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How to Read the Bible Book by Book: 2 Corinthians

2 Corinthians 12:11: “I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the ‘super apostles,’ even though I am nothing.”

From the very beginning of the Christian faith, churches have been plagued by opportunistic preachers. It is strange that a message that calls each person to die to themselves, take up their cross and follow Christ, should draw so many people who are intent on having power and influence. It is a common problem in the church today, and as we continue our march through the New Testament, we are going to see that it was a continual problem that the Apostle Paul dealt with in his ministry. I can imagine how frustrating it must have been for him. Here is Paul, who has suffered greatly in order to advance the message of the Gospel, and yet he is almost constantly undermined when he leaves a place. In Galatia, legalists came behind him and tried to force people to obey the Law of Moses. In Thessalonica, people came teaching that the Day of the Lord was already under way. And in Corinth, men came into the church who were claiming to be “super apostles.” These super apostles wanted power and influence. The Corinthians, who we have already seen are prone to the romance of articulate teachers, are an easy target for such teachers.

Much has happened since Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul had planned to go back to Corinth to take up the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, but apparently Paul arrived unannounced, which led to a terrible encounter in the congregation. For one, the church was not yet ready with their contribution, and secondly, some of the teachers known as “super apostles” had made their way into the church. Evidently Paul had a sharp encounter with one of them, or with someone under their influence, and this led to Paul leaving and later sending them a tearful letter, to call the congregation to reprimand this man who had stood against Paul. The reprimand worked. In the letter of 2nd Corinthians, which is Paul’s fourth letter to this congregation, he writes to them to encourage them to show mercy to this man who had opposed him, but also to further his defense against the criticisms of these persuasive teachers.

The letter of 2nd Corinthians splits up into three natural parts. The first part covers chapters 1 through 7. In these chapters Paul will explain why he had a change in his travel plans, why they should forgive the offending brother, and how Paul and the apostles are ministers of a new covenant. The glory of this new covenant is not the same as the glory of the wisdom tradition of Greek philosophy. It is not based on power, reputation, or on persuasive speech. Instead, it is based on the power of God, which is delivered through the content of the message, not the medium of the message. Paul and his fellow apostles often look more like fools than they do wisemen. Why? Because they have been conquered by God and are led at the end of his triumphant procession, like slaves of a defeated territory. They have suffered greatly on behalf of the message they have proclaimed. However, despite appearances, the message they proclaim has real power. The reason some do not respond is not because they lack rhetorical skill. They do not respond because Satan has blinded them and made them unable to receives the message. But for those whom God has called, the gospel is the power of God that brings eternal life. Because this is true, Paul and the apostles do not have to use rhetoric or trickery. They speak the message plainly, trusting in the power of God through the Holy Spirit.

The second part of the letter comes in chapters 8 and 9 and takes up the issue of the collection for the saints in Jerusalem. There, Paul teaches the Corinthians to give out of gratitude and joy. They are not under obligation, nor is Paul commanding them to give, but Paul will remind them of certain principles for giving. For example, he who sows sparingly will reap sparingly. He who sows generously will reap generously. Paul’s point is not that they should put themselves in hardship in order to help others, but that they give from their abundance to supply what is lacking in another area. This way there will be a certain kind of equality within the church.

Finally, in chapters 10 through 13 Paul returns to the issue of the “super apostles.” Because these teachers like to boast about themselves and their own ability, Paul feels the need to play their own game. With reluctance, Paul gives his own resume, which speaks of the power of God in his life, as well as the great suffering he has endured. No one, especially not these “super apostles” have suffered like Paul has for the sake of Christ. Paul has even had the privilege of having an incredible mystical experience of heaven. But God has not allowed him to become proud. A thorn in the flesh has been given to him to keep him humble. This humility allows him to handle the criticism of these false apostles, and to expose them according to their true character.

More than any other book of the New Testament, 2nd Corinthians gives us a taste of what true ministry looks like. It is not glamorous. It is not about power and influence. It is about the message of the cross and serving and suffering on behalf of Jesus. Any preacher who is looking for power is suspect. True ministers walk in humility.

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