bible blog 1751

Today the blog continues its examination of St. Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. Previous material on this topic and on Genesis and Mark, can be accessed from my archive. Biblical references can be placed after as can particular topics eg. John 3:16; or obedience. The daily headlines are reminders of the world we live in:


Why start at chapter 10?

Most scholars admit that chapters 10-13 of 2  Corinthians were composed at a different time from the rest of the letter. My scenario, derived simply from reading what we have, is that Paul visited Corinth from Ephesos between the writing of 1 Corinthians and the writing of the incomplete letter preserved in these chapters. His visit was a failure in that far from securing agreement with his views he found himself challenged and insulted. Back in Ephesos he collected his thoughts ( and his anger) to write demanding obedience. He had insisted that messianic assembly was an assembly of equals. This makes it hard for him to explain his authority, which is not based on status but on function: he is an “emissary” of Jesus whose  role is to announce the gospel and to defend its integrity.

2 Corinthians 10 J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)

10 1-6 Now I am going to appeal to you personally, by the gentleness and sympathy of Christ himself. Yes, I, Paul, the one who is “humble enough in our presence but outspoken when away from us”, and begging you to make it unnecessary for me to be outspoken and stern in your presence. For I am afraid otherwise that I shall have to do some plain speaking to those of you who will persist in reckoning that our activities are on the purely human level. The truth is that, although of course we lead normal human lives, the battle we are fighting is on the spiritual level. The very weapons we use are not those of human warfare but powerful in God’s warfare for the destruction of the enemy’s strongholds. Our battle is to bring down every deceptive fantasy and every imposing defence that men erect against the true knowledge of God. We even fight to capture every thought until it acknowledges the authority of Christ. Once we are sure of your obedience we shall not shrink from dealing with those who refuse to obey.

7-11 Do look at things which stare you in the face! So-and-so considers himself to belong to Christ. All right; but let him reflect that we belong to Christ every bit as much as he. You may think that I have boasted unduly of my authority (which the Lord gave me, remember, to build you up not to break you down), but I don’t think I have done anything to be ashamed of. Yet I don’t want you to think of me merely as the man who writes you terrifying letters. I know my critics say, “His letters are impressive and moving but his actual presence is feeble and his speaking beneath contempt.” Let them realise that we can be just as “impressive and moving” in person as they say we are in our letters.

12-16 Of course we shouldn’t dare include ourselves in the same class as those who write their own testimonials, or even to compare ourselves with them! All they are doing, of course, is to measure themselves by their own standards or by comparisons within their own circle, and that doesn’t make for accurate estimation, you may be sure. No, we shall not make any wild claims, but simply judge ourselves by that line of duty which God has marked out for us, and that line includes our work on your behalf. We do not exceed our duty when we embrace your interests, for it was our preaching of the Gospel which brought us into contact with you. Our pride is not in matters beyond our proper sphere nor in the labours of other men. No, our hope is that your growing faith will mean the expansion of our sphere of action, so that before long we shall be preaching the Gospel in districts beyond you, instead of being proud of work that has already been done in someone else’s province.

17 But, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord’.

18 It is not self-commendation that matters, it is winning the approval of God.

St Paul in argument

St Paul in argument

Paul has been insulted by people in Corinth who think he’s all mouth when writing but unwilling to mix it in person. Nobody likes to be called a coward and Paul is no exception, so his real answer gets confused by assertions that if he has to, he’ll put the fear of God into his opponents. Doubtless he could do so, but his real argument is that the issue is not a matter of human power, but of spiritual truth; and that therefore it must not be decided by a shouting match. As he has memorably written, ” the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

Paul is compelled to defend his spiritual authority which flows from his calling as an emissary of Messiah Jesus. He does so by pointing out that he is not “interfering” in matters which are “not his business” for under God their eternal welfare is his business, which is to gather an assembly by preaching the gospel, and guiding it to adulthood as quickly as possible so that he can move on to preach elsewhere. The contentious Corinthians are stunting their own growth and preventing him from carrying out his next mission.

When he refers sarcastically to “those who write their own testimonials” and ” those who are proud of work already done” he means teachers who have impressed the Corinthians with their eloquence and knowledge. I think it’s clear that these were teachers who saw Jesus as Messiah but emphasised the importance of knowledge and spiritual power, including perhaps the gift of speaking ecstatically in assembly. As Paul does not give a precise description of them, we can only use the clues he gives. They have got up his nose with their claims to superiority. His authority, he tells them, is for building them up, not tearing down but he’ll do tearing down if he has to. He reminds them that self-praise is no praise.

This not a letter of calm counsel, but a howl of outrage that some are trying to replace him as the “emissary to Corinth”. It is angry precisely because Paul has no hierarchical power; he has no rank which allows him to give orders. He is a fellow believer with a particular calling to announce the gospel and therefore has to give it his best and in this case, most passionate shot. His need to argue is a measure of the freedom that believers have “in Messiah.”

This letter-fragment lets us see Paul under pressure and the picture is interesting. He does not come over as a calm and compassionate saint who could win a dispute by the majesty of his forbearance. No, he’s a street fighter ready to get down and dirty if that’s needed to represent the gospel. Nor does he pull rank, for he has none other than his own record as a man devoted to sharing the story of Jesus without personal gain of any kind.

St Paul street fighter, Massacio

St Paul street fighter, Massacio

The excessive piety of much Christian commentary has obscured the character of Paul just as much as the ignorant prejudice of secular scholars who see only from the perspective of liberal morality. Paul is more interesting than Christians have made him and more relevant to contemporary concerns than secular critics think.

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