusalem who are suffering from famine and poverty. Based on Acts, it appears Paul wants to deliver the gift at Pentecost as a kind of “first fruits” from his harvest among the Gentiles. That is really the point of the collection, to show the church at Jerusalem that God has already done great things among the Gentiles. This is not a bribe to the apostles or a payment to them to remain an apostle, but a way to demonstrate the way God has been working among the Gentiles.

But according to 2 Corinthians 8, the church at Corinth was slow to participate in this collection. Paul describes the generosity of the poor churches in Macedonia (vv. 1-5) and compares this service to Jesus, who was rich yet he became poor (v. 9). This is a similar argument to Philippians 1 where Paul encourage the church to follow the example of Jesus who did not think equality with God was something to be grasped but took on the form of a human servant. If anyone in Corinth was thinking their social standing was too high to participate in this particular project, Jesus is the ultimate challenge!

To what extent is Paul trying to shame the Corinthians? Compared to the churches in Macedonia, they are wealthy and have not experienced any persecution which would have resulted in a similar kind of poverty. Paul himself was able to spend 18 months in their community, more time than he was able to spend in all of the other communities combined.

The Corinthian church has already made a commitment to participating in Paul’s collection for Jerusalem, but because of the conflict between Paul and the church (and perhaps some suspicious thinking prompted by Paul’s opponents), they have been slow in following through on that commitment. Paul legitimately is shaming them for their dishonorable lack of commitment to the Collection. If the Macedonians can participate, and if the ultimately rich and power Jesus can set equality with God aside in order to become poor in order to serve us in his death, then the Corinthian church can make good on their commitment to offer a gift to support the Jerusalem church.

Honor and Shame were powerful motivations in the Greco-Roman world, and Paul has resorted to shaming the Corinthians several times in 1-2 Corinthians. But this is very difficult for a modern preacher to apply since a rhetorical “shaming” is likely to have the opposite effect on church member in America today. Paul’s collection is often used by preachers to encourage people to give regularly to the church or other ministries. “Giving a gift” should not be considered an obligation or tax, as it has been at various times in history. In America “pew rentals” helped churches to raise funds. If you wanted a good seat, you had to pay for it.

Is this passage an encouragement for regular giving to the local church?

Bibliography: D. J. Downs, “The Collection in 2 Corinthians” in Martin, 2 Corinthians (Second Edition); Witherington, Acts, 429; Bruce Winter, “Acts and Food Shortages” in The Book of Acts in its Greco-Roman Setting, 2: 59-78.

Food Sacrificed to Idols – 1 Corinthians 8

Of all the issues Paul covers in 1 Corinthians, the issue of food sacrificed to idols seems to be the most obscure in terms of application. In the west, people do not struggle with the problem of food sacrificed to idols, so we usually draw some principle about socially accepted behavior which may not be sinful, but better for a Christian to voluntarily abstain.

Paul’s main point throughout 1 Corinthians 8-10 is the proper use of our freedom in Christ. Freedom does not mean “free from all restraint.” Instead, Paul argues for a judicious use of their freedom in the service of others for the goal of presenting the gospel to a world desperately in need of a savior.

The issue in 1 Corinthians 8 concerns some members of the Corinthian church have no problem eating “food offered to idols” (εἰδωλόθυτος). This word appears in Acts 15:29 in the list of things the Jewish Christians ask the Gentiles to avoid, and again in Rev 2:14, 20 as a description of behavior unacceptable for Christians. In all three cases, eating meat sacrificed to idols is mentioned along with sexual immorality.

The church is not asking Paul a question about the food, but they are making a statement about the food-it is permissible to eat for sacrificed to idols since there are no other gods but God. They seem to think that any limit on their food (either what they eat or where they eat it) is foolish and a restriction of their rights (with as citizens of Corinth or as Christians). Paul himself caused the problem with food based on his command not to associate with the immoral person. Like the misunderstanding over marriage (divorce the pagan spouse), Paul’s command may have been misunderstood to mean “do not eat with sinners.”

The word refers to meat sacrificed to a god. The leftover portion could be used in a shared meal in the god’s temple, or sold in the market. In the Jewish Temple, some meat from sacrifices was used as part of a family meal (the Passover Lamb, most significantly).

There are three places where the Corinthians might have encountered meat sacrificed to idols (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 368-8). First, the believers may be eating this food in a temple during some kind of celebration.  Most temples had banquet rooms used for religious and civic celebrations, but also for privately hosted meals. These meals would have naturally included meat from sacrifices.

There were a variety of reasons someone might be invited to a meal that are not particularly sinful. For example, what should happen if a member of the congregation were invited to a wedding celebration for a family member who was not saved? It is quite likely someone would be invited to a funeral meal for a parent held at a temple.  Imagine a person who was now a Christian who is invited to attend a funeral meal for a parent at the temple of some god. Socially it would be very difficult not to attend this kind of celebration, not simply awkward, but rude and shameful.

Second, the believers may have been offered meat sacrificed to idols if they were invited to an unsaved person’s home for a meal. In this case, there is no idolatry implied in the meal, but they would be offered the food since it was widely available in the markets every day.

Third, it is more likely people would be invited to these meals because they were socially significant events in the politics of the city of Corinth. By passing on an invitation from some well-place member of Roman society, a Christian was risking shame and perhaps a loss of status in the politics of Corinth. It may be the case someone would have to attend or lose their position in the government. This is far more than a chance at a free meal!

For Christians living in the majority of the world, eating for dedicated to idols is a very real problem. Christians in many countries need to worry about participating in festivals or communal meals with food which has been blessed by gods or ancestors. They take this part of 1 Corinthians very seriously and often suffer some level of persecution from friends and family when they choose to not participate in meals with this kind of food.

Many modern western Christians struggle with the possible application of this passage. For most American pastors, this is an opportunity to preach against some popular vice, smoking or drinking. Neither are not sins in moderation, but some Christians may be offended if a Christian exercises their freedom by smoking or drinking, so the gospel better served if we voluntarily refrain from these behaviors.

Having talked with Chinese Christians about the application of these verses to their living as believers in a pagan culture, the popular American applications seem watered down to the point of meaninglessness. How can those of us who do live in the west take Paul’s command to live differently than the world seriously?

Should the modern Christian de-paganize and reject some elements of our culture as incompatible with Christian faith and practice? Can we apply this passage to the consumerism and materialism of the West? Can we apply this passage to the Americanism of popular evangelicalism?

Gluttons and Drunks in the Church – 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Drunken SatyrWhen he writes to the Corinthians, Paul must correct the church because of of their behavior at private banquets (6:12-20). The issue here is going to banquets given by the rich and elite of the city. There is a great deal of evidence concerning the types of things that went on at a Roman banquet of the first century from contemporary writers.

Bruce Winter gathers a number of references from Plutarch describing the combination of gluttony, drunkenness and sexual immorality that were a part of the “after-dinners” as he calls them. There was an association between gluttony and sexual excess, as is seen from the well known saying reported by Plutarch, “in well-gorged-bodies love (passions) reside.” The writer Athenaeus said that the goddess Cypris (Aphrodite) does not visit the poor, “in an empty body no love of the beautiful can reside.” Plutarch also said that in “intemperate intercourse follows a lawless meal, inharmonious music follows a shameless debauch” (Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 84).

These banquets would only have been attended by the rich elite of the city of Corinth. The poor were not invited, only those of some social standing. In Corinth there was a major city-wide banquet for all citizens celebrating the games. Not only would there have been pressure to attend these banquets on a social level, there was the added pressure of begin a good citizen of Corinth and of Rome.

These sorts of banquets are in the background of 1 Corinthians. Members of the church are not visiting brothels as we might think of it today. They are attending meals with the elite of Corinth, either hosted in the home of a wealthy patron of the city or in a temple. The practice was considered not only acceptable, but in some cases required for social mobility. If one wanted to gain the favor of a wealthy patron in order to advance a business plan, then attendance at a banquet hosted by the patron was a necessity.

Why would the Corinthian Christians think that they had a right to participate in these banquets? Paul seems to have taught them that Christians are to be separate from such activities, and the strong Jewish ethic of many of the founders would have argued against going to a temple, eating food sacrificed to idols, and participating in the “after-dinners.”

It appears at the very least that some Gentile converts to Christianity did not see this kind of activity as “sin.” As with most of the problems Paul treats in 1 Corinthians, the congregation was slow to de-paganize and think about these behaviors through the lens of their new faith. The practice of going to temples to share meals with the elite of Corinth was socially desirable for the wealthy (and “wanna-be” elite). Perhaps individuals in the church thought they had to do their civic duty by doing to the banquets (a virtue) and did not yet see the additional practices as a vice yet.

This is a very challenging point for contemporary church life. While I do not think that many evangelical Christians are participating in civic orgies, we do seem to tolerate immoral actions among those who are elite citizens (or think that they are elite). A very obvious application is attitudes towards people in public office. The ones who agree with our politics are held to a far less rigorous moral standard than those we disagree with. It does not take too long to think of many examples if this sort of thing.

What are the sorts of behaviors that are accepted (or forbidden) by local congregations in order to better fit into contemporary culture?

Lawsuits in the Church – 1 Corinthians 6:1-8

There appear to have been problems with Christians within the church suing each other in a court of law rather than dealing with the matter “within the family” (6:1-8). We are not told what the content of the lawsuits might be, but it is possible that these are lawsuits the results of perceived insults by members of the “parties” within the church. Perhaps a member of the Paul group insulted a member of the Peter group, who responded as any good Roman would by making a lawsuit against the offender. Imagine a typical argument in a classroom which spills over into Facebook insults which then results in a lawsuit, a counter lawsuit, and a major clash in a court of law.

Frivolous LawsuitAs strange as it sounds, this is the sort of thing which happened in the Roman world. Dio Chrysostom reports that the Roman word of the late first century was filled with “lawyers innumerable, twisting judgments.” (Cited by Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 62). These lawsuits were politically motivated, between members of the rich and elite class (or want-to-be elite.) These lawsuits were opportunity for young orators to show off their rhetorical talents before the elite citizens (the judge, magistrate, jurors, etc.)

Paul’s solution to the problem is to “shame” them for suing their brothers. Shame is an important factor in first century personal politics. Paul says twice in this letter that he desires to put the church to shame over some behaviors (here and drunkenness in chapter 11.) If the lawsuits were motivated by a perceived loss of honor in the first place, Paul turns a popular expectation upside down by saying that it is a loss of honor for a Christian to take his brother to court.

This therefore is the “shame”: they are suing family members. Paul frequently refers to his readers as “brothers” to emphasize that the Church is a new family rather than a social club. A person is not suing some stranger who has insulted them, they are suing brothers. The Romans did not approve of intra-family lawsuits, therefore Paul is emphasizing brotherhood of the believers.

Paul does not recommend going through a private arbitrator to solve disputes, as was the right of citizens. He says that they church ought to be able to deal with such disputes within the family. There are people within the congregation, presumably, that are styling themselves as orators, and all of the citizens would be familiar with the process of arbitration. Paul is saying that the church ought to function like a family, brothers dealing with one another with “strife and discord.”

How do we “bridge the gap” and apply this sort of teaching in a modern, local church context? At the very least, the church needs to return to the truth than all members of the Body of Christ are brothers and that it is a loss of honor to treat a family member like a stranger. This alone would have a positive effect on the local church.