Why Paul’s Absence Should Make the Corinthians’ Hearts Grow Fonder (2 Cor. 1:12-2:11)
As a former school teacher and now a teacher of the Bible, I hear lots of lame excuses. A couple of years ago, I asked the congregation to share the weakest excuse they had ever heard. One father shared an incident with us about his son, who had a physical problem which required a very strict diet. We all know how difficult it is to regulate the diet of a growing teenager. Bob, the father, made a rule that the boy was never to get into the refrigerator. One night, Bob came downstairs to find the refrigerator door open and his son standing before it with his hand reaching inside. “Son, what are you doing?” Bob asked. What else would a boy be doing in the refrigerator late at night besides getting a little contraband to eat? Fully rising to the occasion, with hardly any hesitation, his son responded, “Oh, I was just cooling my hand.”
Though not compelling, the son’s excuse was at least creative and amusing. Our text, in effect, is Paul’s written excuse for being absent from Corinth. If the Corinthians follow Paul’s line of thought and respond as they should, their hearts will be drawn ever more closely to Paul. However, this text is not written just to those in Corinth but to all those in Achaia and most certainly to all saints today. Our careful attention to this text should help us learn from one of the greatest hearts and minds this world has ever known and cause us to ask God to give us this same heart for others, for truly it is reflective of the heart and mind of our Lord.
Paul’s Confidence and Pride
Our dealings with you have always been straightforward.
Now it is a matter of pride to us—endorsed by our conscience—that our activities in this world, particularly our dealings with you, have been absolutely aboveboard and sincere before God. They have not been marked by any worldly wisdom, but by the grace of God. Our letters to you have no double meaning—they mean just what you understand them to mean when you read them. I hope you will always understand these letters, as I believe some of you have understood me, and realize that you can be as honestly proud of us as we shall be of you on the day of the Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:12-14, Phillips).
We know Paul writes these words at a time of great relief, encouragement, and joy at the report he has just received from Titus, who has come to Paul from Corinth (2:12-13; 7:5-7). Nevertheless, this moment of great joy is preceded by great affliction and personal agony. Paul has suffered from false accusations, character assassination, persecution, physical afflictions, and even satanic attacks. The days immediately preceding the sending of this Epistle to the Corinthians are some of the darkest Paul has ever known:
5 For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within. 6 But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus; 7 and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more (2 Corinthians 7:5-7).
In times of adversity, we begin to second guess ourselves, and our thoughts are often punctuated with, “if I had only …” But Paul speaks of his “proud confidence”10in verse 2, and then indicates the basis for such confidence. The first is the testimony of his (literally, our11) conscience, regarding his personal conduct in the unbelieving world in general and among the Corinthians in particular. Paul marches to the beat of a very different drum. He does not conduct himself in accordance with “fleshly wisdom,” but by the grace of God.
Consider this for a moment. Paul boasts in what causes some Corinthians to be ashamed, completely rejecting their “operating system” (forgive my “computerese”) in which some Corinthians take pride (see
1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 2:1-16; 4:9-10; 2 Corinthians 11). Paul boasts in conduct inspired by grace (the grace Paul receives from God in Christ), empowered by grace (through the Holy Spirit), and which is a manifestation of God’s grace. Fleshly wisdom knows nothing of grace. Fleshly wisdom depends upon the reasoning of the flesh and the power of the flesh, along with fleshly motivation.
In particular, the grace of God manifests itself in Paul’s conduct as evidenced by his holiness and godly sincerity. Godly conduct does not naturally flow from the flesh; it is supernaturally produced through divine grace. The New King James Version uses the two terms simplicity and godly sincerity. Both terms highlight a singleness of purpose and motivation—a godly focus. This godly single-mindedness is seen in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. His letters are written in a simple, straightforward way. He has no hidden agenda, no hidden meanings. He writes what he means, and he means what he writes.12
False teachers, especially those who pride themselves for their fleshly wisdom, always have a camouflaged message. They never really mean what they say. They speak of the deity of Christ, but it is not a fully divine Christ of which they speak. It may well be a Christ who is as god-like as we can become. They speak of resurrection, but not a physical, bodily resurrection from the dead. They speak of angels and salvation and eternal life, but they mean something far different from what the Bible teaches. They not only deceive with their own words, they also twist the very words of Scripture (see 2 Peter 3:16). Paul’s letters are meant to be taken at face value. Paul obviously lays a foundation here for arguments yet to be given. Some seem to accuse Paul of saying one thing and meaning another, in particular as it pertains to his coming to Corinth.
Paul’s boasting has a present dimension, which is the result of his clear conscience regarding his conduct in the world and among the saints. But he also speaks of a boasting that is future. Paul speaks clearly and simply, and many of the Corinthians understand him. He hopes they continue to understand in this way until the end (verse 13). If they do, they will understand that in the “day of our Lord Jesus,” the day of judgment when He returns to establish His kingdom, Paul’s boasting will be in them, just as their boasting will be in him.
This sends a strong message to those who are ashamed of Paul and those with him, those who take pride in leaders who operate only in accordance with fleshly wisdom. Do some pride themselves (boast) because of such leaders? They will not boast in the “day of the Lord!” Do some proudly identify with Paul and the gospel he preaches? They will most certainly boast in him in the “day of the Lord.” And he will boast in them. Here, as elsewhere, Paul’s reward is people, those whose spiritual life and growth he has had a hand in bringing to pass.
When we “lay up treasure in heaven,” we lay up that treasure in the form of people, people to whom we have ministered the grace of God.
9 “And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9).
19 For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? 20 For you are our glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
Before moving on to the next paragraph in our text, we shall pursue some of the implications of verses 12-14. I am personally convinced the principles conveyed in these three verses are of great relevance and importance to us, as well as to the Corinthians.
First, Paul’s words in this paragraph remind us once again that Christianity cannot be compartmentalized. Christian faith and doctrine must be lived out in a godly lifestyle. This lifestyle sets us apart from the world and the flesh, marking us as the children of God whose walk is characterized by divine grace. We are not to conduct ourselves one way on Sunday and in the church and another on weekdays in the world. We must not practice duplicity but simplicity, so that our words always convey the truth. In Jesus’ words, our “Yes” should be “Yes” and our “No” should be “No” (Matthew 5:37). One word our Lord uses frequently in His rebuke of the Pharisees is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy says one thing and does another. Christians must “walk their talk” and “talk their walk.”
Second, Paul’s words indicate that there are no spiritually “elite,” those who understand what the masses do not and cannot understand. We readily see the “elitism” of the scribes and Pharisees as they proudly look upon themselves as the “knowers” of divine truth and look down upon the masses as ignorant and incapable of knowing God’s Word:
45 The officers therefore came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?” 46 The officers answered, “Never did a man speak the way this man speaks.” 47 The Pharisees therefore answered them, “You have not also been led astray, have you? 48 No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he? 49 But this multitude which does not know the Law is accursed” (John 7:45-49).
Throughout history, some have believed that they have an inside track on the truth. The scribes and Pharisees certainly thought they “owned” or had an exclusive franchise on the truth. The sad reality is they were experts at “straining the gnats” of God’s truth, while overlooking the “camels” (Matthew 23:23-24). They did not recognize that Jesus not only knew and taught the truth, but that He personified the truth as Israel’s Messiah. He who is the sinless Son of God, miraculously born through the work of the Holy Spirit, they rejected as an illegitimate child, the product of a sinful union, and a sinner Himself.
Those who seek to be among the elite set aside the plain meaning of Scripture, choosing a meaning not obvious to most. They focus on what is not said rather than on what is. Their methods major on speculation and inferential thinking. They love logic, connecting various segments of the Bible with each other by means of their own assumptions and preconceived conclusions. They love to set aside the simple, plain meaning of the text by calling it simplistic or naive, while they label their own interpretations with words like “spiritual,” “deep,” or “scholarly.” They take pride in holding and proposing interpretations others have never seen, rather than rejecting them as fanciful and off the wall.
Third, Paul’s words in this passage are most instructive about how we should interpret Scripture. Paul tells us his writings plainly express what he means for all to understand. We must begin by assuming that God has spoken fully and finally to us in His Son, with the canon of the New Testament being God’s last inspired revelation. We dare not focus on what the Scriptures have not revealed (Deuteronomy 29:29). We have every confidence that the Scriptures are absolutely sufficient for the spiritual sustenance of every Christian in every circumstance (2 Timothy 3:14-17; Hebrews 1:1-3; 2:1-4; 2 Peter 1:3-4).
We must realize that God’s Spirit not only inspired the writing of the Scriptures, but that the Spirit is God’s provision for illuminating the Scriptures so that the Bible is an open book to every Christian. One does not have to be a Hebrew or Greek student to understand the Bible. One does not need to be a scholar or even a seminary student to read the Bible and to practice and proclaim its message.
I must realize that because the message of the Bible is simple and straightforward, if my interpretations are new and unique, this is a danger sign and not a status symbol. God has spoken plainly through His word, and the message of the Bible has a consistency throughout the history of the church. Departures from the interpretation of the Bible, which godly saints have held through the ages, must be viewed with suspicion rather than embraced because they are new and novel. The Bible does not commend seeking after new and novel teaching (see Acts 17:21; 2 Timothy 3:6-7).
While there may be other implications and applications of a text, the plain meaning of the text is primary. Secondary meaning and applications of a text should never set aside the primary meaning; rather, they should supplement and support it. When I see something “new” in a passage, as I often do, I do not come away patting myself on the back for my depth of insight, but rather I marvel at how I could have overlooked something so obvious for so long.
Christians need to read these words of Paul and see their application to false teachers and false teaching, realizing that the “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11) of Corinth and contemporary Christianity do twist the Scriptures, seeing in them what is not there. But we also need to see the application of Paul’s words to ourselves and our own circles. We have become very adept at setting aside statements and even commands our Lord and His apostles made. When Jesus instructed us to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), we quickly set this command aside, insisting it is relevant only to another dispensation. Let us remember that in the Great Commission Jesus commanded the apostles to “teach them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). I am amazed how many clear statements and commands of the New Testament (not to mention the Old) are set aside by contemporary Christians as though they do not apply to us. And we do so, not based upon clear biblical statements, but based upon our own sense of what we think ought to be. In this regard, we are no different from Eve, who knew God had forbidden that one fruit, but reasoned that disobedience was the better way.
Paul’s Change of Plans and His Personal Integrity
A change of plan does not necessarily mean fickleness of heart
Trusting you, and believing that you trusted us, our original plan was to pay you a visit first, and give you a double ‘treat.’ We meant to come here to Macedonia after first visiting you, and then to visit you again on leaving here. You could thus have helped us on our way toward Judaea. Because we had to change this plan, does it mean that we are fickle? Do you think I plan with my tongue in my cheek, saying ‘yes’ and meaning ‘no’? We solemnly assure you that as certainly as God is faithful so we have never given you a message meaning ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom Silvanus, Timothy and I have preached to you, is himself no doubtful quantity, he is the divine ‘Yes.’ Every promise of God finds its affirmative in him, and through him can be said the final amen, to the glory of God. We owe our position in Christ to this God of positive promise: it is he who has consecrated us to this special work, he who has given us the living guarantee of the Spirit in our hearts. Are we then the men to say one thing and mean another? (2 Corinthians 1:15-22, Phillips)
Ever since Paul’s first visit to Corinth and his first correspondence with them, some have arrogantly boasted that Paul will not return:
18 Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you (1 Corinthians 4:18).
Paul does visit again, and he will visit a third time as well. Those who boast that he will not come must change their attack on Paul. Instead of insisting he will not return, they criticize Paul for changing his plans about his coming visit. Paul mentions his next coming twice in 1 Corinthians:
19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant, but their power (1 Corinthians 4:19, emphasis mine).
5 But I shall come to you after I go through Macedonia, for I am going through Macedonia; 6 and perhaps I shall stay with you, or even spend the winter, that you may send me on my way wherever I may go. 7 For I do not wish to see you now just in passing; for I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits. 8 But I shall remain in Ephesus until Pentecost; 9 for a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries (1 Corinthians 16:5-9, emphasis mine).
We should first note that Paul’s plans to visit Corinth are not complete or set in stone, and they are contingent upon the Lord’s will. Paul tells the Corinthians what he hopes to do, not what he guarantees he will do. Paul’s journeys described in Acts demonstrate that God’s plans sometimes cause Paul to modify or set aside his own (see Acts 16:6-10). If the Corinthians dare to charge Paul with breaking his promise, they simply need to reread his words to discover that he made no firm promises. He speaks to them about what he desires to do, and generally about what he will do, if it is the Lord’s will (see also Acts 18:21).
Sometime after Paul writes 1 Corinthians, his plans change, as we can see in 2 Corinthians 1:15-16. Paul indicates to the Corinthians that rather than visit Corinth once, he would like to visit twice, once on his way to Macedonia and once on his way from Macedonia to Judea. Does this change somehow indicate a flaw in Paul’s character or in his relationship with the Corinthians? Paul puts it to the Corinthians directly, “Was I wrong to desire to come to you twice, rather than just once?” Of course not! Indeed, this change of plans should endear the Corinthians to Paul. He intends to bless them twice rather than once. His change of plans does not reveal a failure in Paul, but rather how full his love is for them. After all, those for whom we do not care, we do not wish to visit twice.
The charge of fickleness is a very subtle criticism of Paul which can potentially damage his standing with the Corinthians. The “false apostles” wish to reason in this way: (1) Paul said he would come in a certain way and at a certain time, and he has not done so. (2) Paul cannot be counted on to keep his word. (3) If Paul’s written word cannot be counted on, then all of his epistles are subject to question. (4) Paul’s letters should not be viewed as having apostolic authority. (5) Therefore, Paul’s letters can be rejected.
Paul first reminds the Corinthians that his first change of plans was favorably received by them as another evidence of his love (see above). Now he proceeds to defend himself against the charge of vacillating. He does so by linking his plans and promises to the plans and promises of God. Are some accusing Paul of saying “Yes,” but meaning “No?” This simply is not true, nor should it be, for Paul is a minister of the gospel and an ambassador of Christ. For Paul to promise one thing and mean another reflects adversely on God and His promises. All of Paul’s teaching centers on the Person and work of Jesus Christ, and every promise related to Christ is an unwavering “Yes” (verse 19). God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ, and so every promise of God is a “Yes,” because Christ has accomplished what God purposed and promised. In the words of our Lord, spoken on the cross of Calvary, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Christ is the final “Amen” to all of God’s promises. God appoints and establishes Paul and those with him in Christ. God gave evidence of this by the gift of the Holy Spirit, as a pledge that all His promises will be accomplished (verses 21-22).
What does this teach the Corinthians and us? It teaches us that all of God’s promises are sure, for they have been accomplished in Christ. God keeps His word, and so those who trust in Him and serve Him must also keep their word. They dare not make promises they fail to keep, for in so doing, they misrepresent the God who is ever faithful to fulfill all His promises. If we are obliged to keep all of our promises, we must certainly be cautious with regard to the promises and commitments we make. We must never make commitments we do not intend to keep or which we may not be able to keep. Those commitments we do make we should surely keep, even at great personal sacrifice. “In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the LORD; He swears to his own hurt, and does not change” (Psalm 15:4).
On the one hand, we need to be very careful about presumptuously making plans in a way that presumes upon God and upon the future:
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit” (James 4:13).
Yet we should also be on guard that we are not rigid about the plans we make and refuse to change our course when it becomes obvious this best serves others. In the story of the Good Samaritan, no doubt the priest and the Levite had plans and stopping to help the wounded man forced them to set aside those plans. Many times I have found that I missed opportunities to minister to others because I had my own plan and I did not wish to change. Paul reminds us that plans may very well change out of love. I am suggesting that we may be unwilling to change our plans out of a lack of love for others and a selfish concern for ourselves.
Paul’s Reasons for Changing His Plans Were Benevolent
I have never wanted to hurt you
No, I declare before God that it was to avoid hurting you that I did not come to Corinth. We are not trying to dominate you and your faith—your faith is firm enough—but we can work with you to increase your joy. And I made up my mind that I would not pay you another painful visit. For what point is there in my depressing the very people who can give me such joy? The real purpose of my previous letter was in fact to save myself from being saddened by those whom I might reasonably expect to bring me joy. I have such confidence in you that my joy depends on all of you! I wrote to you in deep distress and out of a most unhappy heart (I don’t mind telling you I shed tears over that letter), not, believe me, to cause you pain, but to show you how deep is my care for your welfare (2 Corinthians 1:23–2:4, Phillips).
An expression popular today speaks of another person “being there for me.” This assumes that if another person really loves us, they will “be there for us” at our time of need. Love is therefore measured in terms of one’s presence; to be absent is to fail to love as we should. Paul challenges this mind set. He seeks to point out that one’s love for another may sometimes be evident by their absence, rather than by their presence. This may be the exception, but it is nevertheless a real possibility, and in Paul’s case, it is the true reason for his absence.
Paul has already been to Corinth twice. After his initial visit to Corinth, Paul feels compelled to make a hasty second visit. We know this because Paul speaks briefly of this “painful visit” and of his future visit as coming for the “third time” (2 Corinthians 2:1; 12:14; 13:1). Some ugly and painful things seem to have happened during this second visit. Paul has to deal severely with some of the saints. At this time, it seems a particular individual must have made some kind of personal attack on Paul, which brings a strong response from the church (2 Corinthians 2:1-11). Associated with this “painful visit” was a “painful letter,” which causes Paul, as well as the Corinthians, great sorrow (2:4). Now, in spite of Paul’s stated intentions to come for a more pleasant visit, he has not yet done so.
Paul is not “there for them” at the time of their perceived need for him. This must mean, some are saying, that Paul really does not care for them. Yet others are “there for the Corinthians” in their time of need. These, however, are the “false apostles” who are causing so much trouble for both Paul and the Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 11). Is Paul’s absence proof that he did not really care for them as much as he said? Was his absence due to his lack of love and concern? Paul answers by asserting that his absence is a purposeful decision motivated by his love. In fact, his absence is an indication of his love.
Paul does not speak flippantly here. He calls God as his witness. As God is his witness, his delay in coming to Corinth was for their benefit, to “spare them” (1:23). Paul does not wish to “lord it over” their faith. He has confidence they will stand firm. Because of his confidence in God’s ability to keep them and bring about their growth and maturity, he does not feel the need to come, as though the church will get straightened out only by his being present. He has done his part by coming to them and by writing to them concerning needed corrections. Now, they need time to implement these corrective measures. Not enough time has yet passed for the Corinthians to fully demonstrate their commitment to obey Paul’s instructions. To come too soon will be painful for both Paul and the Corinthians. He will be obliged to point out what they have not yet done, and they will be pressured to do them by his presence. A delay gives the Corinthians time to do the right thing and means that when he comes, he will be rejoined to these saints in great joy once their obedience is complete. Paul delays to give the Corinthians time to complete their obedience.
The situation is similar to parents who have been away from home for a time, leaving the children in charge. While away, the parents receive a phone call from a friend, informing them that they “dropped in” to check on the kids and found the house in shambles. Dishes were not washed, dirty clothes were scattered all about; nothing had been done to clean up the place. The parents can cut their trip short and immediately go home only to find a terrible mess and the unpleasant task of rebuking the children. This will not be a happy reunion. Or, the parents can write or call the children, tell them about the bad report they have received, and remind the children of their responsibilities. They can then tell the children they plan to arrive within a few days and expect to find all the problems remedied. The children will have time to take corrective action and clean up the mess, and the parents have the pleasure of a warm welcome and a happy reunion, since all the problems have been corrected. The fact that the parents stay away should not be viewed as evidence of their lack of love or concern, but a demonstration of their love for their children and their faith in the children to make things right. Paul is doing this by delaying his visit to Corinth. He is not “there for them;” he is “not there, for them.” His absence is not his personal preference, because he loves these saints and wants to be with them. Paul’s absence is out of love for these saints, knowing it is for their best interest and his.
We must pause to consider this very important principle. Love is sometimes better demonstrated by keeping our distance from those we love than by being with them.
I still remember how traumatic my first day in school was for me. I know I very much wanted my parents to “be there for me.” I am sure my parents wanted to “be there for me,” but they could not, and indeed, they should not have been. I needed to learn to stand alone. Somewhere along the line, I had to begin to do the right thing without my parents being there with me. Paul visited many places and founded many churches, but the longest he ever stayed in one place was three years. He sent Titus, Timothy, and others out on their own, rather than keeping them at his side. Paul left churches to struggle and to survive without his presence, not because of his lack of love for them, but because he wanted them to learn to depend upon God’s Word and God’s Spirit. This was accomplished by his absence, as well as by his presence.
32 “And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).
I must hasten to remind you that even when Paul is physically absent, he is still present with the saints in spirit (see 1 Corinthians 5:3; Colossians 2:5). He writes to the churches and sends his representatives to these churches. He receives visitors from the churches (1 Corinthians 16:15-18) and constantly remembers the members of these churches in prayer (see 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). And let us not overlook that it is because of Paul’s physical absence that we have the inspired epistles he wrote to the saints.
There are times when we must demonstrate our love for others by our absence, even though this causes pain to us and to those from whom we are separated. We must sometimes let others fail rather than rush in to rescue them. At times, we must step back and allow others to face the consequences of their folly rather than seek to cushion the blows they have brought upon themselves. This is certainly true of our children, and it is also true for others. Sometimes we must physically separate ourselves from others because of their sin. I speak here of church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). Our society teaches us “unconditional acceptance,” which implies that we never draw back from those we love. Our society does not know the Scriptures nor does it wish to obey them in this regard. Loving at a distance is painful, which is why most of us are unwilling to do so. But it is something we must do for the good of those we love and for our own good as well. Let us not overlook that our Lord is not physically present with us at this moment, but it is not because He has ceased to love us. He is not with us because that is better for us (see John 16:7f.).
An Exhortation and an Explanation for Paul’s Delay in Coming
A word of explanation
There was a reason for my stern words; this is my advice now. If the behavior of a certain person has caused distress, it does not mean so much that he has injured me, but that to some extent (I do not wish to exaggerate) he has injured all of you. But now I think that the punishment you have inflicted on him has been sufficient. Now is the time to offer him forgiveness and comfort, for it is possible for a man in his position to be completely overwhelmed by remorse. I ask you to show him plainly now that you love him. My previous letter was something of a test—I wanted to make sure that you would follow my orders implicitly. If you will forgive a certain person, rest assured that I forgive him too. Insofar as I had anything personally to forgive, I do forgive him, as before Christ. We don’t want Satan to win any victory here, and well we know his methods! (2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Phillips)
Some take Paul’s words in verses 5-11 to refer to the man who was “living with his father’s wife” as we find in 1 Corinthians 5. That is one possibility, but the more I consider this text, the less inclined I am to embrace this opinion. Let me summarize some of the reasons I believe Paul is referring to someone else.
(1) Nowhere does Paul specifically identify this person in our text with the person mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5. If his instructions concerned this individual, why does not Paul simply tell us so?
(2) Paul’s references to this person seem to be deliberately vague, as though he does not want anyone other than those at Corinth to know who he is. Paul seems to purposefully avoid naming names and being specific. Why then do we find it necessary to be specific by referring what Paul says to the only person who has been disciplined by the church?
(3) Nothing is really gained or lost by knowing exactly to whom Paul refers. The Corinthians knew who it was and what they should do. The rest did not know, and they did not need to know, but they could learn an important principle in the process of reading this epistle.
(4) Paul speaks of the disciplinary measure to be taken against the man in 1 Corinthians 5, as though the outcome will be physical death. The Corinthians may well have already attended this man’s funeral.
(5) It seems as though the person referred to has committed some offense against Paul, and the Corinthian church has taken up for Paul by censuring that person from their fellowship. It further seems, in the context, as though this offense against Paul occurs at the time of his “painful visit” and his “painful letter,” rather than at the time of the writing of his first epistle.
(6) In the case of the man in 1 Corinthians, the church appears to have done too little too late. In the case of the man in 2 Corinthians 2, the church seems to have gone too far, for too long.
The bottom line is that these appear to be two different individuals.
Paul hopes to come to Corinth twice, once on the way to Macedonia and once on his way from there to Judea. These hopes have not been realized, for Paul purposely delays his next journey to Corinth. This does not reflect a lack of love for the Corinthians or a desire to be with them. It is simply to give these saints time to deal with problems in the church so Paul can rejoin them with joy rather than further sorrow. One particular problem must be dealt with before his arrival, and this is spelled out in 2:5-11.
It seems that during Paul’s second hasty and painful visit, he takes an aggressive course of action which causes both him and the Corinthians great sorrow. Paul deals further with this matter in chapter 7. But somewhere in the course of that visit, it seems one individual reacts in an unseemly manner toward Paul and his apostolic authority. It looks as though the church rushes to Paul’s defense and censures this man by excluding him from their fellowship. The church seems to have exercised discipline on this man who in some way wronged Paul.
This is not like the situation in chapter 5. There, a man is committing a most serious offense by living with his father’s wife, a sin which shocks even the pagan Corinthians. But the church continues to accept and embrace this man, even with pride rather than shame. Paul must act personally and from afar, turning this man over to Satan and challenging the church to step up to its duty and do likewise. Now, in 2 Corinthians we find the church has taken strong action against someone who apparently committed a much lesser offense. The man seems to have repented, but the church has not yet forgiven him and received him back into their fellowship. Paul urges them to do so before he can come to visit them again.
If I understand Paul correctly, there is an important lesson for us to learn here from his example. Someone has sinned against Paul, and the church has taken disciplinary action against that person. The man has repented, but the church has not forgiven him and received him back into fellowship. Paul now mentions this situation in the context of his prolonged absence from Corinth. I believe it is Paul’s desire to forgive this man and be reconciled to him, but first the church must acknowledge his repentance and reverse their disciplinary action. If Paul were to return before the church restored this man, he would not be free to have fellowship with him because he would be bound by the church’s disciplinary actions against the man. When the church does restore the man, Paul can come and be reconciled and thus find joy and comfort in his reunion with him. The church must first act to restore him and then Paul can have a sweet reunion with him, as well as with the rest of the church.
For the church to fail to reinstate this man hinders Paul’s return, it hinders the unity of the church, and it makes the saints vulnerable to Satan’s attacks (2:11). Further, it places upon this man an excessive burden of sorrow, which is no longer necessary because of his repentance (see 2:6-7). Satan, the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10), loves nothing more than to accuse, especially when he can do so through others, like the church.
Think about this for a moment. We sometimes may do things which seem to be spiritual but which in reality are counter-productive. The church disciplined this man, thinking that in so doing they were protecting the purity of the church. But they went too far by refusing to receive him back into fellowship, and they were actually endangering the church and this man. Going too far with a good thing can be bad. We see this also in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul speaks to a husband and wife who decide to refrain from sexual relations. This may be beneficial for a short time, Paul tells us, such as when a couple sexually “fasts” in order to devote themselves to prayer (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-5). But sexual abstinence should not be maintained for too long a period of time, lest “Satan tempt them for their lack of self-control” (verse 5). Church discipline is necessary for so long a time as the sinning saint persists in rebellion against God, but once repentance has taken place, restoration should quickly follow. Failing to exercise discipline is dangerous to the whole church (1 Corinthians 5:6); to fail to remove discipline is also dangerous to the whole church (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).
While we have considered a number of principles and their applications in this lesson, two final areas of application are critical to our understanding. First, notice that while Paul is absent from the Corinthians, he is deeply aware of the presence of God in his life and ministry. Paul practices the presence of God:
10 But whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:10, emphasis mine).
Paul may be absent from the Corinthians, but he is never absent from God. Paul seeks to practice the presence of God by living in a conscious state of awareness of God’s presence. He must certainly agree with the psalmist, who writes:
7 Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. 9 If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, 10 Even there Thy hand will lead me, And Thy right hand will lay hold of me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,” 12 Even the darkness is not dark to Thee, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Thee (Psalm 139:7-10).
Second, 1 and 2 Corinthians together help to remind us that sin is dynamic and not static. You will remember that after Satan tempted our Lord without success, Luke’s Gospel tells us that after “the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). Satan never gives up, and his temptations come in all sizes, shapes, and forms. I am particularly impressed with the way the Corinthians deal with sin.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul reminds these saints that he has previously written to them, instructing them not to associate with immoral people (5:9). The Corinthians misunderstand (or at least misapply) this instruction. They seek to separate themselves from the unbelieving world, while they continue to embrace professing Christians who live in a way pagans will not even accept. And so Paul must teach them to separate themselves from the man living with his father’s wife and to maintain some contact with the unsaved world, to whom they have the obligation to be witnesses.
Now in 2 Corinthians, we find the church has over-corrected their error. While they once failed to exercise church discipline where it was desperately needed, they are now reluctant to remove church discipline, when it is no longer necessary. My point is simply this: living the Christian life is like walking along a path (a common imagery in the Bible), and one can err by going astray on one side of the path or the other. I think that many times when we wander off the path in one direction, we often over-correct so that we then depart from the path in the opposite direction. Let us beware of thinking that once we have dealt with a particular problem, we will no longer struggle with it again. The same problem may, of course, recur. Or, in our zeal to avoid falling into the same sin, we may venture to the opposite extreme.
I look at the Christian life as a kind of sine wave. We have our ups and our downs, our peaks and our troughs. We will struggle with sin as long as we live, just as the Corinthians did over the course of Paul’s ministry to them. Christian maturity and spirituality are not the cessation of sin, but the gradual reduction of the extremes to which we wander. The ideal in this case would be to walk a straight line. We shall never do so in this life, but we can strive to avoid such hair-pin curves!
As Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians continues, we see the dynamic nature of the spiritual life and the struggle with sin. We see some of the problems, still in embryonic form in 1 Corinthians, coming to full term and birthing before our eyes. We see other problems dealt with in such a way that new dangers arise. The struggle is life-long, and thus we suffer and groan, along with all creation, until sin is finally removed once for all.
Finally, I wish to focus on the fact that Christ is God’s “Yes” to every promise He has made to us. Everything good which God has promised throughout the ages is summed up in Christ. He is the consummation of God’s purposes and promises:
20a For as many as may be the promises of God, in Him they are yes (2 Corinthians 1:20a).
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)
16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created by Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:16-20).
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9 For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him (Colossians 2:8-15; see also Ephesians 1:18-23).
If all of the promises of God are fulfilled and certain in Christ, there really is one key to obtaining all of God’s blessed promises or rejecting them. If we receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ, we gain every blessing, and we shall receive every promise He has made to us. But if we reject Him, either deliberately or by refusing to turn to Him in faith, all of the promises are forfeited. The ultimate question in life is this: “What have you personally done with God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ?” If you are “in Christ,” by acknowledging your sin and by trusting in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection in your place, then all of the promises are yours. If you are not “in Him,” none of the promised blessings are yours, but only the promised condemnation of which He has warned you. The Apostle John puts it this way:
10 The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son. 11 And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (1 John 5:10-12).
Do you have the Son, my friend? If so, all of the promised blessings of God are yours, in Christ. If not, you dare not deceive yourself about receiving any of God’s blessings, for they come to us only through His Son, Jesus Christ.
10 The term “proud confidence” literally is “boasting,” as the marginal note in the NASB indicates. Boasting generally has a negative connotation in our time, but this term is used by Paul in both a negative (1 Corinthians 1:27) and a positive (1 Corinthians 1:29) sense. Here, it is clear that Paul’s boasting is the godly kind.
11 Paul speaks for himself, Silvanus, and Timothy, all of whom were ministering together (1:19). While I refer only to Paul, it is clear that his attitude is shared by those with him. No doubt these men encouraged one another in maintaining this attitude.
12 This is not to overlook or ignore the clear teaching of Scripture that apart from the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit, no one can understand or accept the mind of God as revealed in the Scriptures. I think it is safe to say, however, that the teaching of our Lord was not rejected because men could not understand what He was saying, but because they did understand and refused to accept it.
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