We’re going to finish 2 Corinthians today. And we’ve seen that throughout most of this letter Paul has been defending himself and his ministry to the people in Corinth.
Some were saying that he was unreliable and untrustworthy because he had changed his travel plans, not just once, but twice. And so, they were saying he’s always changing his mind and you can’t trust him to keep his word and to do what he said he was going to do. So, he had to defend himself, his character. And he therefore explained that he had good reasons for changing his travel plans. And, in fact, he’s not travelling around the Roman world randomly, going wherever he likes, whenever he likes, without any thought or purpose. No, God has been leading him from place to place in a kind of triumphal procession to proclaim the good news of Christ’s victory over sin and death.
So, Paul has been defending himself. And he’s been defending his ministry too, because he didn’t seem very impressive to the Corinthians compared to some of the other preachers — the super-apostles — who had come to Corinth and who boasted about themselves and their credentials and their abilities. And so, Paul had to defend his ministry, making clear that he received it by the mercy of God, and it’s a glorious ministry, because through Paul’s gospel ministry the glory of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and sinners are transformed by it. And though some do not believe his message, it’s not because his ministry is faulty, but it’s because the Devil is blinding the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing God’s glory in the gospel. And though Paul and his companions often had to suffer and they were frequently hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and struck down, nevertheless God was working through them to bring life to those who believe. Death is at work in us, he said, but life is at work in you.
So, Paul has been defending himself and his ministry. And he defended himself and his ministry, not because he cared for his own reputation, but because the gospel was at stake and the members of the church in Corinth were in danger of being led astray by the new preachers who had arrived in Corinth. And so — after a brief middle section to the letter when Paul wrote about other things — he returned to defending himself and his ministry in chapter 10. And from chapter 10, he began to address the problem of the false teachers head on, warning the believers that just as the serpent deceived Eve in the beginning, so they’re being deceived by these new preachers who will only lead them astray, because they’re not preaching the same Jesus or the same gospel as Paul preached. And then Paul unmasked them to reveal to the Corinthians that the new preachers — who may have looked like servants of righteousness — were really only servants of Satan, because they were doing what Satan wanted, which was to confuse the believers and to lead them away from Christ.
And since the false teachers boasted about themselves and their abilities, Paul felt compelled to engage in a little boasting too. He knew it was foolish, because he who boasts should boast in the Lord and not in himself. However, Paul knew that if he didn’t stoop to the level of the false preachers and engage in a little foolish boasting — the way they did — then he might lose the Corinthians to the false preachers. And so, he began to boast about himself. And do you remember? Instead of boasting about his abilities and his successes, he boasted about the troubles and trials he had endured and he boasted about his weakness. Yes, he had once been taken up to heaven in a vision from the Lord, but afterwards he had received from the Lord a thorn in his flesh to torment him and which made him weak. But the reason he was willing to boast about his suffering and his weakness was because, though he was weak, God’s power rested on him. And God powerfully sustained him in his weakness to enable him to preach the gospel. And God powerfully worked through his foolish preaching to convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ and to build up believers in the faith. When I am weak, he said, then I am strong, because God is working powerfully through me to save sinners.
And so, in chapter 12 and verse 11, he says, ‘I have made a fool of myself’. He knows it’s foolish to boast, because we’re not to boast in ourselves, but only in the Lord. ‘But you drove me to it’, he adds. I didn’t want to boast, but you forced me into it, because I wanted you to see that my ministry is the real thing, because God is at work in me to sustain me; and God is at work through me to bring salvation to sinners. I didn’t want to boast, but you drove me to it.
In fact, he adds, you should have commended me, because I’m not in the least bit inferior to the super-apostles in Corinth. When they were boasting about themselves, and running me down, you should have stood up for me and defended me and reminded them that I’m a true apostle, because didn’t I perform the signs of a true apostle when I was in Corinth? Didn’t I perform signs and wonders and miracles among you? Now, there’s no record in the book of Acts of Paul performing miracles in Corinth. However, there’s no reason to think he didn’t, because he was able to perform signs and wonders in other places. So, we take it that God enabled him to perform such signs in their presence. And in that case, they should have stood up for him and defended him in front of the false preachers. They should have commended him. But they didn’t.
And then he goes on to refer to money once again. Do you remember that he mentioned this before in chapter 11. It seems the false preachers were prepared to receive payment from the Corinthians for their ministry. In fact, we saw last week that they were prepared to exploit the members of the church and take advantage of them. And near the beginning of the letter, Paul accused the false preachers of peddling God’s word for money. It seems the false preachers were only in the ministry for what they could get out of it. And the fact that it was the custom in those days for people to pay speakers probably made it easier for the false preachers to extract more and more money from the congregation.
However, Paul refused any payment from the Corinthians. And it seems from what we read in chapter 11 that the Corinthians were offended because of this. He was prepared to receive money from other churches, but not from the Corinthians. Why not? They were offended. And Paul brings it up again in verse 13 where he says he did not burden them. And then he adds: did that mean I thought you were inferior to other churches? Please forgive me! He’s been sarcastic, isn’t he? He hasn’t done them any wrong. He hasn’t harmed them in any way. He hasn’t hurt them. But they’re annoyed with him.
There’s something very twisted about their complaint, isn’t there? Paul was being kind and generous to them. Unlike the false preachers, who took and took and took from the Corinthians, Paul was willing to conduct his ministry free of charge. He wasn’t a burden on them. But instead of commending him for this, instead of being pleased because of his kindness, they complained about it. There’s something twisted about it, isn’t there?
And he continues to address this complaint in verses 14 to 19, where he tells them that he’s going to visit them again. This, in fact, will be his third visit to Corinth. On the first visit, he planted the church. The second visit was a difficult visit, because there was a problem over church discipline. And this will then be his third visit. And he tells them that he doesn’t intend to be a burden to them on this third visit. In other words, he still will not take their money. What he wants, he says, is not their possessions, but them. He loves them and not their money. He’s interested in them and not in their cash. I sometimes say that to people connected to the church who don’t come to church very often. When I visit them, they ask me to take their WFO envelopes for them and place them on the offering plate. And I tell them that I’m not calling to get their money, but to see them. I don’t want anyone thinking that all we want is their money. And I want them to know that what we want most of all is to see them in church, because we’re interested in them and not their money.
And Paul wants the Corinthians to know that he’s not like the false preachers who are only in the ministry for what they can get out of it. He loves the people and not their money. And, you see, Paul regards himself as their spiritual parent. He’s their spiritual parent, because they came to faith through his ministry. And think about parents and children for a moment. Parents expect to take care of their young children and to support them. The child has nothing and the parents pay for their food and clothes. When they’re older, and are at school, the child tells mum and dad about a school trip to France. Can I go? And it costs money, doesn’t it? But the parents are prepared to pay for the trip, if it’s worthwhile and they can afford it, because that’s what parents do. Then they’re going off to university or college. And there are things they need for the course. Parents will help with that, because the children can’t support themselves yet. The child is getting married and needs some help to set up their first home and parents will help with that too. Parents know it’s their responsibility to support their children until they’re old enough to support themselves. And since Paul regarded himself as their spiritual parent, then it was his responsibility to support the Corinthian believers and it wasn’t their responsibility to support him. And just as parents love their children and are happy to support them, so Paul was happy to support the Corinthians. He says in verse 15:
So I will gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well.
He was prepared to endure all kinds of hardships and trouble in order to minister to them, because he loved them.
And yet, there’s again something twisted about their response, because it seems the more he loved them, the less they loved him. Do you see that in verse 15? He was prepared to endure all kinds of hardships for their benefit, but instead of loving him for it, and appreciating all he did for them, they only got annoyed with him and they were offended by him. And from what Paul says in verse 16, it seems they interpreted his kindness as a way to trick them somehow. So, they said, he was being crafty. Devious.
But he wasn’t being crafty or devious and he wasn’t playing tricks with them. And when he sent Titus and others to Corinth, they didn’t exploit the Corinthians either. They didn’t steal from them or take their money. Paul and Titus and everyone associated with Paul all took the same approach. We didn’t want your possessions, we want you. We’re not interested in your money, we’re interested in you.
And this comes out clearly in verse 19, where Paul makes clear to the Corinthians what I’ve said before. Paul has been defending himself and his ministry, but it’s not because he was concerned with himself and his own reputation. The reason he’s been defending himself and his ministry is because the gospel is at stake and the Corinthians were in danger of being led astray. And so, Paul tells them now that in everything he has said to them and in everything he has done for them, he has been trying to strengthen them. And the word translated ‘strengthening’ can also be translated ‘edification’. It’s about building them up in the faith. Building them up as believers. Helping them to grow as believers, so that instead of being led astray, and losing their faith, they will grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ and will become mature believers in Christ.
If they continue to listen to the false preachers, their faith will become weak. And so, Paul’s been writing to them so that their faith will become strong. If they continue to listen to the false preachers, their faith will crumble. And so, he’s been writing to them so that their faith will be built up and strengthened. Everything Paul says and does is to build them up. And that’s why we study Paul’s letters and the rest of the Scriptures week by week in church on Sundays and at the midweek on Wednesdays. It’s so that believers will be built up in the faith through the things Paul and the other writers have said under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. True gospel preachers love the Lord and they love the Lord’s people and they want to see the Lord’s people grow in their faith. And the main way we grow in our faith is through the reading and preaching of God’s word, because God has given us his word and the preaching of his word to build up believers in the faith.
Paul wants to build them up in the faith. However, according to verse 20, he’s afraid. Do you see that? He’s afraid. He’s afraid of what he’ll find when he gets to Corinth. And he’s afraid of what he’ll have to do when he gets to Corinth. He’s afraid that he’ll find among them quarrelling and jealousy and outbursts of anger and factions and slander and gossip and arrogance and disorder. That’s in verse 20. And in verse 21 he mentions impurity and sexual sin and debauchery. He’s afraid that this is what he’ll find when he gets to Corinth.
And so it becomes clear that there are really two big problems in Corinth. The first big problem is that some of the members have been taken in by the false preachers, the super-apostles. The other big problem is that some of the members are not living a Spirit-filled life, which reflects the glory of heaven above. Instead they’ve living as those who still belong to this present evil age and they’re still living according to the flesh so that their lives are dominated by sin. And Paul is afraid that’s what he’ll find when he arrives in Corinth.
And presumably Titus and others who have been to Corinth have reported to Paul what the church is like. And he says in verse 21 that he’s afraid that God will humble him before them and he’ll be grieved over what he finds in Corinth. And he’ll be humbled and grieved, because do you remember what he said in chapter 11 how he pictures himself as the father of the bride who is responsible for keeping his daughter pure and faithful so that she’ll be presented before her husband as a pure virgin? He was saying that he’s the father of the bride and the church in Corinth is the bride who is engaged to belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. And it’s his responsibility to keep the church pure and faithful. But if they’re doing all the things Paul lists here — if the church is spoiled by quarrelling and jealousy and outbursts of anger and so on; and if members of the church are engaging in impurity and sexual immorality, then he will be ashamed.
And so, he’s afraid of what he’ll find in Corinth. But he’s also afraid of what he’ll have to do when he gets to Corinth. And what will he have to do? Look at verse 2 of chapter 13:
On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others….
And when he says he will not spare them, he means he will not spare them from discipline. Up until now he has been patient with them, giving them time to repent. But now the time has come for him to deal with those who have not turned from their sins. And when he comes to discipline them, then they will see Christ’s power at work through Paul’s ministry.
And he draws a parallel between the Lord Jesus and his own ministry. The Lord Jesus was crucified in weakness. But he now lives by the power of God. So, he died in weakness, but God the Father raised him from the dead and he’s now our great and mighty King who rules powerfully in heaven. Likewise — Paul says — we are weak in him. And Paul has been telling us all about his troubles and trials and the things he has suffered; and he’s been telling us about his weakness and how he received that thorn in his flesh to torment him; and he’s like a jar of clay, because he’s weak and easily broken. Paul is weak, just as the Lord Jesus was weak. But the power of God — which raised the Lord Jesus from the dead — is at work in Paul. And the power of God is at work in Paul to do what? The NIV says ‘to serve you’. Do you see that at the end of verse 4? However, that’s not the best translation. It should really be ‘among you’ or ‘to you’. And he means God’s power is at work in Paul in order to deal with them. So, when he comes, they’re going to see God’s power in him as he deals with them and disciplines those who have not yet turned from their sin.
But, here’s the thing. The reason Paul is warning them about this in his letter is so that they will repent before he comes. If they repent before he comes, and if they put their lives and the church life in order, then he won’t have to discipline them.
So, he’s warning them so that they will sort things out now. And the first thing they need to do is to examine themselves to see whether they are true believers. That’s in verse 5. They were testing Paul. They were examining him. Was he a true apostle? But, in fact, what they should really be doing is they should be testing and examining themselves. Do they admit that they’re sinners who deserve to be condemned? Are they relying on Christ and in him alone for forgiveness? Do they now hate their sins, and weep and mourn over them? And do they now want to please the Lord by walking in his ways? That’s how we examine ourselves. And do you see what Paul says about Christ living in them? Christ lives in his people by his Spirit; and he reproduces himself in his people so that we’ll become more like him. So, test yourself. Examine yourself. Can you see the likeness of Christ in yourself?
And Paul is going to pray for them. Do you see that in verse 7? He prays that they will not do anything wrong. And in verse 9 he says he prays for their perfection. The word he uses is really ‘restoration’ and it can refer to what a doctor or nurse does when they take a broken bone and reset it. And here it means that Paul is praying that the believers will put things in order in the church and in their lives. While they continue to sin, they’re like a broken bone. And so, he prays to the Lord to help them fix it.
And in verse 11, he instructs them to aim for restoration. It’s the same word. So, Paul will pray for their restoration, but they’re to work at it themselves and aim for it.
And they’re to listen to his appeal. We don’t like to be corrected. We don’t like people telling us what to do. But Paul is urging his readers to listen to him.
And they’re to be of one mind. In other words, they’re to agree with one another, instead of arguing and fighting with one another.
And they’re to live in peace with each other. And so, when they gather for worship, or when they see one another in the street, they’re not to despise one another, or thump one another, or slander one another, or criticise one another. They’re to greet one another with a holy kiss.
And the letter ends with Paul’s benediction in which he reminds them that as God’s people, they can count on God’s grace and love and presence to be with them always.
And so, if they pay attention to Paul and if they put things in order before he comes and fix what is broken in their lives and their fellowship, then Paul will not have to discipline them when he comes. And instead of tearing them down, he will be able to build them up in the faith, which is what he really wants to do.
From this passage we’re reminded once again of the importance of having true gospel preachers in our churches. We want preachers like Paul, who refuse to be a burden on the people, and who will not take advantage of the people, and who will do everything they can to build up the believers in the faith. That’s what we want for our churches and not preachers who take advantage of a congregation and who are lazy and self-seeking and who tear the people down, instead of building them up.
And we want church leaders who are patient. Paul was giving the Corinthians time to sort things out. Instead of rushing to Corinth to box their ears and to smash a few heads together, he stayed away to give them time to sort things out. I mentioned last week that podcast I’ve been listening to about the church leader in the USA who resigned from a mega-church under a cloud, because he was being accused of bullying and other sins. And the same kind of thing has happened in other mega-churches. And so, it seems that often church members are prepared to put up with abuse, because they think it’s the price you pay to have a dynamic leader. But Paul was patient with the people in Corinth and instead of rushing to Corinth to discipline them, he was gaving them time to repent. Now, if discipline was necessary, Paul was prepared to exercise it. But only if he had to.
And from this passage, we’re reminded of the importance of loving one another and keeping ourselves pure. Paul gives us two lists of sin. One list of sins is to do with relationships and how we treat one another. So, we’re not to quarrel and we’re not to be jealous and we’re not to have outbursts of anger and we’re not to have factions and we’re not to slander one another or gossip about one another or be arrogant towards one another or create disorder and divisions among one another. And the second list of sins is to do with sexuality. We’re to be pure. We’re not to indulge in sexual sin or unfaithfulness. We’re not to indulge in debauchery or promiscuity. In our day, societies and communities are ruined because of all the divisions between different minority groups with their competing agendas and aims and everyone is quick to criticise and complain if you say the wrong thing or belong to the wrong group. And in our day, sexual immorality is rife. But the Lord’s people are to be different. We’re to be different, because we are different. We’re different because the Holy Spirit lives in us and we belong, not to this present evil age, but to the age to come and to heaven where Christ our Saviour rules and reigns. We’re different and therefore we’re to live differently. Instead of conforming to the ways of an unbelieving world, instead of thinking what other people think, instead of having the same attitudes as other people, instead of doing what other people do, we’re to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
And from this passage, let’s remember again the importance of prayer. Paul prayed for the believers in Corinth that they would not do anything wrong and that they would be restored or fixed. That’s how you can pray for yourself. That’s how you can pray for the members of your family. That’s how you can pray for the members of your church. We go out into the world each day. The Devil will come at us with his wicked schemes. An unbelieving world will be putting us under pressure to conform. We have to fight against our own sinful desires. So, let’s pray for one another that we won’t do anything wrong. Let’s pray that, if we go wrong, we’ll be restored. Let’s pray that all of us in Immanuel will one day be presented before Christ as a pure and faithful bride, washed and cleansed by his blood, and devoted to him and to him alone.