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 Conscience is Clear – 2 Corinthians 1:12-14

Paul does not think the church at Corinth is maturing as they should. First Corinthians outlines several problems which were due to not fully applying their status in Christ (factions, sinful behavior, questions about key doctrines). In 1 Corinthians Paul was straightforward and confrontational, to the point that some in the church were offended. He therefore wrote another “tearful letter” and made what he calls “a painful visit” to the church in order to deal with these sins. This correction left many in the church with raw feelings, and Paul himself was angry and perhaps humiliated by the audacity of the church and their challenges to his authority.

Image result for godly sincerityIn this opening section of 2 Corinthians, Paul tries to explain where his heart was during these difficult times. He claims to have acted with pure motives for the good of the church, even if the church was offended by Paul. Ultimately, his goal was to “help the Corinthians make the necessary corrections themselves” (Garland, 2 Corinthians, 111).

Although it seems strange from a modern perspective, Paul boasts he has acted in good conscience (1:12). It is possible Paul could be accused of acting rashly in the way he attacked the church for the treatment of the sinful member of in 1 Corinthians 5. Later in the letter Paul will defend himself against people in the Corinthian church who are attacking his authority as an apostle. This boast at the beginning of the letter sets the tone for his later defense, he has acted properly and does not have anything weighing on his conscience as a result of previous confrontations through letters and visits.

First, Paul acted with integrity, or simplicity in the ESV. The word he uses here (ἁπλότης) is very flexible, which is why there more difference in the translations than usual. It is used in the New Testament for “personal integrity expressed in word or action” (BDAG), for behaving properly, without ulterior motives, or “without ambiguity,” or “simple goodness…‘without strings attached’, ‘without hidden agendas’” (BDAG). For example, it appears in Eph 6:5 and Col 3:22 in the context of how slaves ought to obey their masters. They ought to act sincerely, not simply to curry favor with their master.

Second, Paul’s relationship with Corinth is based on godly sincerity. This word (εἰλικρίνεια) is rare in the New Testament, it only appears in 1 Cor 5:8 to describe sincerity of worship (in contrast to the sinful man) and again in 2 Cor 2:17, sincere motives in contrast to certain “peddlers of the word of God.”  The word connotes purity, and can be used to describe something that is “unmixed” (“a pure and clear air” in Hippocrates, Vict. 2.38.5, for example). Spicq contends that the word does not connote “so much an absence of duplicity or hypocrisy as a fundamental integrity and transparency; it can be compared to innocence”(TLNT 1:423).

Was there an accusation of inconsistency from the Corinthian church? Perhaps someone said Paul “passes himself off as strong in his letters but comes off as weak in person (10:1–11; 13:2, 10). He threatens the rod (1 Cor 4:21) but runs away when discipline is necessary (2:1–4).” As a modern analogy, people tend to be much more bold and aggressive on the internet than in real life, especially if they are in some sort of anonymous forum. People say things in an email they might not say face-to-face!

Third, he did not act according to earthly wisdom. “Earthly” can be translated “fleshly” since the noun (σαρκικός) has the sense of human frailty. In the New Testament the word usually has a negative connotation, as it does here in contrast to the grace of God. This “mediocre, transitory, or sinful” human way of thinking is a theme which comes up often in 2 Corinthians. In this context, Paul is saying the way he treated the church was not the way people in the secular would have done it.

Perhaps he implies his condemnation could have been far more painful, or that his attack could have caused them a great deal more pain. He may simply mean his extension of grace to the church was unexpected—most would have written off the church as utterly corrupt and sinful, no longer able to be corrected and restored to fellowship. If a major theme of the letter is reconciliation, then “conventional human wisdom” would be reconciliation is impossible in this case, why even try?

It is possible someone in the church accused Paul of writing obscure, difficult letters, as if he was trying to display his “worldly wisdom.” Think of a young pastor who tries to demonstrate his theological education by referring to the Greek too often, or quoting obscure intellectuals (“as Kierkegaard says…”)

On the other hand, Paul was indeed sensitive to how his letters were interpreted. As Furnish comments, Paul was concerned someone “in Corinth was deliberately trying to turn Paul’s letters to the apostle’s own disadvantage” (II Corinthians, 130). Perhaps the charge against Paul was that he intentionally preached an unclear gospel out of impure motives. If a teaching could be interpreted in a favorable way, then Paul stands to gain honor. Like a modern political speech, maybe Paul was being evasive and vague to be “all things to all men” and gain favor of all men.

In contrast to the flawed way humans think and behave, Paul was motivated by the grace of God. Despite the sins of the church and Paul’s anger and humiliation over their behavior, they are still people who God has saved by grace. Paul acted to restore them to fellowship, even if he treated the sin boldly and hurt some people along the way.

It is always difficult to use Paul’s difficult relationship with Corinth as a “model for ministry.” But Paul’s claim here is that whatever happened, he was motivated by a sincere desire to extend God’s grace to the congregation.

How would this attitude change the way we “do church”?

The Gospel is “God’s Foolishness” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

By using the death of Jesus on the Cross, God has “made foolish the wisdom of this world” (v. 20). Where is the wise, scribe, the debater of this age? These three questions call on the highest educated (and potentially most arrogant) people in the Greek or Jewish world. There is a tone of derision: God has made your most educated look foolish when he saved people through the folly of the Cross.

God did not choose to save those who are perishing in a way that might be expected, by using a method the intelligent of the world would have given their approval. Rather, he chose to use the foolishness of the Cross. In other words, “God’s actions make the worldly-wise look like blundering fools” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 63).

Execution by crucifixion was the most shameful death possible. If the Romans executed someone by crucifixion, they were guilty of the very worst of crimes and suffered such dishonor that it might even be shameful to admit you knew the person, let alone think they were your savior.

Romans Crucifying Their Enemies

Paul begins this paragraph with the observation “Jews demand a sign, Greeks seek wisdom.” The Jewish “demand for a sign” refers to some sign from heaven which confirms a person is approved by God. If someone claimed to be the messiah, then Pharisees might demand they do some sort of sign, as they did Jesus. If Jesus could give them a sign to convince them he was the messiah, then perhaps they would believe. The point of the apostolic signs such as Peter healing a lame man in Acts 3 was to show the messianic age has begun.

A Greek would be far more likely to believe a well-constructed, logic argument in favor of Jesus as the Messiah. When Paul teaches in Ephesus, for example, he argues persuasively from the Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah; Apollos also persuades people from the Scripture through logical arguments (Acts 18).

The Messiah crucified was a stumbling-block to the Jews and a god who is executed as a criminal is foolishness to the Greek. Many Jews expected some sort of Messiah, but no one really expected a Messiah who would be executed by the Romans. The Gentiles were to fall under the judgment of the Messiah! He was to rule over a reunited Israel like an idealized David, no one expected him to die in the most shameful way possible. Peter response to Peter in Mark 8 is an indication that even Jesus’ followers misunderstood what the messiah would do in Jerusalem.

A “stumbling-block” is something that causes you to stumble (obviously), but Paul is using it as a metaphor. The cross is the thing that causes the Jewish person to not accept Jesus as the messiah and savior. They might like Jesus’ teaching, his way of handling the Law, his views about the kingdom of God, his rejection of oral tradition, etc. But most Jews would have a hard time accepting a messiah who was unjustly executed by the High Priest!

To the Greek or Roman thinker, it is not impossible for a god to appear to be flesh and live among humans for a time. Perhaps the more intellectual Greeks disbelieved the stories of Zeus or Hermes appearing as men, but it was at least possible. But it was impossible for a god to be harmed by humans, let alone be executed as the worst of criminals!

God chose to use the most foolish thing imaginable in the first century, the Cross, to save those who are perishing. God has always used the unexpected person to achieve his goals so that it is clear he has done it not human wisdom or skills (David as the youngest son, defeats Goliath, etc.)  What God did through Jesus is to turn the world “upside down,” an idea Paul will return to throughout this letter.

The world sees the world one way, the Christian sees it much differently.

The Message of the Cross – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, Paul shows the heart of his message was that God sent his son into the word to die on the Cross in order to provide atonement for sin. To a Jew, Greek or Roman living in the first century, almost every word of this familiar summary of the Gospel would be radical, strange, or even foolish. A god cannot die, and he certainly would not die by crucifixion. What God did through Jesus runs counter to both Jewish and Gentile expectations about how gods are supposed to behave, or what the God of the Hebrew Bible does. The Gospel has some awkward facts, the object of our worship was executed as a criminal of the worst kind! In fact, he intentionally allowed himself to be destroyed in the most shameful way possible.

Jesus on the CrossPaul does not shy away from these inconvenient facts of the Gospel in order to gain more converts because God has chosen foolish things in order to make foolish the wisdom of this world. The Gospel is not the sort of thing a religious person would have invented in the first century.

The Cross divides all of humanity into two groups, those who are “perishing” and those who “are being saved.” Perishing (ἀπόλλυμι) is a strong word chosen to highlight the present judgment of those who have rejected the Cross.  The word used in the Septuagint for a sacrifice that is completely consumed in fire (Lev 7:10, for example). It is used for God’s judgment of the unrighteous (Sodom, Gen 18:24, several times). Psalm 2:12 used the verb for God’s destruction of the nations that have challenged the Lord’s anointed. The verb is in the present tense, indicating these people are under God’s judgment now because of their rejection of the cross.

Paul describes himself and his readers as “those who are being saved,” emphasizing the presentness of salvation. The verb is again in the present tense, all people are either (at this moment) either in need of salvation because they reject the Cross or being saved by the power of the Cross.

This division in humanity is based on the reaction to the Cross. The Cross is foolish to the ones who are perishing. Two related nouns (μωρία, 1:18 and μωρός, 1:27) refer to some idea that is senseless to believe, perhaps with the sense of ridiculous (the earth is hollow and lizard people are controlling our thoughts; a child telling a story about fairy tale creatures to a genius scientist, etc.) To believe in something foolish is a waste of time, since it cannot possibly be true.

Why is the Cross foolishness? In the Greco-Roman world, self-sacrifice was not considered a virtue. The idea a person might willingly shame themselves by voluntarily sacrificing themselves on a Cross is unthinkable and so radically offensive no rational person could believe it.

To those who are being saved, the Cross is the power of God. A death on the Cross was such an offensive and shameful death that it would have been shocking for Paul call it the “power of God for salvation.”  D. A. Carson suggested the analogy of someone today claiming the Holocaust was “the power of God” (The Cross and the Christian Message, 12). No one in the world today would say the Holocaust is “the power of God.” Such a statement would be a jarring and offensive statement. Anyone making that sort of claim would not just be laughed at, but vilified and persecuted for such a claim.

Yet this is what Paul claims, because God chooses foolish things in order to silence the wise. He quotes Isaiah 29:14, a saying embedded in a context of the judgment on Judah for worship with their lips but not their heart (29:13); since their hearts are not right they are about to face God’s judgment. The Corinthians may have heard this as a pronouncement on the wise of this age (which is true), but since the object of God’s wrath in Isaiah Judah, it is possible Paul’s point here is that the church is also going to be silence because of their foolishness!

How does this “foolishness” play out in the modern preaching of the Gospel? Some American evangelical Christians like to use apologetics to present faith in Jesus as rational and reasonable to a rational mind. Others try to use secular culture to present the Gospel in a way which appeals to the modern, or post-modern mind (those “Mars Hill” ministries, for example). Would Paul have created a rational argument for the prove the need of the violent death of Jesus on the Cross? Would he have hosted a poetry slam in one of his churches for people to express their repressed feelings about religion? How can we “embrace the foolishness” and still reach our culture?