Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians can be divided into three main parts. In the first part, he defended his gospel ministry. Some people in Corinth were criticising Paul. Do you remember? They criticised him because he had changed his travel plans and therefore it seemed to them that he was unreliable and can’t be trusted. And they criticised him because he didn’t seem as impressive to them as some of the new preachers who had come to Corinth, those super-apostles who looked impressive and who sounded impressive. And so, Paul wrote to defend his ministry, not so much because he cared about his own reputation, but because the gospel was at stake, because the new preachers who had come to Corinth were false teachers, who would only lead the people astray. And so, do you remember? Paul called on the Corinthians to separate themselves from those false teachers and to have nothing to do with them.
And then in the second part of his letter he turned his attention to those in the congregation who had responded positively to an earlier letter he had sent them. That letter is now lost, but when the Corinthians read that letter from Paul, in which he confronted them because of their sins and shortcomings, some of them turned from their sins in repentance and they turned to God for forgiveness. And when Titus told Paul about those members who had repented, Paul was filled with great joy because of them. ‘I am greatly encouraged’, he wrote in chapter 7, and ‘my joy knows no bounds.’ And Paul addressed those members of the congregation in the second part of 2 Corinthians and he encouraged them to complete the collection they had begun to help needy believers in Jerusalem. And so, in the second part of this letter, Paul encouraged them to give what they could to help their fellow believers.
And today we begin the third main part of Paul’s letter which is about the false teachers who had come to Corinth. You see, up to now, those false teachers have been in the background of the letter. Paul hasn’t really mentioned them directly; but the reason he had to defend his ministry in the first part of the letter was because of their influence in Corinth. But in these final chapters of his letter, Paul refers to them directly. And so, if you glance forward into chapter 11, you’ll see that he refers in verse 4 to those who come, preaching a different gospel. And in verse 5 he refers to them as ‘super-apostles’. And in verse 13 he refers to them as false apostles. He calls them deceitful workmen who masquerade as apostles of Christ. He even refers to them as Satan’s servants. So, Paul’s now confronting those new preachers head on; and he’s warning the believers in Corinth not to be taken in by them.
So, that’s what the third part of Paul’s letter is about. And it begins with chapter 10, where Paul is again defending himself and his ministry. And this chapter can be divided into three parts: verses 1 to 6; verses 7 to 11; and verses 12 to 18.
Verses 1 to 6
And Paul begins in verse 1 by referring to the meekness and gentleness of Christ. Maybe we should think about the meekness and gentleness of Christ for a moment. When he was on the earth, the Lord Jesus didn’t usually refer to his own character. But there’s that one famous passage in Matthew 11 where he invited the weary and the burdened to come to him for rest and to take his yoke and to learn from him, because ‘I am gentle and humble in heart’ and ‘you will find rest for your souls’. That’s what our Saviour was like. He would deal with them gently and he welcomed those who came to him, confessing their need, and seeking his help. And he taught them and he healed them and he offered forgiveness to those who were burdened with guilt and shame. People weren’t afraid to come to Christ.
However, the Lord Jesus wasn’t gentle and humble towards everyone, was he? He wasn’t gentle and humble towards the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the teachers of the law whenever they came to test him. And, you see, they were the religious leaders and teachers in Judah at that time. And though the Lord was gentle and humble towards the people who came to him, confessing their need, he was quite stern with those unbelieving teachers and he sometimes rebuked them.
Let’s go back to Paul who refers in verse 1 not to the gentleness and humility of Christ, but to the Lord’s meekness and gentleness. The words may not be exactly the same, but they convey the same idea. The Lord was gentle and kind and patient and not at all hard and severe and harsh with the people who came to him. And Paul wants to show the same meekness and gentleness towards the believers in Corinth. He wants to display to them the lamblike gentleness of the Saviour. And every servant of the Lord wants to display the same meekness and gentleness and kindness in our interactions with other people.
But Paul was afraid. Paul was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to display meekness and gentleness towards the Corinthians. He was afraid that they would force him to be severe with them. And so, look at verse 2, where he says: I beg you. I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be. Why did he expect he would have to be bold with them? Because some of them were still following the new preachers, those false teachers, who had come to Corinth. And if they did not repent and separate themselves from those false preachers, Paul would be forced when he came to Corinth to set aside the meekness and gentleness of Christ and to be bold and strong and tough with them. He would have to exercise church discipline when he comes and deal with them because of their waywardness. That’s what he’s saying in verse 6, where he says that he will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. I think he’s saying that when he comes he’ll see who was obedient. And once he sees who was obedient and who had separated themselves from the false teachers, then he’d begin to deal with those who remained impenitent.
And so, you see: just as the Lord Jesus was gentle with some, but he was harsh with others, so Paul was prepared to be gentle with some in Corinth, but he would be harsh with others: with the false teachers and all those who sided with them.
Now, let’s go back to verse 1 again, where Paul refers to what some of them were saying about him. What were some of them saying about him? That he was ‘timid’ in person, but ‘bold’ when away. So, when he was writing to them from afar, he was very bold and confident and fearless like a lion, pointing out their sins and calling on them to repent. But, they said, in person he’s nothing to worry about. In person he’s only a pussy cat. In person, he’s ‘timid’. The Greek word Paul uses can also be translated ‘pitiful’. And that’s perhaps what they meant, because Paul was pitiful to look at. Remember we thought about all the ways he suffered for Christ and how he was beaten and whipped and stoned and shipwrecked and so on? And no doubt his body bore the marks of his afflictions. And then, in chapter 4 of this letter, he referred to himself as a jar of clay to convey the idea that he was ordinary and weak and easily crushed. And there’s an ancient description of Paul that says he was short and bald with bandy-legs and a long nose. Now, if you walk around ancient ruins and look at the statutes at the time, all the men in the statues are tall and strong and handsome. In other words, they looked nothing like Paul. There was nothing impressive about Paul’s appearance. In person, he was nothing. Yes, he could write a strong letter, but he was pitiful in person.
That’s what they were saying about Paul. But what does he say? Again, he really wants to display the meekness and gentleness of Christ towards them. But if they force him to it, he’s prepared to be just as bold in person as he is in his letters. And he’s going to come to deal with them. And when he comes, he’ll have his weapons at the ready in order to wage war in Corinth.
But, of course, he won’t wage war as the world does. In those days, the world waged war with swords and spears and they had all kinds of equipment to help them when they were laying siege to a city. But Paul isn’t going to come with swords and spears and that kind of thing. He’s going to use a different kind of weapon. He’s going to use weapons with divine power; and with these divinely empowered weapons he’s going to demolish strongholds. That is, he’s going to demolish the arguments and the pretensions and the false ideas of the false teachers who had set themselves up against Paul and against the true knowledge of God which is only found in the word of God. So, Paul was prepared to come to Corinth, ready to confront those false teachers and to take captive every thought so that everyone in the church in Corinth will once against submit to Christ the King.
Now, remember: Paul wants to display the meekness and gentleness of Christ towards them. And so, he begs the members of the church in Corinth, he begs them not to force him to deal boldly with them. So, he’s asking them now, in this letter, to repent if they haven’t already done so. Separate yourself from the false teachers. Have nothing more to do with them and with their false gospel. Come back to Paul. And come back to the true gospel. And come back to the Lord Jesus.
So, that’s the first part of this chapter. And it’s a reminder to us that while we should always strive to display the meekness and gentleness of Christ towards the people we meet, sometimes we have to be prepared to stand up to people when the gospel is at stake. All of us as Christ’s servants should strive to be like Christ and to have the lamblike gentleness of the Saviour, so that we don’t frighten people. Instead we should be the kind of people who are warm and welcoming and gentle so that people are happy to come to us and to talk to. Perhaps there’s someone who needs some help. Or they’re looking for advice. Don’t be the kind of person who scares others away. Be the kind of person who is welcoming and friendly and gentle and kind and patient. For some of us, that comes naturally. For others, we need to work at that and we need to look to God to give us the Spirit of Christ to help us become more meek and gentle.
But still, there are times when we have to stand up to people when the gospel is at stake. Now, I’m not referring to standing up to those outside the church, who don’t know the gospel and who need to hear the gospel. Don’t wage war with them. But I’m talking about people inside the church and who claim to be believers, but who deny the fundamentals of the faith. There are many who claim to be believers, and who are even leaders in churches, but they reject so many of the core teachings of the faith. And they’re only leading the Lord’s people astray. And so, when we come across such people, we have to be prepared to stand up to them and to make clear that what they are saying is wrong. And, of course, you should pray often for those who are training to be ministers in the church around the world and for those who are already serving as ministers in the church around the world, asking the Lord to ensure that they are well-trained and will teach the true gospel, so that sinners will hear and believe and believers will be built up in the faith.
Verses 7 to 11
So, that’s the first part of today’s chapter. Let’s move on now to verses 7 to 11 where Paul writes about belonging to Christ. Do you see that in verse 7?
If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as he.
Someone who belongs to Christ is a servant of Christ. And presumably the false teachers in Corinth claimed to be servants of Christ. Well, here’s Paul making clear to the Corinthians that he too is a servant of Christ. So, remember how the Risen Lord Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus? Paul — or Saul as he was known back then — was on his way to Damascus to persecute the church, because at that time in his life he did not believe in the Lord Jesus and he was actively persecuting the church. But then the Risen Lord Jesus met him and enabled him to believe. And the Lord declared to him that he had appointed Paul to be his servant and a witness of what he had seen and what the Lord would show him. And the Lord said that he was sending Paul to open the eyes of the blind and to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God so that they might receive the forgiveness of sins. Paul was a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. And maybe he liked to tell people that story. If you had a story like that to tell, I’m sure you’d want to tell it at every opportunity. And perhaps when people asked Paul what right he had to preach the gospel, he might have told them that story to explain to them where he got his authority from:
My authority comes from the Lord Jesus, who appointed me when he met me on the road to Damascus.
Now, in verse 8, Paul says:
even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us….
Some of the commentators suggest that Paul is once again quoting what people were saying about him: ‘Have you noticed about Paul that he’s always going on about his authority. He’s always boasting about it.’ And so, perhaps they were complaining that Paul was making too much of his authority. ‘He’s always going on about it.’
But, notice what Paul went on to say about his authority in verse 8. He wrote:
even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather then for pulling you down….
Christ had appointed Paul as his servant and had given him authority. But it was authority, not to pull the church down, but to build the church up: to build the church up in faith and holiness and comfort. If the Corinthians continued to listen to the false teachers, then the church would be destroyed, because they were preaching a false gospel. But Paul wanted to build the church up by teaching them the true gospel.
And so, when he wrote those bold letters to them, confronting them with their sins and shortcomings, he wasn’t trying to frighten them. He was trying to build up the church by calling them back to the true faith. And if he had to be bold with them in person, it was for the same purpose: to call them back to the true faith so that the church would be built up in faith and holiness and comfort. The Lord Jesus had appointed him to be his servant and had given him authority over his people. But he was to use his authority, not to tear down and to destroy, but to build up the believers so that they would be strong in their faith.
On Wednesday evenings at the prayer meeting, and often when I’m praying on my own, I ask the Lord to bless the reading and preaching of his word on Sundays so that unbelievers are convinced and converted to faith in Christ and believers are built up in holiness and comfort through faith. When I pray like that, I’m quoting from our church’s Shorter Catechism and its question about the effectiveness of God’s word for salvation. Through the preaching of God’s word, believers are built up in holiness and comfort. We’re built up in holiness because God’s word contains commands we’re to keep so that we will live holy and upright and good lives. And we’re built up in comfort, because God’s word contains promises to comfort and encourage us. And during the week, when I visit people, I use God’s word in the same way: to remind God’s people of his commands and his promises so that they’re built up in holiness and comfort. I want to encourage people to live obedient lives and I want to give comfort to those who are afraid. Just this past week, I was talking to someone who is very afraid. And I was able to remind that person of God’s promises to his people in order to bring comfort to that person.
And that’s something you too can do, because in your daily conversations with people, you can build up believers in holiness and comfort by reminding them of the commands and promises of the Lord. It’s very easy to be a critic and a complainer and to tear people down; and the world is full of complainers and critics. And very often the church is full of complainers and critics. But the Lord has given us his word so that we can build one another up in the faith and in holiness and comfort. He’s given us his word so that we can encourage one another instead of tearing one another down. And so, there’s something you can do with God’s help as you use his word to build others up.
Verses 12 to 18
But let’s move on to the final part of today’s chapter, which is verses 12 to 18. And in this section, Paul refers in verse 13 to the field which God assigned to him. And when he refers to the field God assigned to him, he’s referring to the places the Lord sent him to preach the gospel and to the places where the Lord enabled him to plant new churches. And according to verse 13, the field God assigned to Paul reached even to the Corinthians. And so, you can read in Acts 18 how Paul went to Corinth and preached the gospel there and established the church in that city. He was the first to bring the gospel to Corinth. And if you look at the second half of verse 15, you’ll see that Paul hoped to extend his area of activity beyond Corinth. That is, he hoped to go beyond Corinth into other places to bring the good news of the gospel to other cities. And again, you can read in the book of Acts about the missionary journeys Paul undertook, as he went from city to city to preach the gospel. He was always trying to go to new places and to preach the gospel where no other preacher had gone before.
And then, according to the second half of verse 16, Paul says that he did not want to boast about work done in another man’s territory. And perhaps that’s what the false teachers were doing. Perhaps they were taking credit for things Paul had accomplished. He was the first to go to Corinth and preach the gospel. When he went there, some of the people believed and a church was established. And then Paul moved on from Corinth to preach the gospel in other places. And these new preachers had come in and were taking credit for what Paul had done. And in verse 12 and in verse 18, Paul refers to the way they commended themselves. So, they used to praise themselves and tell one another how great they were. They would praise one another for what they had accomplished in Corinth, when in fact they were benefitting from the hard work which Paul had done in the past when he had first gone to Corinth to preach the gospel and to plant the church. They were doing what a minister today might do when he boasts about the size of his congregation and all the things that are happening there and he makes out that it’s all down to his ministry, when in fact the church existed for years and years before he ever came along. He’s only inherited this church from someone else. But he makes out it’s all down to him. That’s what the false teachers were doing.
And so, the false preachers used to commend themselves. They boasted about themselves. They talked about themselves. But, says Paul in verse 17, ‘let him who boasts boast in the Lord’. When Paul stood up to preach, he didn’t preach about himself, but he preached about Jesus Christ the Lord. Instead of telling people about his own greatness, he told them about the greatness of Christ the Saviour who loved us and who gave up his life for us. Instead of putting the spotlight on himself, he put the spotlight on Christ. Paul didn’t want people to follow him, but he wanted them to follow Christ. Instead of boasting about himself, the way the false teachers did, he boasted about Christ the Lord. And any success he might have enjoyed in his ministry was due, not to Paul’s wisdom or strength or ability, but to God who was pleased to work powerfully through Paul.
That’s the kind of preacher we want serving in churches around the world. We don’t want preachers who are always talking about themselves. We want preachers who talk about Christ and who proclaim Christ crucified and risen and who exalt Christ and who boast about Christ. No matter what gifts and abilities a preacher has, he hasn’t done what Christ has done, which is to pay for our sins with his life and who shed his blood to cleanse us. Has there been anyone else who has done that? If there were anyone else who had done that, then fair enough, boast about that person. But there’s no one else who has done what Christ has done for sinners. And so, we want preachers in our churches who boast about him and who make much of him.
And think about your own life. Think about your gifts and abilities and skills. Where did they come from? They didn’t come from you. Think about what you have achieved in life. Where did your success come from? It didn’t come from you. Everything good in your life is from God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Whatever good there is in our life, we owe to God who made us and who redeemed us by his Son. Whatever is good in us, and whatever good we accomplish, comes from the Lord. Perhaps you think: ‘What about my hard work and effort? Surely I deserve credit for my hard work and effort?’ But the Lord is the one who enabled you to work hard and to make the effort. And so, Christians are the last people who should be boasting about themselves. Instead you and I should spend our lives boasting about the Lord, who deserves all the praise and glory and honour both now and forevermore.