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2 Corinthians and the Heart of Christian Life and Ministry

Feb 18, 2017

I have a confession to make: I did not always love Second Corinthians like I do now. A lot of it is about Paul defending himself and his ministry, and he even speaks about boasting in this if he must. That seemed a bit odd to me, and I did not always fully understand and appreciate what he was getting at in this epistle.

But for various reasons, in the past few decades 2 Corinthians has rocketed to my number one New Testament book. I am not sure if we are to so elevate one NT book over another, but its themes about strength in weakness and glory in suffering are so very vitally important today – certainly in the West.

Many of our churches preach a triumphant gospel, one that often exalts power, one that exalts self, and one that exalts success. We find this especially in the health and wealth gospels, and in the name it and claim it theologies, both of which basically look down upon suffering and weakness.

paul 2Thus 2 Corinthians is THE book of the hour for so much of Western Christianity. In it Paul takes on the “super apostles” and those who exalt all sorts of things (fame, power, signs and wonders, speaking ability, status, reputation, etc). Paul boasts instead of his weakness, his afflictions, his hardships and his suffering.

These are the real marks of the true minister of the gospel he insists. And I could simply quote large slabs of the epistle to make this point. But let the reader check out these key passages: 2 Cor. 4:7-12; 6:3-10; 11:23-30; and 12:9-10.

But let me here simply run with a number of quotes on the book’s main theme and its importance. Right now there is a big gap in my bookshelves because I have pulled my twenty-plus commentaries of the book down to quote from. Here are some of their thoughts:

With evident distaste for speaking about himself, Paul reminds the Corinthians that, as they well knew, in contrast to the pretended apostleship of these false teachers his apostleship was one of continuous suffering and self-abnegation, and that it was precisely in his own manifest weakness, which left no room for self-glorification, that the power and grace of God had been magnified (11:21-12:12). (Philip E. Hughes)

The central theological theme of 2 Corinthians is the relationship suffering and the power of the Spirit in Paul’s apostolic experience. Paul’s point concerning this theme is as simple as it is profound. Rather than calling his sufficiency into question, Paul’s suffering is the revelatory vehicle through which the knowledge of God manifest in the cross of Christ and in the power of the Spirit is being disclosed. (Scott Hafemann)

The central theme of 2 Corinthians is divine power in weakness. It is a theme that the church in the West has tended to shrug off as appropriate only for Christians living under oppressive political regimes. Health, wealth and prosperity is a message often presented in the media and preached from the pulpit in the West. Not so with Paul. He defines the role of the gospel preacher in terms of the trials and hardships through which God’s power is seen and appropriated. It is the same for the church…. Every chapter echoes this theme. (Linda Belleville)

Paul’s theme throughout this letter is the strange royal comfort that comes through the suffering and death, and the new resurrection-life, of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus, the Lord of the world. This is the letter above all where he explains the meaning of the cross in terms of personal suffering – his own, and that of all the Messiah’s people. (Tom Wright)

The motif that keeps emerging throughout this epistle is that weakness is the source of strength and that suffering is the vehicle for God’s power and glory….
The gospel does not ride on health and wealth but on weakness. The ministry of the Spirit is not one of splash and flash but of meekness and weakness….
Affliction was the key to Paul’s effectiveness in ministry, and affliction is the key to effective ministry today. How countercultural this is. It even runs counter to so much “Christian” thinking that regards affliction as evidence of personal sin or efficient faith, and sleekness and ease as palpable evidence of divine blessing. (R. Kent Hughes)

In and through this weakness, God manifested his power, so that Paul can also write, ‘but he lives by reason of the power of God’ (13:4). The fundamental paradox of weakness and power then is rooted in Christ’s death, which has been made possible by the incarnation. Embracing this paradox in his life, Paul boasts in his own weaknesses (11:30; 12:9), aware that Christ’s ‘power is made perfect in weakness’ (12:9). This is not to say that power is weakness. Rather, in a manner that can be understood only in light of the paradox of the cross, power comes to its perfection in and through weakness. Because the Corinthians did not grasp this paradox, they could not appreciate Paul’s apostolic ministry among them and the new covenant community that he established in their midst. (Frank Matera)

It is, however, in human weakness that the pattern of the Gospel is most clearly shown: ‘My grace is enough for you; for power comes to perfection in weakness. Therefore will I most gladly boast rather in my weaknesses, in order that Christ’s power may rest upon me’ (xii. 9). And Paul constantly bears in his body the death of Jesus— not as an end in itself but as the only way to a manifestation of his life (iv. 10). Human weakness is thus not a thing that may or must be tolerated; Paul boasts about it, as the surest proof of his being a Christian, and a representative of the Christ crucified who is the Lord, not in spite of his having been crucified, nor as a reward for having been crucified, but because being ‘Christ crucified’, ‘the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. ii. 20), is what God means by being the Lord. (C. K. Barrett)

Paul’s argument throughout the letter is that “only in cruciform sufferings like his” can the Lord “perform his powerful work, introducing glory into an age of darkness, salvation into a world of despair, a new age with the old life and power to more and more people.” Those who cannot see the glory in the cross of Christ because they are captured by the wisdom of this world will hardly see it in his suffering apostle. If they do see it, however, they will see how exceedingly glorious Paul’s ministry is. This letter is not just a personal defense; it is a restatement of the basic doctrine of the cross which Paul preached to them (1 Cor 2:2). (David Garland)

To confess that the present world is a “vale of tears,” as Paul effectively does, is not to say that there is nothing in it but suffering and sorrow. It is, however, to open one’s eyes to the sorrow and suffering that are present in the world. It is to see beyond the temporary security of the earthly goods to the suffering that in one measure or another must come to each who belongs to Christ. Indeed, according to the apostle, comfort and salvation come only through trial and suffering. True happiness comes only to those who know sorrow. Paul seeks to bring the Corinthians back to this realism. (Mark Seifrid)

Now if all this sounds very foreign to what is heard in most Western pulpits today, that is because it is so seldom preached. Hardly anyone is talking about suffering and hardship and weakness as indications of the genuine Christian life and work. Instead, we mainly hear about having your best life now, and getting everything you want to be happy and successful.

Why do I suspect that if Paul tried to get a few speaking gigs in most churches today he would never make it through the door? He would be told his message is far too negative and would simply turn people off. After all, we need to be seeker sensitive and tell people what they want to hear. That is how we grow churches (and get even more moolah in the offering plate).

The theology of suffering, of the crucified life, and of strength coming through weakness is about as alien as you can get in far too many churches today. Yet it was the very heart and soul of the message of the Apostle Paul, not just in 2 Corinthians, but in all his epistles.

To emphasise the cross and death to self is Christianity 101. There is no crown without the cross. There is no glory without suffering. There is no resurrection without death. As C. S. Lewis reminded us in one of his essays, “Nothing that has not died will be resurrected.”

In that brief remark Lewis nails the very heart of the Christian life. It is clearly not a popular message today, but it is a thoroughly biblical one. And it is the message which the Apostle Paul saw as absolutely central to everything about his life and ministry. We should take the same view.

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7 Responses to 2 Corinthians and the Heart of Christian Life and Ministry

  • Perhaps another way of expressing it: “Our comfort is in that which does not perish when it passes through the fire.”
    That we live prepared to pass through the fire at any time, directs our relationship with the things of life.
    1 Cor 3:13; 1 Pet 1:7

  • Thanks Bill.
    I certainly very much relate…these passages in 2 Corinthians have meant alot to me for quite some time..

    I picked up a great book on this subject some years ago for $1 at a book sale that was gem of a find – God of Weakness by John Trimmer…from the back
    “God speaks where least expected to be heard and that God’s power is at work in our weakness and our dying rather than in our strength and our living”
    This book also addresses the church in America (at the time, the 80s) and how it seemed more devoted to Empire building than bringing the gospel through our weakness and suffering.

    I’m also reminded of how this subject is neglected in modern christianity..in all my years at my old pentecostal church i never once heard a sermon on ”God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the wise”

  • Thanks for the tip Jeremy. I will have to get a copy.

  • Bill, I’m sorry that this comment is a bit off-topic but I was not sure of other ways to contact you or else the best article to comment on, so I am writing here.

    I am in my early-thirties. I just had a conversation reminiscent of so many that I seem to have. Most people of my generation that I am friends with or come in to contact with tend to be very secular and liberal in their worldview. For a period of my life I was there myself. It’s frustrating and actually *boring* because you know almost everything that they’re likely to say – it often seems as if I just read ‘the guardian’ that week then I would know their take on things.

    My friend expressed ideas of “if everyone just had sex and we were all one coffee coloured race things would be fine” and “if only we got rid of all religions” and so on. They act as if they care about people but they don’t. There never seems much depth to their thought or to causality. And besides, their fundamental assumptions about life are so 180 degrees – how does one find common ground? “Over-population” is another classic one – don’t bother mentioning future depopulation or aging populations. Arguing against abortion gets you nowhere (people my age are shocked if you seem to have any problem with it).

    It seems to me that underlying this worldview is apathy and a deep unrecognised nihilism. Scratch the surface and there’s no good arguments or deep thought there; underneath it all they care about nothing. The secular liberal ideology of ‘maximise pleasure and minimise suffering’ seems to be all that’s in play, unless of course you are a white middle class male heterosexual and God-forbid protestant – then of course you should suffer more than everyone else (note this view seems to hold even if the party is all of those things bar protestant).

    The presuppositions and worldview are so different that I don’t know where to start and after these conversations end up frustrated and vexed. Frequently comments about abortion or homosexual marriage are thrown around as if there is no debate – as if it’s like saying that the sky is blue; they can’t even fathom why you would be talking about it or argue against, unless you’re a “hateful racist right wing conservative nazi hitler etc etc”. Do I keep attempting to plant seeds or spend the time and energy with those who are more receptive? I know that I have changed a lot of my views so that does give me hope for others. That being said, I have very little hope for the west. I’m not sure my generation is even aware of how “off-piste” we’ve become. What to do?

  • Thanks Nick. Yes it can be discouraging at times but keep at it – keep planting seeds to those who may be receptive. Then pray and leave the results to God.

  • Nick,

    Try simply asking questions, preferably not too pointed so the people don’t see what you are doing. This forces people to start thinking about the consequences of their beliefs. Planting a seed is a small thing but it has the potential for growth.

  • Nick, believe that “it is the Spirit of your Father who speaks.” You are in the tribunal of “Man” see Psalm 2. Why do they rage? (It doesn’t look like rage, someone said ‘the opposite of love is indifference’). They are by nature against the Lord and His anointed. Ask for “the word of the Cross” to be your utterance cf. Paul, 1Corinthians 1:18. The elect will hear eventually, the rest will continue on down. God has done a great work in you. He will do the same by you. SDG.

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