Main text: 2 Cor 11:1-15
About a year ago, we finished 1 Corinthians and took a break from our trek through the Bible to study the gospel of Matthew. Now, we are picking up where we left off and starting today, I will preach the next 7 weeks from 2 Corinthians. You may find it odd that the Scripture Reading today was from 2 Cor chapter 11. No, that wasn’t a typo. If we are covering a book like Romans where Paul is carefully writing out a theological treatise, then it makes sense to cover one chapter at a time in order because one point flows into the next because Paul is building his overall argument one piece at a time.
But in a letter like 2 Corinthians, Paul is writing an emotional plea to deal with a wayward church so we have to treat a book like this quite differently. Paul speaks in 2 Cor 6:11 that his heart has been opened wide to the Corinthians. He’s put his heart on the table so to speak and they have trampled it. If you’ve been in a situation where you are emotionally drained and your heart is broken and you confront the person who has broken your heart, words are not going to come out in a nicely organized three point sermon. It’s going to be messy. And that’s what we find in 2 Corinthians. A messy, emotional letter read aloud to the entire congregation in one sitting.
And so that’s what I did this week. I read this letter in its entirety over and over and I tried to take in the whole of the letter–what Paul must have been feeling to be rejected by a church he founded, what was underlying these emotions, what teachings was Paul using to make his final desperate plea for them to repent and turn around. So just like this letter is not carefully organized in terms of a logical chapter by chapter ordering, likewise, I’m going to jump around a bit and touch on what I feel are important themes in this letter.
1 and 2 Timothy and the book of Titus are the 3 epistles considered to be the pastoral epistles because Paul, as the older, wiser pastor wrote to two younger pastors, Timothy and Titus, and gave them pastoral advice. If anyone here thinks he is called by God to be a pastor, I would recommend that you get familiar with those books. In fact, anyone who wants to minister to others, I would recommend you read those books. And I would add 2 Corinthians to that list.
Many theologians consider 2 Corinthians to be THE Pastoral Epistle par excellence. If you want to see what it means to be a pastor, what it means to be a Christian minister, what it means to really love someone, then spend time getting to know 2 Corinthians. Paul sets the bar high for true Christian ministry and Christian love. It’s hard to this kind of pastor, this kind of leader, this kind of Christian. Many of Paul’s epistles are theological, they are conceptual, they are theories. 2 Corinthians is practical, it’s raw, it’s blood, sweat, tears, it’s heart-on-the-table type of emotions.
I believe the key verses for the entire book is 2 Cor 11:1-4.
2 Cor 11
1 I wish you would put up with a little foolishness from me. Yes, do put up with me. 2 For I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy, because I have promised you in marriage to one husband—to present a pure virgin to Christ. 3 But I fear that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your minds may be seduced from a complete and pure devotion to Christ. 4 For if a person comes and preaches another Jesus, whom we did not preach, or you receive a different spirit, which you had not received, or a different gospel, which you had not accepted, you put up with it splendidly!
Paul defines Christian ministry as presenting each of one of his sheep, every person entrusted to him by God, to Christ as a pure virgin. Ministry is marriage. Preparing you and me to be the holy, cleansed, spotless or wrinkle-free, blameless bride of Christ. You and I, right now, are not there yet. We are works in progress. We are like lumps of clay that have yet to be molded into masterpieces. Christian ministry is helping one another get ready to marry Christ in a heavenly wedding banquet. To get people like us who are stubborn and rebellious and worldly, with God’s helps, to be a spotless bride of Christ takes tremendous heart and sacrifice and dedication on the heart of Christian ministers.
You see how hard Christian ministry is when you look at the life of Paul. How would you like to have Paul as your pastor? You would think, everyone in his multiple congregations must have been so pleased to have him as their pastor. Well, you read 2 Corinthians and apparently not. Even the great Apostle Paul had his critics.
In 1 Corinthians, the criticisms came from within. If you recall our study through 1 Corinthians, you will remember that after Paul planted the church and moved on to plant other churches, the Corinthian church members started to move away from the centrality of the gospel–Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection–and they started to be impressed with certain overt, supernatural spiritual gifts. Like speaking in tongues or prophecies or visions. Instead of being in awe of Christ, worshiping Christ, adoring Christ, the Corinthians became man-centered. Apollos, he is well-educated and he is a fantastic orator. He is really eloquent. And Paul, he is not a good speaker. Paul mentions their critique in 2 Corinthians 10:10–
2 Cor 10
10 For it is said, “His letters are weighty and powerful, but his physical presence is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.”
Strong words. Paul, you write well. But when you come in person, Paul, we’re not impressed. This happens in real life. You read someone’s resume and they seem like they have everything. Great experience, great leadership, amazing accomplishments. And then, they come in for the interview and they can barely talk. Paul, stick to writing because your public speaking is despicable. Wow. Instead of Paul, I want to follow Apollos, or I want to follow Cephas, or Peter. Some preferred the ministry of Apollos, others the ministry of Cephas (Peter), both of whom had visited Corinth more recently than Paul. Jewish members would have been attracted to Cephas, a Palestinian Jew who had been a leading disciple among the 12. Educated Greek members, on the other hand, would have been drawn to the gifted orator Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew. Forget Paul, he is just a tentmaker with amateurish speaking abilities.
When Christ is not the center, man will become the center. Depart from the gospel, leave Jesus even for what looks like valid spiritual reasons–pursuing various spiritual, charismatic gifts–and you will lose everything. And you will be left with nothing more than man-centered, man-made religion that cannot save your soul.
While 1 Corinthians was more of an attack on Paul from insiders at Corinth, 2 Corinthians shows that there is a second-pronged attack from outsiders. These false apostles, or “super apostles” as Paul calls them, are critical of Paul because they have their own agenda. They were called Judaizers because they wanted the Christian faith to return to its Jewish roots. That sounds reasonable enough. Christianity does have Jewish roots. The New Testament flows out of the Old Testament. Israel was God’s chosen people. Jesus himself was a Jewish man. So clearly, Christianity has Jewish roots. No one would deny that. I can understand that if you grew up with Jewish traditions and then you were converted by faith in Christ later in life, you might want to preserve some Jewish traditions because it helps you spiritually and to stop these traditions cold turkey would in fact stumble you.
However, when these false apostles began to insist that non-Jews also must follow certain Jewish traditions in order to be fully saved, then they’ve crossed the line. Because if you add anything to the gospel or you take anything away from the gospel, you no longer have the gospel. We are saved purely by grace and not by works. Anyone who repents of their sin and turns to Christ will be saved.
Of course, the false apostles, these Judaizers are craftier. They wouldn’t admit that they are adding to the gospel. Or leading the people astray. They think they are doing the will of God. Their strategy is to first go to those who mostly likely would give them a sympathetic ear. Remember, the Corinthian church already had insiders who were questioning Paul. These false apostles probably went to them first and planted seeds of doubt. They cited reasons like, why doesn’t Paul accept a salary from us? Every pastor is supposed to accept a salary, right? The fact that I get a salary from this church, in some sense, is binding. If I feel like worshiping somewhere else, or preaching at another church, I can’t. I am bound. This is my church. And they probably used this logic to say, see, look at Paul. He is not committed to us. He’s not the pastor of this church. He’s not even on payroll. Why do we have to listen to him?
Plus, I’m sure they cited the fact that Paul wasn’t around much. Paul founded the church around AD 50. Then, he left. 5 years later, while he was in Ephesus, Paul learns of some problems so he writes what is known as a “previous letter.” This letter was never found. Then soon after, probably in the same year, AD 55, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and sent it to Corinth via Timothy. The pastoral letter, 1 Corinthians, was not successful and the situation grew worse. In response, Paul probably made a brief visit. This is often referred to as the “painful visit” which breaks his heart. Again, Paul was rejected by members of the church. The opposition comes to a head with one member in particular defying his authority. The result: the leadership at Corinth took no effective action in Paul’s defense. So Paul left Corinth, deeply humiliated.
The “painful visit” didn’t accomplish its goal, therefore Paul returned to Ephesus and wrote a third letter which Paul refers to in 2 Cor 2:4.
2 Cor 4
4 For I wrote to you with many tears out of an extremely troubled and anguished heart.
This is referred to as the severe letter and it was delivered by Titus. Titus was sent with this letter in hand as an intermediary to reconcile Paul with the Corinthian church. Paul gets word from Titus that this severe letter caused the Corinthians to finally repent. The leader of the rebellion was rejected and disciplined and the church was once again open to Paul’s counsel.
Paul responded to this opening and softening of hearts by writing 2 Corinthians from Philippi around AD 56 or early AD 57. Paul made a final visit to Corinth (Acts 20:1-3) during which time he solidified his relationship with the church and received the mission offering for the Jerusalem church.