Relationships: The Faithfulness Factor
Explore the Bible Series
August 8, 2010
Background Passage: II Corinthians 3:1-5:10
Lesson Passage: II Corinthians 3:1-6; 4:1-5, 15-18; 5:9-10
If I understand the chronology of Paul’s interaction with the church at Corinth, the apostle had experienced about six years of grief from these people. I marvel at his patience with them; however, II Corinthians seems to indicate the depth of Paul’s frustration and sorrow. The church had broken Paul’s heart over a number of issues:
1. They questioned his apostleship and authority.
2. They resisted his counsel and wisdom, wisdom born of many years of ministerial experience. The Corinthians, of course, had no pastoral experience, but that did not prevent their arrogant presumption when it came to the apostle’s expertise.
3. They placed Paul at the center of a leadership crisis that focused on various personalities: Peter, Apollos, and Paul. In fact, I Corinthians seems to indicate that many in Corinth rejected Paul’s leadership because he did not possess the personal charisma and impressive oratorical skills that characterized the ministry of Apollos.
4. They tolerated sinful behavior (some form of incest), thus grieving Paul beyond measure.
5. They dishonored the Lord’s Table, thus denigrating the worship of God and memorial to the Lord’s atoning sacrifice for sin.
6. They promoted unrest by pressing civil law suits against fellow believers.
7. They compromised with idol worship, and, in doing so, caused immature believers to stumble.
8. They disrupted the church’s unity through theological disputes about spiritual gifts (speaking in tongues and prophecy), Jesus’ resurrection, and the final resurrection of believers from the dead.
9. They apparently cared little about the physical and emotional sufferings endured by the apostle, therefore adding to his grief.
As I read II Corinthians, it seems that Paul remained open to reconciliation, but it also appears he had reached his limit with these people. How much time and energy did Paul waste on the frivolous problems produced by these folks, time and energy he could have more profitably invested in prayer, study of the Scriptures, and preaching? What a colossal waste! While Paul wanted to preserve his relationship with the Corinthians, the interests of the kingdom (not to mention his own sanity!) demanded that these issues be resolved.
Above all, I observe a heartbroken man in this book. He had grown weary in defending himself and his apostleship, and the constant grind of Corinthian controversy took a physical and spiritual toll on the poor man. Frankly, I wonder if the “thorn in the flesh”, mentioned in Chapter Twelve, may have related to the misery imposed by the selfish, immature people in Corinth.
I. Paul’s Continued Defense of his Ministry (3:1-18)
A. Paul’s sanctified sarcasm (vv. 1-3): Some commentators think the false teachers gained access to the Corinthian church through letters of recommendation from prominent religious leaders. If so, Paul wondered if he too needed letters of recommendation! The very existence of the church in Corinth was all the recommendation Paul needed.
B. Paul’s sufficiency, in Christ, for the work of the ministry (vv. 4-6): Despite the challenges to Paul’s authority, he remained confident that, by the Lord’s grace, he had qualifications to assume the authority of an apostle. Indeed, the power of the Holy Spirit (“the ministry of life”) authenticated Paul’s work (See v. 6).
C. The “ministry of death” and the “ministry of life” (vv. 7-18): In this paragraph the apostle contrasts two ways of ministry, one legitimate (producing life) and the other insufficient (resulting in condemnation and death). Paul noted these characteristics of the insufficient message of the false teachers: (1) it was a message of the “letter”, not of the Spirit, (2) it kills--does not produce life in its hearers, (3) it came with glory, but an inferior glory when compared with the gospel, (4) it came to an end—that is, it culminated and was fulfilled in the gospel of Christ, (5) it veils the heart to the glorious nature of the gospel. In contrast, the gospel comes in the power of the Holy Spirit, it produced marvelous liberty, it enables believers to behold the glory of the Lord, and it transforms the believer into the likeness of Christ.
II. The Nature of Paul’s Ministry (4:1-18): This chapter catalogs, A Paul saw it, the marks of legitimate Christian ministry.
A. “by the mercy of God” (v. 1): As Paul asked elsewhere, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Ministers sin like everyone else, and they suffer from the weaknesses and infirmities common to the human race. None of them could possibly persevere under the weight of pastoral work and their own failings without the sustaining mercies of God. This gives the gospel minister hope in his labors.
B. “we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways” (v. 2): Paul’s enemies used whatever means necessary to undermine the apostle’s authority: lies, rumors, fault-finding, flattery, false teaching. They tailored their message to endear themselves to immature Christians.
C. “for what we proclaimed is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ” (vv. 3-6): The false teachers engineered their message to manipulate people and circumstances, but Paul, so he boldly claimed, preached only the Lord Jesus. The message of the gospel was veiled to unbelievers, those blinded by evil, supernatural powers. Their minds, darkened by unbelief, could not comprehend the light of Christ, and only divine power can penetrate the stygian darkness of the heart.
D. “but we this treasure in jars of clay” (vv. 7-12): Again, Paul acknowledged his own frailty (note the powerful descriptors—“afflicted”, “perplexed”, “persecuted”, “struck down”, “always carrying in the body the death of Christ”), but he saw his weakness as an opportunity to give greater glory to God. As Christ had died for mankind; so Paul bore, in his body, this death for Christ’s sake.
E. “since we have the same spirit of faith’ (vv. 13-15): Paul’s future hope rested in the same Power that raised Jesus from the dead, and apostle had a profound and increasing gratitude from the hope he had in Christ.
F. “so we do not lose heart” (vv. 16-18): If anyone had grounds for hopeless despair, Paul did; nevertheless, his outward circumstances did not diminish his faith, a faith grounded in the unseen, eternal realities of confidence in Christ.
III. The Certainty of Death for God’s Servants (5:1-10)
A. The analogy of the tent (vv. 1-5); Please recall that Paul made his living as a tentmaker, and the temporary, nomadic nature of a tent must have been very evident to this faithful servant of Christ. Tents shelter people, but they cannot provide a permanent home for sojourners. In time, the tent wears out and is destroyed. In Paul’s theology, the earthly body serves as a temporary dwelling place for God’s people, but, eventually, it wears out and dies. God’s people await a permanent, eternal dwelling place designed and erected by the hand of God. For the time being, the Lord’s people dwell in these “tents”—burdened and groaning, but, in God’s time and way, believers will live forever in the eternal home prepared for them by God. Furthermore, the presence of the Holy Spirit acts as a guarantee (down payment) of the future glorious dwelling place of the saints.
B. Paul’s theology of death (vv. 6-10): The believer enjoys a double blessing, in Paul’s theological framework. While alive, in this body, the saint pleases the Lord through faithful, obedient service; and, when the believer dies, he goes home to the house of the Father. Whether in the body or at home in heaven, the saints glorify the Lord. Moreover, the day of judgment holds no fear for the faithful person; rather, he anticipates the approbation of his Master.