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Paul’s Closing Argument, Appeal, and Blessing (2 Cor. 12:11-13:14)

11 I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles. 13 For in what respect were you treated as inferior to the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not become a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!

14 Here for this third time I am ready to come to you, and I will not be a burden to you; for I do not seek what is yours, but you; for children are not responsible to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 And I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls. If I love you the more, am I to be loved the less? 16 But be that as it may, I did not burden you myself; nevertheless, crafty fellow that I am, I took you in by deceit. 17 Certainly I have not taken advantage of you through any of those whom I have sent to you, have I? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Titus did not take any advantage of you, did he? Did we not conduct ourselves in the same spirit and walk in the same steps?

19 All this time you have been thinking that we are defending ourselves to you. Actually, it is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ; and all for your upbuilding, beloved. 20 For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there may be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances; 21 I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced.

13:1 This is the third time I am coming to you. EVERY FACT IS TO BE CONFIRMED BY THE TESTIMONY OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES. 2 I have previously said when present the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again, I will not spare anyone, 3 since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you. 4 For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we shall live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.

5 Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? 6 But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test. 7 Now we pray to God that you do no wrong; not that we ourselves may appear approved, but that you may do what is right, even though we should appear unapproved. 8 For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth. 9 For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete. 10 For this reason I am writing these things while absent, in order that when present I may not use severity, in accordance with the authority which the Lord gave me, for building up and not for tearing down.

11 Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All the saints greet you. 14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

Introduction

All avid “Perry Mason” fans know how things work in the courtroom, or so we think. Just before the jury goes out to deliberate a case, the defense attorney and prosecutor have an opportunity to make their closing arguments. At that time, each tries to press home the viewpoint for which they laid the groundwork throughout the trial. In one sense, this is precisely what Paul does in our text. Beginning with 1 Corinthians and concluding with 2 Corinthians, Paul deals with certain problems in the Corinthian church. Strife and division are in the church; some are living in sexual immorality, and others are taking their fellow-believers to court. Some are failing to relate their new faith to their marriage, while still others are participating in pagan idol-worship feasts, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper leaves much to be desired. Spiritual gifts are either neglected or abused. The roles of men and women in worship are confused. Intruders have arisen in the church; they are really “false apostles” who wish to be regarded as having apostolic status, but their gospel is not the true gospel. Paul’s apostleship is being challenged, and thus his message and ministry.

All along, Paul addresses these problems. At 2 Corinthians 10, Paul feels compelled to answer the accusations of his adversaries by “boasting.” Now, in our text, Paul gives his closing argument, and it is much shorter than we would expect. After what appears to be his defense, Paul takes the offensive, pointing out that he is not really trying to defend himself. He also points out the sins which must be corrected before he can come joyfully to Corinth. In these closing verses of 2 Corinthians, his adversaries are the ones sitting in the “hot seat” rather than Paul. His words are meant for us today as well as for the ancient Corinthians.

Paul’s Closing Argument
(12:11-18)

11 I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles. 13 For in what respect were you treated as inferior to the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not become a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!

14 Here for this third time I am ready to come to you, and I will not be a burden to you; for I do not seek what is yours, but you; for children are not responsible to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 And I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls. If I love you the more, am I to be loved the less? 16 But be that as it may, I did not burden you myself; nevertheless, crafty fellow that I am, I took you in by deceit. 17 Certainly I have not taken advantage of you through any of those whom I have sent to you, have I? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Titus did not take any advantage of you, did he? Did we not conduct ourselves in the same spirit and walk in the same steps?

From the very outset of 1 Corinthians, it is apparent that the Corinthians look up to certain leaders in the church, while looking down upon Paul and his apostolic colleagues. Paul’s message (“Christ crucified”—1:23) and his methods (2:1) do not appeal to the worldly wise. The suffering and adversity of the apostles do not conform to the triumphalistic outlook of many Corinthians either (see 1 Corinthians 4:6-13). The “intruders,” who seek to establish their own authority as apostles (when in fact they are false apostles—see 2 Corinthians 11:12-15), do so by challenging the authority of Paul and his authentic apostolic colleagues. Virtually forced to do so, Paul reluctantly compares himself with these false apostles by “boasting” over certain aspects of his identity and his ministry. He boasts in the privilege God has given him to be an apostle to the Corinthians (10:8, 13, 16). He boasts that he has not been a burden to the Corinthians (11:7-12), that he is as Jewish as his opponents (11:16-22), and he boasts in his sufferings as Christ’s servant (11:23-29). He boasts in his visions and revelations (12:1-6) and finally, in his weaknesses (11:30-33; 12:7-10). In verse 11, Paul once again begins by referring to his boasting, reminding them that they forced him to boast by challenging the legitimacy of his apostleship and ministry.

These Corinthians virtually ask Paul for his resume when they should be his letter of reference. In Paul’s words, instead of being challenged, he “should have been commended” by them (verse 11). Paul boldly claims his ministry is not one bit inferior to the highly renowned apostles in any area. While making this claim of complete equality with the most esteemed apostles, he quickly indicates he is all too aware that in and of himself, he is still a nobody. His standing as an apostle is not a matter of merit, but of divine grace.

Verse 12 gives specific evidences of his apostleship. God performed signs, wonders, and miracles through Paul while he ministered among the Corinthians. Paul claims that these are “the signs of a true apostle.” In the Old Testament, God’s prophets are set apart by being able to perform certain accrediting miracles. If the things these prophets promise to do are not accomplished, it is sure proof that they are false prophets (see Deuteronomy 18:21-22). There were accrediting miracles as well in the ministry of our Lord and His chosen apostles:

1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:1-4).

Paul reminds his Corinthian readers that they are witnesses of these accrediting miracles, and that these are no less impressive or convincing than those performed by the most highly regarded of the apostles. Paul writes that these “signs of a true apostle” were performed among the Corinthianswith all perseverance. What does this mean? How are the “signs of a true apostle” performed with “all perseverance”? I believe Paul’s words to the Thessalonians give us the explanation:

5 For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia (1 Thessalonians 1:5-7).

1 For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but after we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition. 3 For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts. 5 For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness— 6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. 7 But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 8 Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us. 9 For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; 11 just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, 12 so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. 13 And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe. 14 For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, 15 who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, 16 hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost (1 Thessalonians 2:1-16).

3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; 4 therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).

7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we might not be a burden to any of you; 9 not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, that you might follow our example (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).

If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that his perseverance is endurance in the face of hardship, hard work, and intense opposition. When Paul went to Thessalonica, he did not accept funds from the Thessalonians. Instead, he labored with his own hands, meeting his own needs and those of others. This was not easy, for it required him to work night and day as he labored to support himself and preach the gospel. Paul persevered in all this, even though it was not easy. Not only did he endure hardship and hard work, Paul also persevered in the face of intense opposition to his preaching.

Paul is not like the religious hucksters of his day or of ours. He will not go about “missionarying,” as Mark Twain described this type of religious swindling. Paul does not set up a large tent, promising dazzling miracles, then perform magic tricks to the wonder of his audience—followed by a collection. Paul performs the “signs of a true apostle” before an audience which includes many skeptics and hecklers. He does not have a controlled setting, where tricks can be played on a gullible audience. Paul’s signs are performed in the most difficult setting with the most skeptical observers watching, looking for any hint of falsehood or deception. In this most difficult setting, Paul is shown to be a “true apostle.” I believe the same words can be said of Paul’s ministry in Corinth, and that this is what Paul means when he writes of performing “the signs of a true apostle” with all perseverance.

But Paul’s apostleship is not challenged simply for having failed to perform the “signs of a true apostle.” There is yet another totally illogical reason, as he now shows: Paul refuses to accept pay from the Corinthians for his ministry among them. The Corinthians reason something like this:

    1. Virtually all of the other apostles are supported by those to whom they minister (see 1 Corinthians 9:1-14).

    2. Paul will not be supported in the manner the other apostles are.

    3. Therefore, Paul must not be a genuine apostle.

If careful thought is not given here, this kind of logic does have a certain ring of truth. But it is a fallacious argument. Being an apostle (or one who ministers the gospel) does give one the right to be supported (1 Corinthians 9:3-5). But having the right to be supported does not prove one is an apostle, since all who proclaim the gospel have the right to such support (1 Corinthians 9:14). Furthermore, many religious hucksters are supported who are not even Christians, much less apostles. The choice not to exercise the apostolic right to support does not discredit one’s status as an apostle. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 9 that foregoing this right of support is the basis for greater reward (9:16-18). Thus, declining support does not make Paul less of an apostle, but more a volunteer who can thus expect a reward for his voluntary sacrifice.

In verse 13 then, Paul brings the matter of his declining the Corinthians’ support to the surface. Does he treat the Corinthians as inferior to the other churches (who support the apostles who minister to them) by not taking money from them? Is Paul doing them a disservice by not becoming a burden to them? If this is his great offense against the Corinthians, then Paul asks their forgiveness, with a strong note of sarcasm.

At verse 14, Paul takes up the recurring theme of his third visit (see also 1:15ff.; 13:1). Do some look down upon him because he refuses to be supported in his ministry? Then let them know that when he comes for the third time, he will not change his practice. Let them prepare themselves for more of the same. There is good reason for this, in addition to enhancing Paul’s reward (see 1 Corinthians 9:16-18). As earlier, Paul speaks of himself as the Corinthians’ spiritual father (1 Corinthians 4:14ff.). Children, Paul writes, are not expected to save up for their parents, but parents should save up for their children. Parents gladly make sacrifices for their children. Parents gladly support their children. Paul, as their spiritual father, gladly “pays the bill” for his own ministry to them. Paul gladly spends himself for the good of his “children” at Corinth as he ministers to their souls. This is not a good reason to criticize Paul’s ministry, but rather a very good reason to commend it. If Paul loves them more than one expects, is this good reason for the Corinthians to love him less than he expects? Once again, Paul is criticized for the very thing for which he should be commended by the Corinthians who know the truth of this matter better than any.

In verses 16-18, Paul extends his refusal to be a burden to the Corinthians to include those with whom he ministers, those whom he sent to Corinth in his place, such as Titus. Paul’s opponents, the intruders, paint him as a “crafty fellow,” a con artist who fleeces the flock as a huckster. In verse 16, Paul presses the Corinthians to acknowledge the foolishness of such charges by asking how a con artist ends up giving what he has to others rather than taking from others. His only offense is in giving his life sacrificially for the spiritual benefit of his children. This is no con artist!

Those whom Paul sends to Corinth are the same caliber of men. In verse 17, Paul asks the Corinthians whether he has taken advantage of them through any of the men he sent to them. For example, did Titus take advantage of the Corinthians when he visited on Paul’s behalf? Paul and those with whom he serves are all servants of God who sacrifice themselves for the good of the Corinthians. How can this possibly be used as evidence that Paul is not a genuine apostle? Their accusations are not only false, they are insipid.

Paul Needs No Defense; The Corinthians Do
(12:19–13:4)

19 All this time you have been thinking that we are defending ourselves to you. Actually, it is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ; and all for your upbuilding, beloved. 20 For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there may be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances; 21 I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced.

13:1 This is the third time I am coming to you. EVERY FACT IS TO BE CONFIRMED BY THE TESTIMONY OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES. 2 I have previously said when present the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again, I will not spare anyone, 3 since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you. 4 For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we shall live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.

Here Paul really turns the tables on the Corinthians. They believe his efforts are all aimed at his own defense. Paul is not a man-pleaser (see Galatians 1:10). He and his associates are concerned with God’s approval, and thus they conduct their ministry “in the sight of God,” “speaking in Christ” (verse 19). The goal of their ministry (unlike their adversaries in Corinth) is not to build themselves up and feather their own financial nest (see earlier), but to build up the Corinthians. Paul speaks only on his own behalf as an apostle, because rejecting his apostleship will be devastating to their spiritual lives.

Here Paul changes from a defensive posture (which is really for the Corinthians’ sake) to an offensive posture. Paul is not on trial; the Corinthians are the ones on trial. Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ, and as such, he sets down truths the Corinthians should accept and abide by. Those who are doing wrong are not Paul and his associates, but a number of the Corinthians who use their opposition to Paul’s apostleship as a smoke screen to cover their own sins. Paul now brushes the smoke screen aside and presses his own attack. It is the Corinthians who must prove themselves, not Paul.

Paul does not fear that the Corinthians will fail to approve of him, but that they will not respond adequately to his rebuke and thus be found continuing in sin (verse 20). Paul fears that when he does arrive at Corinth—for the third time—he will find them other than he wishes. Consequently, if Paul is not happy with what he sees when he arrives, they will not be happy to see him. Paul knows the kinds of things he is likely to find of which he will not approve: “strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, and disturbances.”85 In addition to these, Paul has every reason to expect that he will find “impurity, immorality, and sensuality.” He has good reason to expect these things, for they are the very things he found it necessary to rebuke in his first epistle, specifically or more generally. These are the sins he exposed and rebuked in the past, and he fears some may not have repented of them. Even more distressing, these are also manifestations of the flesh as opposed to the fruit of the spirit:

19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

If this is the case, they will find Paul a man in mourning (verse 21), deeply grieved over the sin in their midst. They will find more than this, however, for they will find Paul a powerful accuser. In verse 1 of chapter 13, Paul once again speaks of coming to Corinth for the third time, but this time with a different twist:

1 This is the third time I am coming to you. EVERY FACT IS TO BE CONFIRMED BY THE TESTIMONY OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES.

It is very apparent that Paul links the text he cites from Deuteronomy 19:15 with his third coming to Corinth, but many students find this link difficult to explain. I think the link is really more simple that it seems. In Deuteronomy 19:15, we read these words:

15 “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.”

For obvious reasons, the Law forbade convicting anyone on the basis of only one person’s testimony. The Law required two or three witnesses for another to be found guilty. How does the need for two or three witnesses relate to Paul’s three visits? Quite simply, as seen in our Lord’s words in the Gospel of Matthew:

15 “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED” (Matthew 18:15-16).

The brother who sins is first confronted by the one who has learned of his sin. He is the first witness, and he rebukes the wayward brother. If the wayward one repents, the matter is settled. If not, the first witness—the accuser—takes one or two more with him. They do not go on their own, but with the accuser. On each of Paul’s visits, it is safe to assume that he was not alone. We know that Priscilla and Aquila were with him in Corinth on his first visit (Acts 18:1-4). We are not sure who accompanied him on his second, “sorrowful,” visit, but we know that Paul hardly ever traveled alone. On his third visit, we know that there will be a number of men there, because Paul has already mentioned them (2 Corinthians 8:16-24). When Paul arrives in Corinth for the third time, he will be joined by those whom he has sent ahead, not to mention any who travel there with him.

Paul sees his three visits to Corinth as the fulfilling of the requirement of Deuteronomy 19:15. Paul is the Corinthians’ accuser. He will have made three visits, each time accompanied by at least one witness. So by the time he has come the third time, he will have fulfilled the Law’s requirement, and rightly the accused parties will be found guilty. This means that when Paul comes on this third visit, things can and will happen that could not and did not happen on the first or second visits. Do some charge that Paul is impressive in his letters but unimpressive in his personal visits (see 2 Corinthians 10:10)? This perception is partly true, because these are only his first and second visits. The third time, however, “will be a charm.” The third time will be different from the first two visits. The witnesses will have verified Paul’s accusations, and the time to punish will have come. And so Paul warns those who take his threats with a grain of salt, “If I come again, I will not spare anyone” (verse 2).

Do some want to see proof of Paul’s apostleship, just as the Jewish religious leaders challenged our Lord to prove that He was the Messiah? They will get it! Our Lord’s first coming was in weakness. His resurrection was in power. His second coming will be vastly different from the first. And so it will be with Paul’s third visit to Corinth. If they wish to see power and strength, they will! The Corinthians must not be deceived by Paul’s reticence to take strong action in his previous visits. They should expect his next visit to be very different, if necessitated by their persistent sin.

Paul’s Final Challenge and Closing
(13:5-14)

5 Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? 6 But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.

7 Now we pray to God that you do no wrong; not that we ourselves may appear approved, but that you may do what is right, even though we should appear unapproved. 8 For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth. 9 For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete. 10 For this reason I am writing these things while absent, in order that when present I may not use severity, in accordance with the authority which the Lord gave me, for building up and not for tearing down.

11 Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All the saints greet you. 14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

Paul closes his second epistle with several challenges. The first challenge is that Paul’s readers test themselves to see whether they are in the faith (verse 5). It is obvious that Paul challenges the Corinthians to test themselves to learn whether they are truly saved. Several conclusions can be drawn from this challenge.

It is good for this question to be raised and for every church member to seriously consider it. Some would discourage anyone questioning the reality of their faith, as though this might raise unhealthy doubts. Paul does not hesitate to challenge the Corinthians to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith. Those who are saved will not be harmed by the process, and they may find the exercise very helpful. Those who are lost will certainly not be led astray by encouraging them to assess their true spiritual state. As I read my Bible, in heaven there will be no surprised saints, saved but not knowing they were. But there will be many who thought themselves saved who are shocked to find themselves in hell (see Matthew 7:21-23; Luke 16:19-31).

It is assumed that some members who profess to be born again believers are not. It is apparent that some in the Corinthian church are actually regarded as having apostolic authority, and yet Paul’s words describe them in such a way that we must wonder if they are even saved (2 Corinthians 11:12-15). Elsewhere, the apostles make it even clearer that there are those in the church who profess salvation but do not possess it (see 2 Timothy 3:1-9; James 1:19–2:26; 2 Peter 2; 1 John 2:18-19; 2 John 6-11; Jude 17-19). As far as outward appearances are concerned, the difference between a disobedient Christian and a professing unbeliever may be very slight.

It is possible to test ourselves regarding our salvation and know whether we are saved. Paul’s challenge that the Corinthians test themselves to see whether they are in the faith implies it is possible for one to know if they are saved. Why would Paul urge the Corinthians to take a test which is inconclusive? It is assumed one can know for certain that they are saved, and that questioning one’s salvation leads to a sense of assurance about salvation.86 John writes to saints so that they might know they are saved (see 1 John 5:13f.).

There are both Arminians and Calvinists who are not convinced that they can know, with assurance, that they are saved. Arminians believe they can lose their salvation by sinning, and thus if they were to die with unconfessed sin, they fear they will perish eternally. Calvinists rightly (in my reading of the Bible) believe that their salvation is the result of God’s prior election (choosing them for salvation). But some Calvinists fear that they can never know if they are one of the elect, and so they go through life agonizing over their lack of assurance. Paul says we can test ourselves, and the inference is that we can know.

Paul’s words also suggest that those who are unsaved, but sincerely desire to know their spiritual state, can know they are lost and thus come to saving faith. When Paul challenges the Corinthians to “take the test,” he is indicating that one can determine if they are lost just as surely as they can determine if they are saved. Now those who are lost, whose minds have been blinded by the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), will not think it necessary or proper to take the test. But those who sincerely wish to know the truth about their eternal state can know. Our Lord Himself said that the Holy Spirit would “convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8-11). I wonder if any Corinthians accepted Paul’s challenge and “took the test” only to learn they were lost, and then came to a true and saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul does not specify what the “test” is to know whether you are saved. I have a confession. In preparing to preach this message, I prepared a list of questions to serve as the “test.” I was then forced to make a disturbing observation. Paul himself did not supply us with the “test” but only a challenge to take the test. I think there is good reason for this. One who is willing to accept Paul’s challenge and “take the test” is reminded of what constitutes being “in the faith” or “out of the faith.” Paul speaks of those who are “in the faith” as those of whom he can say, “Christ is in you” (verse 5). The problem at Corinth is that some find the gospel Paul preaches (“Christ crucified”—1 Corinthians 1:23) too simplistic and not very appealing. Some came with a new gospel, and at least some Corinthians did not even recognize the switch that had occurred (2 Corinthians 11:3-4). When the “gospel” becomes “Christ or …” or “Christ and ….,” it is not the gospel Paul preaches, but a “gospel” which keeps us from ever knowing for certain that we are “in the faith.”

This is because the new “gospel” requires something of us.

The old gospel Paul preaches is Christ only. Apart from Christ, we are sinners, deserving of God’s eternal wrath (hell). In Christ, we are dead to sin and its penalty, alive to righteousness, awaiting our eternal hope of heaven. When you test yourself, does your salvation depend upon you, upon your status, your performance, your works, or upon Christ? If you recognize that apart from Christ, you are “dead in your trespasses and sins,” and that you are saved by faith—not by your good works—and that you are now “in Christ” (see Ephesians 2:1-10), then you know you are saved. Nothing can change this, for your salvation depends only on Christ and what He has already accomplished on the cross of Calvary and in His resurrection from the dead.

If the Corinthians do “examine [themselves] to see if [they] are in the faith,” and find assurance of their own salvation, they can hardly question the salvation of Paul who first brought the gospel to them, through whose ministry they were saved. This is the reason Paul says in verse 6 that he trusts they will realize that he and his colleagues in ministry have not failed the test either.

In the midst of Paul’s final exhortations and instructions, verses 7 through 10 are found, almost parenthetically. In these verses, Paul speaks of himself and his attitude and actions toward the Corinthians. He tells his readers in closing that he is praying for them. He is praying they will do no wrong. This is not so that he and his colleagues will look good; it is in the best interests of the Corinthians as they do what is right.87 Paul’s words in verse 8 seem puzzling: “For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth.” It seems as though he is saying. “I, as an apostle, proclaim the truth and contend for the truth. I am an advocate for the truth. I cannot work against the truth. Thus I further the truth, not only by proclaiming it, but by praying for its outworking in your lives.” In addition to praying that the Corinthians cease in their sin, he prays that they will grow in their Christian faith and walk and “be made complete” (verse 9).

Along with his prayers, Paul writes these epistles to the Corinthians while absent from them. His absence, like his prayers and epistles, is intended for the good, the building up, of this church which he loves (“beloved,” 12:19). He does not wish to deal severely with them, even though he has the authority to do so. To forestall a severe coming, Paul purposely stays away for a time, writing to them and praying for them in the hope that they will repent of their sin, cease from doing wrong, and be made complete in their faith.

Now having once more assured the Corinthians of his benevolence and genuine love, Paul returns to his final exhortations:

11 Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. 12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.

Notice several things about these instructions:

These are all commands, not mere suggestions, or even exhortations. These verbs are imperatives.

All of these commands are applicable in the context of suffering and adversity. Paul addresses the problem of triumphalism—the belief and expectation that Christians should here and now experience all the blessings God has stored up for us in heaven. Every one of Paul’s commands has a very direct relationship to the life of self-sacrifice and suffering to which every Christian is called.

Paul prays for the Corinthians about those things which he commands. Does Paul command the Corinthians to “be made complete” (verse 11)? He also prays for this (verse 9). Paul knows that apart from the enabling of the Holy Spirit, these imperatives are impossibilities, and thus he prays that God will enable that which He requires.

Some of these commands are passive (“be comforted,” “be made complete”), indicating that we are required to cooperate with God so that He may bring about His work in us. We often struggle with “God’s part” and “our part.” Paul’s commands, expressed in the passive voice, indicate that we are to have a part in that which God does in us. God does not depend upon us; we depend upon God. But God does expect us to obey by cooperating with Him in the work He is doing in and through us. Are we troubled and afflicted? God comforts us. But we must accept and embrace that comfort which He promises and provides. It is God who will complete what He has begun in us (see Philippians 1:6), and yet we are to “be made complete.”

The commands Paul gives here are solutions to the problems he exposed earlier. There are factions and divisions in the Corinthian church. Some of the saints are suffering for their faith. There are doctrinal deviations from the truth. If these commands Paul sets down are obeyed, these problems will be resolved.

Finally, these commands are linked to a promise for those who obey them. Paul ends his instructions with the words, “… and the God of love and peace shall be with you” (verse 11). The presence of God is promised to those who trust and obey Him in the midst of their trials and tribulations.

Paul urges the Corinthians to greet one another with a holy kiss. This does not allow for divisions and factions or dissension. The Corinthians are not told to “greet one another with a Hollywood kiss, but with a holy kiss.” They are to openly demonstrate to one another their love, affection, and unity in Christ. Paul then greets the Corinthians on behalf of all the churches, further reminding them that they are a part of a much bigger “body” than their actions and attitudes might sometimes indicate. Paul then closes with a blessing, which reminds the Corinthians of their union with the Holy Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and the blessings which flow from that union—grace, love, fellowship.

Conclusion

As we conclude not only this message but this series, three things come to mind by way of application. First, here is a great lesson for those who are parents. Several times Paul speaks of himself as the Corinthians’ spiritual father. As such, he is a model parent, one from whom we can learn important lessons in parenting. As a loving parent, Paul knows when to “let go” of his “children,” when to leave them the freedom to deal with life on their own. This is why Paul does not rush in to correct the Corinthian problems with his presence. He communicates with his “children” without specifically naming the culprits and without listing every sin. He uses himself and others as the leaders of the factions, speaking metaphorically (1 Corinthians 4:6), so that they can develop their own discernment in identifying the real false apostles. He mentions only sample sins, so that they can discern the rest. Paul teaches, he warns, he encourages, and he prays. In the end, if they fail to act as they should, Paul can and will get tough, but he is certain of the charges he has made, and he gives them ample opportunity to first deal with their own problems themselves. Paul is not concerned about his reputation as a parent, but with the conduct of his children. He does not ask his children to “make him look good,” or try to make them feel guilty by reminding them of how badly their conduct reflects on him. His concern is their relationship with his Father. All of these things have something to say to us as parents. Let us ponder Paul, the parent.

Second, Paul is still under attack today for the very same reasons. Why is Paul looked down upon and criticized by the “false apostles” and others in Corinth? Why is Paul accused of wrong doing and even of being unspiritual? It is because people in Paul’s day did not like what Paul taught. They did not like his version of the gospel, so they made up their own “new” gospel and criticized Paul and his gospel. They did not like what Paul taught about godly living, especially about persecution, and so they began to teach and market triumphalism. The very same thing is going on today, not just in apostate churches, but in professed orthodox, evangelical churches. Do people not want to hear what Paul has to say about spiritual gifts (positively or negatively)? Then Paul will be attacked or at least ignored. Do we not wish to hear what Paul has to say about the meeting of the church, the Lord’s Supper, the exercise of spiritual gifts, or the role of women in ministry? Then, once again, Paul will be accused and attacked, at least on these points. Now, as then, we would rather put Paul to the test than put ourselves to the test, subject to the truths he sets down in his epistles as an apostle of Jesus Christ.

Finally, we too find ourselves awaiting a return visit, and we should be making preparations. The Corinthians await Paul’s third visit to them and are very critical of his not having yet arrived. There is the feeling that Paul will not be nearly as harsh with them in his physical presence as he is in his letters, and so his letters are somewhat disdained. Paul assures his readers that his third coming will be one they will not forget. It can be a very happy reunion, or it can be an ugly confrontation due to their unrepented sins.

We do not await a physical visit from the apostle Paul, but we do await the second coming of our Lord. Some have become lax about His coming, assuming either He is not coming or that it will not be all that bad when He comes. He is coming again, and His delay, like Paul’s, is out of graciousness (see 2 Peter 2:1-13). Our Lord gave us His written revelation, the Bible. Our Lord currently intercedes for us with the Father. And He is waiting for us to prepare ourselves for His return. We will all do well to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith, for His coming is a day of judgment for the unbelieving. And we who believe will do well to deal with our sins and be made complete, so that we may be found doing those things which He commands. Let us eagerly wait and work toward this coming, so that it may be a joyful reunion. Even so, come Lord Jesus!


85 As I have reflected on Paul’s words here, it is possible he is saying that his third visit will result in these kinds of phenomenon if the Corinthians have not corrected the problems he has pointed out. His coming will stir up a hornet’s nest.

86 I am not saying here that Christians will never again have doubts and that their level of assurance will be constant. Neither am I saying that there will not be those who are very much assured as to their salvation, while very much lost. In the final analysis, my assurance of salvation is not what saves me, nor my doubts what condemn me.

87 This same selfless spirit of Paul’s can be seen in Philippians 4:10-19, where Paul rejoices over the contribution the Philippians sent him. He does not rejoice over their gift for what it will do for him, but rejoices rather for what it will do for them (verse 17).