Reflections on 2 Corinthians

2 CORINTHIANS
While it is debated whether 2 Corinthians is a single letter or a collection of letters, one thing we can know for sure is that it is a treasure trove of spiritual wealth and knowledge; in it Paul provides a defense of cruciform ministry and instruction on the lifestyle of the apostle. “…he argues – sometimes gently and politely, sometimes aggressively and acerbically, but always compellingly – that cruciformity is the mark of apostleship, grace and the Spirit.” (Gorman, pg. 291)

 

We learn through Gorman that Paul starts not with his usual Thanksgiving but with a Jewish blessing that then begins to set the stage for the rest of the letter “…life in Christ is about suffering and endurance, affliction and comfort, partnership and mutual care. It is about an ‘abundant life’: experiencing the abundant presence of God in the midst of abundant tribulation.” (Gorman, pg. 294) I love the words that Paul leads with in 2 Cor 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction…” because it reminds us that it is not God who afflicts us but who is compassionate towards us, who suffers affliction and encourages us when we persevere in our afflictions. This is why we can only agree with Paul when he states in 2 Cor 1:7 “Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement.” For our God is with us in everything.

 

We are reminded in 2 Cor 1:10 “He rescued us from such great danger of death, and he will continue to rescue us; in him we have put our hope [that] he will also rescue us again…” This must inspire us. When we examine this perspective, how can we not hope, for why would God go to such lengths to rescue us if he did not intend to save us? He is surely faithful to us. We are reminded again, in 2 Cor 1:20 “For however many are the promises of God, their Yes in in him, therefore, the Amen from us also goes through him to God for glory.” As Gorman explains, each of God’s promises is always a yes, although the timing of this promise is not assured.

 

The next part that really stuck out to me was what Paul wrote about the offender who had been punished by the community, the one who had hurt Paul and the church. By extending charisasthai kai parakalesai, or grace and comfort, they are showing love not just for the individual but for the community as well. “Therefore, I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Cor 2:8) The community with which we share our suffering as Paul alluded to earlier in the letter offered both punishment and forgiveness, sharing the burden of suffering.

 

I also appreciate the contrast with which Paul compares the apostolic life to the life of the Romans, using the metaphors to frame up the cruciform lifestyle. “Paul claims that his life and message impact both those being saved and those perishing, functioning as confirmation of their life or their death, respectively (2:15-16; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18; Phil. 1:28). This, Paul realizes, is an awesome responsibility, such that ‘Who is sufficient?’ (NRSV) or ‘Who is qualified’ (NAB) is certainly an appropriate question (2:16).” (Gorman, pg. 298) What Paul helps us to see through his metaphors and questions is that we do not qualify ourselves but are divinely commissioned, and are held accountable to that commission.

 

This should lead us not to pride but humility in ourselves and confidence in Christ. As we often see with Paul, he pulls the old testament and new together in 2 Cor 3:3-5 “…shown to be a letter of Christ administered by us, written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh. Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God…” What I really appreciate is that Paul doesn’t devalue the old covenant; he gives thanks for the fulfillment of the temporary covenant and the deliverance of the new more grace-filled covenant that brought God’s Spirit with it. He goes on to contrast the two covenants, examining the suffering of death and the experience of glory as well as the veil over people who cannot see. This all points to the triune or trinity. “Ironically, Paul’s point is almost certainly that the Spirit is the Spirit of both YHWH and Jesus. The glory of Israel’s God is perceived only by seeing the glory of his “image,” the (crucified) Lord Jesus (4:4), like an image reflected in a mirror. In line with much ancient thought about God, Paul believes those who ‘gaze upon’ the image and glory of God are transformed into the divine image…” (Gorman, pg. 300) This translates life and freedom IN Christ THROUGH the Spirit by a God of Israel fully revealed.

 

While we understand this life and freedom promised, we look back at the original topic of affliction. “Paul senses the tension between a gospel of glory and a life of slavery and affliction. He resolves it by finding in the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection the pattern of his own life.” (Gorman, pg. 302) The metaphor that Paul uses this is beautifully described and is a salve to the soul in times of great affliction. 2 Cor 4:7-10 “But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.” It is to tie our suffering to the suffering of Christ and our life to the life of Christ and, as Gorman described, be transformed into the divine image. This leads us to cruciform ministry, a life that makes the life of Jesus visible to others through ourselves; but not by our words alone. Cruciform love isn’t suffering AND love, it’s suffering IN love. The same is true for cruciform ministry, and it’s all in Christ, a reflection of Christ and the hope offered in the resurrection.

 

It is a fundamental thing to note that it is Christ’s love, not the love of Christ, which compels them. 2 Cor 5:14 “For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died.” This means that Christ died as an act of love for all, so that they would all die to themselves and live for God. This was an orienting act of Christ, but there is still an action to be taken, a response to be made on the part of the people: to choose God.

 

Paul writes of his experience in the ministry, establishing his integrity but also providing a framework for those to come for both what to expect and what to strive for. Additionally, it provides us context to understand the tremendous amount of endurance that Paul and his companions demonstrated during their ministry. 2 Cor 6:3-8 “We cause no one to stumble in anything, in order that no fault may be found within our ministry; on the contrary, in everything we commend ourselves as ministers of God, through much endurance, in afflictions, hardships constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts, by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, in a holy spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness at the at the right and at the left; through glory and dishonor, insult and praise.”

 

Paul goes on to address many of the problems being faced, including those known as the “super apostles” who were anything but super. Although there is much to be said about these super apostles and so much more within 2 Corinthians, the final verse I’ll examine comes after Paul emphasizes what he ultimately seeks from them: obedience to Christ. Paul understood all the things the Corinthians were up against and warned them strongly in 2 Cor 10:3-6 “For, although we are in the flesh we do not battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses. We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” This is not a war of violence against the body but a call to repentance, peace and forgiveness. It is so easy to blame the flesh, the person, and to make their sin their identity but that is not who we are at war with; that is not who our enemy is. The enemy is sin, the enemy is whatever drives us further from relationship with God instead of bringing us closer and by recognizing that the enemy is sin and not the person we can bring freedom and the Kingdom to people who would otherwise believe there is no hope.

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