Reading through S. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians

Chugging away through the New Testament, here’s the second letter of Saint Paul to the infant Church in Corinth, the great sea-port of ancient Achaia. The circumstances are a little different from those of the first letter, which dealt with several practical and pastoral problems. But the tension created by Christian preachers rivalling Paul remains, and Paul now seems to be more irritated by the opposition to him of a faction of the Corinthian church, and this shows through the letter, which ends in Paul protesting for his authority as an Apostle. But let’s run through some highlights…

Once upon a time, the Lawgiver Moses came down the hill, having received the Word of God, his face so brilliant that the people couldn’t look upon him and he had to veil his face for some time. So, indeed, is the case with the glory of the Christian Gospel:

“We know how that sentence of death, engraved in writing upon stone, was promulgated to men in a dazzling cloud, so that the people of Israel could not look Moses in the face, for the brightness of it, although that brightness soon passed away. How much more dazzling, then, must be the brightness in which the spiritual law is promulgated to them! If there is a splendour in the proclamation of our guilt, there must be more splendour yet in the proclamation of our acquittal; and indeed, what once seemed resplendent seems by comparison resplendent no longer, so much does the greater splendour outshine it.”

II Corinthians, 3: 7-10

Some of the members of the Corinthian church, probably egged on by the rival preachers, seem to have accused Paul of cowardice in his preaching, maybe because he speaks of mysteries and veils. Is he sure of what he’s saying? Does he even know what he’s talking about?

“Always we, alive as we are, are being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the living power of Jesus may be manifested in this mortal nature of ours. So death makes itself felt in us, and life in you. I spoke my mind, says the scripture, with full confidence, and we too speak our minds with full confidence, sharing that same spirit of faith, and knowing that He who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us too, and summon us, like you, before Him. It is all for your sakes, so that grace made manifold in many lives may increase the sum of gratitude which is offered to God’s glory. No, we do not play the coward; though the outward part of our nature is being worn down, our inner life is refreshed from day to day. This light and momentary affliction brings with it a reward multiplied every way, loading us with everlasting glory; if only we will fix our eyes on what is unseen, not on what we can see. What we can see, lasts but for a moment; what is unseen is eternal.”

II Corinthians, 4: 11-18

Here’s an encapsulation of the Christian message: Christ died for us and rose again, we too as dead men have risen to live with His life, not ours. It follows that Christians live with a supernatural life, as new creatures, this transformation and reconciliation with God being effected through Christ and through the ministry of the Apostles. The Christian Apostles are then Christ’s ambassadors, the means by which Christians are drawn from the darkness and made into the Holiness of God.

“…if one Man died on behalf of all, then all thereby became dead men; Christ died for us all, so that being alive should no longer mean living with our own life, but with His life who died for us and has risen again; and therefore, henceforward, we do not think of anybody in a merely human fashion; even if we used to think of Christ in a human fashion, we do so no longer; it follows, in fact, that when a man becomes a new creature in Christ, his old life has disappeared, everything has become new about him. This, as always, is God’s doing; it is He who, through Christ, has reconciled us to Himself, and allowed us to minister this reconciliation of His to others. Yes, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, establishing in our hearts His message of reconciliation, instead of holding men to account for their sins. We are Christ’s ambassadors, then, and God appeals to you through us; we entreat you in Christ’s name, make your peace with God. Christ never knew sin, and God made Him into sin for us, so that in Him we might be turned into the Holiness of God.”

II Corinthians, 5:14-21

Saint Paul continues to wax lyrical about the ministry of the Apostles, the forerunners of the bishops and priests of the Church. It is rather beautiful, and inspirational for the missionaries and clergy of our own time.

“…as God’s ministers, we must do everything to make ourselves acceptable. We have to shew great patience, in times of affliction, of need, of difficulty; under the lash, in prison, in the midst of tumult; when we are tired out, sleepless, and fastingWe have to be pure-minded, enlightened, forgiving and gracious to others; we have to rely on the Holy Spirit, on unaffected love, on the truth of our message, on the power of God. To right and to left we must be armed with innocence; now honoured, now slighted, now traduced, now flattered. They call us deceivers, and we tell the truth; unknown, and we are fully acknowledged; dying men, and see, we live; punished, yes, but not doomed to die; sad men, that rejoice continually; beggars, that bring riches to many; disinherited, and the world is ours.”

II Corinthians, 6:4-10

I imagine that Paul – being a rather kindly sort, if with a fiery temper – would not have very often pulled rank as an Apostle and as one given a commission directly by God. But he comes very near in this case, and there does seem to be a significant challenge made to his authority by some of the members of this church, that he himself had built. So, we find some rather severe language towards the end of this letter, when he speaks of his next visitation to them. It seems that episcopal right was about to be brought down upon certain persons:

Wait and see what happens when we meet. There may be someone who takes credit to himself for being the champion of Christ; if so, let him reflect further that we belong to Christ’s cause no less than himself; and indeed, I might boast of the powers I have, powers which the Lord has given me so as to build up your faith, not so as to crush your spirits, and I should not be put in the wrong. It must not be thought that I try to overawe you when I write. ‘His letters,’ some people say, ‘are powerful and carry weight, but his presence in person lacks dignity, he is but a poor orator.’ I warn those who speak thus that, when we visit you, our actions will not belie the impression which our letters make when we are at a distance. It is not for us to intrude, or challenge comparison with others who claim credit for themselves; we are content to go by our own measure, to compare ourselves with our own standard of achievement. Yes, we may boast, but our boasting will not be disproportionate; it will be in proportion to the province which God has assigned to us, one which reaches as far as you.”

II Corinthians, 10: 7-13

Paul, who had done no less than the greatest of the Apostles (and he’s probably thinking of the Twelve themselves here), had claimed no support from the Church in Achaia, although he was entitled to it, according to the Gospel. He had arrived among them without money and had been supported by Greek Christians in Macedonia. Paul’s authority over the Corinthian church does not come from such a thing as return on charitable support; it comes rather from his fatherhood of this community, which he has fashioned into a bride of Christ. However, other Christian preachers (his rivals, the false apostles) have taken money from the Corinthians. Putting on false appearances, they have sought to distance the Corinthians from Paul, whose one boast is this very Corinthian church:

I was penniless when I visited you, but I would not cripple any of you with expenses; the brethren came from Macedonia to relieve my necessities; I would not, and I will not, put any burden on you. As the truth of Christ lives in me, no one in all the country of Achaia shall silence this boast of mine. Why is that? Because I have no love for you? God knows I have. No, I shall continue to do as I have done, so as to cut away the ground from those who would gladly boast that they are no different from myself. Such men are false apostles, dishonest workmen, that pass for apostles of Christ. And no wonder; Satan himself can pass for an angel of light, and his servants have no difficulty in passing for servants of holiness; but their end will be what their life has deserved. Once more I appeal to you, let none of you think me vain; or, if it must be so, give me a hearing in spite of my vanity, and let me boast a little in my turn. When I boast with such confidence, I am not delivering a message to you from God; it is part of my vanity if you will. If so many others boast of their natural advantages, I must be allowed to boast too. You find it easy to be patient with the vanity of others, you who are so full of good sense. Why, you let other people tyrannize over you, prey upon you, take advantage of you, vaunt their power over you, browbeat you!”

II Corinthians, 11: 9-20

Paul says that he can easily overawe the people with his mystical experiences, but that he would prefer to rejoice in his humiliations than enjoy the glory that attaches to him from God’s special favour: 

“I can only tell you that this man, with his spirit in his body, or with his spirit apart from his body, God knows which, not I, was carried up into Paradise, and heard mysteries which man is not allowed to utter. That is the man about whom I will boast; I will not boast about myself, except to tell you of my humiliations. It would not be vanity, if I had a mind to boast about such a man as that; I should only be telling the truth. But I will spare you the telling of it; I have no mind that anybody should think of me except as he sees me, as he hears me talking to himAnd indeed, for fear that these surpassing revelations should make me proud, I was given a sting to distress my outward nature, an angel of Satan sent to rebuff me. Three times it made me entreat the Lord to rid me of it; but He told me, ‘My grace is enough for thee; My strength finds its full scope in thy weakness.’ More than ever, then, I delight to boast of the weaknesses that humiliate me, so that the strength of Christ may enshrine itself in me. I am well content with these humiliations of mine, with the insults, the hardships, the persecutions, the times of difficulty I undergo for Christ; when I am weakest, then I am strongest of all.”

II Corinthians, 12: 3-10

There is a great deal more besides, such as the discussion on the management of the second collections (chapter eight and chapter nine). You will agree that all this makes Paul so very human, so very natural, and indeed very relatable to us. His very affection for the people who have begun to accuse him of dishonesty and attack his authority is wonderful to see. When he speaks of all he has undergone for love of the churches in various places – “…in danger from rivers, in danger from robbers, in danger from my own people, in danger from the Gentiles; danger in cities; danger in the wilderness, danger in the sea, danger among false brethren… met with toil and weariness, so often been sleepless, hungry and thirsty; so often denied myself food, gone cold and naked…” – you begin to wonder how many others of the Apostles did as many miles as Paul did to build up the churches he had established all over the place. And for all that, he fears that when he gets to Corinth…

I have the fear that perhaps, when I reach you, I shall find in you unwelcome hosts, and you in me an unwelcome visitor; that there will be dissension, rivalry, ill humour, factiousness, backbiting, gossip, self-conceit, disharmony. I have the fear that on this new visit God has humiliation in store for me when we meet; that I shall have tears to shed over many of you, sinners of old and still unrepentant, with a tale of impure, adulterous, and wanton living.”

II Corinthians, 12: 20-21

No bishop wishes to punish anybody, or to any way wield his apostolic authority over a people that despises him. He prefers rather, that people grow in perfection, becoming what God meant them to be, and that they live in peace:

The powers we have are used in support of the truth, not against it; and we are best pleased when we have no power against you, and you are powerful yourselves. That is what we pray for, your perfection. I write this in absence, in the hope that, when I come, I may not have to deal severely with you, in the exercise of that authority which the Lord has given me to build up your faith, not to crush your spirits.”

II Corinthians, 13: 8-10

I’m certain, with the appreciation of his kind heart that I have acquired, that Paul did not bring crushing ecclesiastical sanctions upon these rebel Christians. But we don’t know anything about that…

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