Date: 22 Jan 2017
Text: 2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4
Hopefully from the last two sermons we have been able to see that not only did Paul have a close affinity with the believers of Corinth but that it was also a bit of a tempestuous relationship. Following his arrival in Corinth Paul had experienced great difficulties with the Jews in the synagogue and so had moved his base to the house next door which just happened to be occupied by a believer in and follower of Christ. However, during his 18 months in Corinth Paul struggled with winning people over to the gospel and he came up against many arguments and disagreements led in some parts by a host of false teachers. Add to that the difficulties that he faced during other parts of his missionary work and you may see that Paul was perhaps understandably distressed and struggling. After hearing of some criticism from them he wrote a very stern letter of rebuke, a letter that is frequently referred to as the “distressing letter”. His situation wasn’t helped by the equally critical news that he had received from Corinth. This reply seems to have been both strong and critical on a number of points. Most of all the Corinthians accused him of being worldly and fickle simply because he had changed his plans to visit them again.
We all make plans don’t we, plans to go on holiday or to change jobs or move house or on a simpler basis, to visit someone. Such plans are made in good faith and generally for good reasons. However, they can and do change, something which isn’t always a problem although they may temporarily upset those on the “receiving end” of the original plans such as those due to be visited. Paul was human and so was not immune from changing plans, but when he did change his plans he always had good reason. Paul’s plans were always made with God’s will in mind; it may not always appear to be the case, but Paul followed God’s will for his life even if he doubted the wisdom of doing that from time to time.
As we look further into Corinthians we may begin to understand why the Corinthians were upset with Paul and why he was so down over the situation and his relationship with them. They had complained about his authority, integrity and honesty and so he needed to set out to counter those complaints.
Paul had said to them towards the end of 1 Corinthians 16 that he planned to visit them on his way to Macedonia and to stay with them for a while. He told them in 1 Corinthians 16:5-7, “After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you — for I will be going through Macedonia. Perhaps I will stay with you for a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.” Having told them of his plan for that first visit, in 1:16 Paul now reminds them that his original plan was to visit them again on his way back from Macedonia. Paul says in that verse, “I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to let you send me on my way to Judea.” If I have read the verses and the map correctly, it looks as if Paul planned to travel from Ephesus to Corinth and then on to Macedonia. He then planned to make that journey in reverse by travelling from Macedonia to Ephesus via Corinth before travelling on to Judea.
Paul fulfilled that first part of his plan by visiting Corinth and staying for 18 months. However, he changed his mind and decided against making the second visit probably returning directly to Ephesus from Macedonia without calling into Corinth. When they heard of this change of plans, the Corinthians were greatly upset and accused Paul of acting in a worldly manner, being fickle and saying one thing whilst doing another. They were far from happy and obviously felt very let down by this man that many greatly admired.
In these few verses Paul tries to set out his defence against the criticism that was levelled against him. There seems little doubt to me that Paul was greatly distressed by these criticisms and the way that he had been treated in Corinth during his first visit. In fact, in 2:1 he clearly says that he didn’t want to “make another painful visit to you”, implying that he had found his first visit to be very painful indeed. The visit had been made painful by the plethora of false teachers who contradicted everything that Paul said and argued against him at every turn. He had seen the church split in two by arguments and dissension and tried to deal with those issues by writing to them again. Some members of the church had expressed doubts over Paul’s authority and legitimacy as an Apostle added to which some doubted his honesty. When he did write to them in what we can regard as the third letter to the Corinthians, he strongly urged them to resolve their problems and to remove those who were causing the divisions. This was obviously a very strong letter as Paul makes clear in 2:4a, “I wrote to you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears...” Whatever Paul had said in that letter, it upset the Corinthians quite badly which I doubt was Paul’s intention.
In this letter Paul sets out to deal one by one with the issues that the Corinthians had raised. Firstly, he made it very clear that his conscience was clear over the way that he behaved towards them. He believed that he had behaved “with integrity and godly sincerity” (1:12b) and he did that by “relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace” (1:12c). Could we say that of ourselves? Do we always act with honesty and integrity or when dealing with people do we take our Christianity off and leave it in the cupboard? Paul relied heavily on God to guide him and we can do worse than follow Paul’s example. We already know from 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:14 that when he took the message of Christ to the Corinthians he did not rely on worldly wisdom. In one of my favourite verses he actually says in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. The Greeks expected great oratory and wise speeches while Paul preferred to rely on God’s wisdom and preach that simple message that Christ died for them. Such a message certainly doesn’t seem to me to follow the general idea of worldly wisdom!
We then come to what seems to be a strange comment when we read in 1:13, “For we do not write to you anything you cannot read or understand.” Some of the Corinthians had accused Paul of saying one thing and meaning, or even writing, another. He is anxious to refute that suggestion very quickly by making it clear that there were no hidden or coded meanings in what he said or wrote and there was no point in them trying to read between the lines. Paul always said and wrote the plain, simple truth about Jesus; nothing more, nothing less.
Paul’s big hope in all this was that they would come to understand fully what he had been telling them. He believed that when they did that they would be able to boast about him just as he would boast about them and their faith. Paul had already spoken about this in 1 Corinthians 1 when he wrote, “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:28-29). And he went on to quote God’s words from Jeremiah 9:24 when he added, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord." (1 Corinthians 1:31). Notice when Paul wanted this boasting to take place: “in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1:14b). The “day of the Lord” is the day when Jesus will return and it is a phrase that was used by the prophets, particularly in Isaiah 13:6, Joel 1:15 and Amos 5:18. Paul simply added the name of Jesus to that phrase to make it absolutely clear who he was referring to! It was the day when Paul fully expected his actions and words would be shown to have been true. It was also the day when he expected that the genuine faith of the Corinthians would be a matter of great joy for him; and at the same time he hoped that they would boast about having had Paul as their teacher and friend. It was a day that Paul was looking forward to and I hope that it’s a day that we are all looking forward to.
Paul then moves on in 1:18-22 to deal with the complaint that he was fickle and that his yes didn’t always mean yes but could also mean no! Paul’s opponents felt that if they could attack and discredit the messenger then they could also throw doubt on his message. They thought that by attacking Paul’s integrity they could also attack the integrity of his message about Christ. However, instead of defending himself Paul rather pointed them to God and how His word was always yes, and could always be trusted. Every promise that God made He kept and He fulfilled them in Jesus. Regardless of what the Corinthians may have thought of Paul he was anxious to point them to God and remind them that He is faithful and will always be so. In pointing them to God’s faithfulness and the fact that He always kept His promises, Paul was reminding them that whatever their differences Paul and the Corinthians were linked in and through Jesus; He was the One Who bound them together. He also reminded them in 1:21 that “it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ”. Christ is the common bond between all Christians and we all need to remain focussed on Him and Him alone. We should not allow ourselves to be distracted by the messenger but concentrate on the message that Christ died for our sins. To confirm that we are all one in Christ, Paul goes on to remind them, and us, that they had been anointed by God; He had put His seal of ownership on them and given them the Holy Spirit as a down payment until Jesus returned. The thought of anointing comes from the Old Testament where chosen people were anointed and set aside as belonging to God to serve Him. In the New Testament all believers are anointed by God as a way of preparing them and empowering them to serve Him in any way that He calls. Writing in his first Epistle, the Apostle John reminded all of his readers in 1 John 2:20 and 1 John 2:27 that they had been anointed and as a result knew the truth. This anointing is not selective; it applies to all believers. All Christians are given the Holy Spirit as a deposit and the account will be settled in full when Christ returns; the Holy Spirit is not an optional extra Who is available only to a chosen few but is given to all believers. The Holy Spirit was given as a down payment on what was to come. He was intended, and still is intended, to be with us until Jesus returns. Just as an engagement ring is given as a sign of what is to come, so the Holy Spirit is with us as a sign of what is to come when we eventually see Jesus return.
Concern For Others
In the remaining verses of this passage, 1:23 to 2:4, Paul returns to explaining why he changed his mind about visiting the Corinthians a second time. We saw in the first half of 2 Corinthians 1 that Paul was far more concerned for their well-being than his own. Paul’s motive for not visiting was quite simple; he wanted to spare the Corinthians from any further sorrow that a visit could cause. Rather than arriving as a sort of ‘flying spiritual doctor’ he wanted to give them time to sort out their own problems. He wanted them to be full of joy and to stand firm in their faith and undoubtedly felt that a further visit to them would have the opposite effect; hence his decision to avoid making “another painful visit” (2:1a). His first visit had been stormy to say the least since, from the very outset he had had problems with the Jews in the synagogue and after he left there to move to the house of Titius Justus (Acts 18:7) he was confronted by false teachers and others who doubted his credibility as an Apostle. These problems were very upsetting and painful for Paul but probably more upsetting for those genuine believers who were caught in the middle of these arguments. Some may have thought that Paul exploited his position as an Apostle in order to ‘lord’ it over people and that impression was what he was desperate to avoid. Rather, Paul, like any good leader, wanted to work alongside people and not be the ‘almighty leader’ throwing his weight around. We can all learn a lot from Paul by observing his behaviour and his concern for others rather than himself. At the end of the day as far as Paul was concerned the One Who mattered most was Jesus Christ and Paul wanted to serve Him in the right way at all times.
When he wrote the “distressing letter” Paul did not intend to hurt or grieve the Corinthian believers in any way and he made it very clear that he wrote to them “out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2:4a). It was hard for him for say what he did but he obviously felt it was necessary given what had been going on within the Corinthian church. In fact, we read later in this letter in 2 Corinthians 7:8-9, “Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it — I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while — yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us.” By standing back Paul had achieved what he hoped to, repentance by the Corinthian believers. We can all learn from that example; it is sometimes better to stand back rather than going in all guns blazing.
Paul had heard of the difficulties that the Corinthian church was experiencing and so had written to them in what may well have been uncompromising terms. The problems that existed within the church needed to be dealt with, which is what Paul was trying to do. Home truths can often hurt but still need to be said and it may have been that Paul’s comments came across to some as petrol on flames! At some stage he received a response in one form or another to that letter and again that response upset him. In writing this particular letter Paul was trying to deal with the still existing problems and the other issues that had been raised, not least of which was that he couldn’t be trusted. As ever with Paul, he tried to do that gently but firmly by pointing them to Jesus Christ.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to stand firm in their faith and to follow Christ, and that is what we too should be doing. The Corinthians faced internal divisions and interference from false teachers. Such problems still exist today and so we too need to be reminded that as believers in Jesus Christ we have been both anointed by God and sealed with His Holy Spirit to identify us as belonging to Him. When problems arise we can do worse that to look to Christ and remember what He has done for us.