Relationships: The Long Distance Factor

Explore the Bible Series

August 22, 2010

 

Background Passage: II Corinthians 7:5-9:15

Lesson Passage: II Corinthians 8:1-9; 9:1-2, 7-8, 12-15

 

Introduction:

 

This study of I and II Corinthians has re-enforced some important convictions for me, convictions that have reordered my understanding of the Christian faith. Frankly, these principles began to formulate, in my mind and heart, about fifteen years ago, and two events formed the foundation of this shift in my thinking: my doctoral research on the history of American fundamentalism (I did my doctoral dissertation on fundamentalist leader John Franklin Norris) and almost three years of preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, especially the study on the Sermon on the Mount.  These two experiences convinced me that American Christianity has gone terribly wrong, and the problem does not relate to a return to “conservative” theology.  Conservative Southern Baptists promised, in the 1970s and 1980s, that a purgation of “liberal” theologians from our pulpits and seminaries would foster spiritual renewal in our beloved denomination.  The conservatives won the battle, but I wonder if they have lost the war.  The real problems may reside among conservative evangelicals, and the Corinthian epistles, in my mind, corroborate this suspicion.  Paul, in these letters, highlights some very important issues, issues that trouble contemporary evangelical churches.

 

  1. Religious consumerism: Americans love success.  Many want a “one-stop”, “me-centered” religious experience, and pastor-entrepreneurs have capitalized on this insatiable thirst for bigger and better.  They think nothing of driving their congregants to incur staggering debt to construct religious empires that cripple the genuine work of the Lord.  Furthermore, these men pander to the whims and tastes of fickle congregants who flit from church to church seeking a “full-service” church program. Churches spend an enormous amount of money on themselves while the rest of the world suffers without the basic necessities of life. This week’s lesson text reveals Paul’s obsession with collecting funds to for the poverty-stricken saints in Jerusalem, and, in light of his passion for the poor, I wonder what he would think of the consumerism that plagues much of American evangelicalism.  The Corinthians had no buildings or programs to pander to worldly-minded people; yet, even in those circumstances, Paul felt obliged to remind them of their responsibility to alleviate the suffering of fellow Christians and others in need.  This Sunday, thousands of American Christians will enjoy their lattes at the church Starbucks and revel in the extravagant church campuses. They will listen to “sermons” intended to re-enforce middle-class consumerism and make them feel comfortable in their well-manicured suburban neighborhoods, apparently oblivious to the Master’s demand to “sell what you have and give to the poor.” I fail to see how consumerism and genuine Christianity can coexist in the same heart.
  2. Religious celebrity-worship: Many evangelicals gravitate toward popular ministers who create personality cults.  The Corinthian church apparently suffered from this very malady, and Paul waged war against this abuse in both letters to Corinth.  Let’s face it, many want to associate with the hottest minister who answers to no one, has no theological tradition to follow, and obsesses with the next trendy fad to attract and retain a following.  Above all, these men must foster the illusion of certainty. No questions or doubts are allowed.  They must create the fantasy that they have it all together.  They invent the image of a perfect life, and thereby attract great crowds.  It’s all a lie!  I wonder if they believe their own deception.  Frank Schaeffer has it right when he observes that “any person who remains a ‘professional Christian’ in the evangelical/ fundamentalist world for a lifetime, especially as a pastor, risks becoming an atheist and/or a liar”—how different from the disarming honesty of the Apostle Paul.  He revels in his own struggles and weakness, a practice that would not, I think, play well to a modern audience. 

 

Lesson Outline:

 

I.                   Paul’s Appeal (7:2-4)

A.    The statement of his appeal (vv. 1-2a): “Open your hearts to us”, what a heartrending plea.  That Paul, of all people, would need to ask these people to open their hearts to him.  They owed him so much, and they had tested his patience so severely; yet, he humbled himself to ask for an entrance into their hearts!

B.     The ground of Paul’s appeal (vv. 2b-4): The apostle makes his entreaty on this foundation. Taken as a whole, these appeals state, in negative and positive terms, Paul’s attitude toward the Corinthians.  The first three statements address Paul’s behavior, and the next four remarks reveal Paul’s emotional investment in these believers.

1.      “we have wronged no one”

2.      “we have corrupted no one”

3.      “we have taken advantage of no one”

4.      “you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together”

5.      “I have great confidence in you”

6.      “I am filled with comfort”

7.      “I am overjoyed”

 

II.                Paul’s Grievous Letter (7:5-16): Bible scholars are divided about this letter.  Some think, in this case, Paul referred to I Corinthians, the case of the incestuous man, in particular (this seems the most reasonable view, to me). Other respected commentators believe this refers to a “lost letter” that Paul wrote between I and II Corinthians.

A.    Paul’s comfort in the midst of suffering (vv. 5-7): II Corinthians 2:13 implies that Paul had sent Titus to check on the Corinthians, and, after a lengthy separation, the apostle was reunited with his trusted assistant. This reunion encouraged the suffering apostle (Note the candor with which Paul addresses his own weaknesses and fears). 

B.     The effects of the “grievous letter” (vv. 8-12): Paul clearly regretted the necessity of this painful letter, but the Corinthians, with Paul’s help, had apparently addressed the dreadful situation.  If this passage refers to the incestuous man, the church had worked to correct the disgraceful circumstance that forced Paul to write a severe letter, and the apostle rejoiced in the faithful obedience of his friends.

C.     Titus’ favorable report to Paul (vv. 13-16): Paul’s emissary brought a good, refreshing report, a report that encouraged the faithful missionary.

 

 

III.             The Collection for the Suffering Saints in Jerusalem (8:1-9:15): For some time, Paul had labored to relieve the affliction of the Jerusalem church, but it seems that controversies had hindered the Corinthians’ generosity. Now, Paul hoped these divisions had ceased, and he could redirect his energies toward the true work of the Lord.  In this chapter Paul outlines the characteristics of Christian giving.  It goes without saying, I trust, that Paul raised money for a genuine cause, the relief of the poor.  So many fund-raising activities, in modern churches, have little to do with the real work of the Kingdom.  Note these descriptors of Christian giving.

A.    liberality (8:1-2 and 9:6-9): Paul cited the openhandedness of the churches in Macedonia, a poverty stricken region that, nonetheless, responded to Paul’s pleas with great generosity.  They gave, in some cases, beyond their means to alleviate the anguish of the poor.

B.     willingness (8:3 and 9:1-5): The text makes clear that the Macedonians gave as act of their free will, uncoerced by outside influences.  Christian altruism arises from a cheerful and willing heart.  It is not motivated by love.

C.     privilege (8:4): The Macedonian Christians saw their participation in giving these offerings as a great honor (See v. 4). Indeed, they begged for the opportunity to help!

D.    persistence (8:6): The text seems to indicate that the Corinthians, after a good start to their philanthropy, let their zeal flag, in the presence of so much controversy.  The visit of Titus, it seems, rekindled their desire to help.

E.     emulation of the sacrificial love of Christ (8:8-15 and 9:10-15)): Just as Christ left the riches and glory of heaven and assumed the relative poverty of human existence, so Paul encouraged the Corinthians to give sacrificially, from a heart of love, to their suffering brethren.

F.      honorably administered (See 8:16-24): Someone, it seems, had questioned the administration of these funds, and Paul devoted a paragraph to assure his readers of the integrity of Titus.