Introduction to 2 Corinthians

Second Corinthians is Paul’s second of what was likely four correspondences that he wrote to the church in Corinth and the Christians throughout that region.  It is also likely that this was the last of those four letters.

  1. Paul refers to a letter in 1 Corinthians 5:9
  2. The letter that we know as the book of 1 Corinthians
  3. A “severe letter” that Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4
  4. The letter that we know as the book of 2 Corinthians.

Paul clearly has a special place in his heart for the church in Corinth and is both saddened and frustrated by the continuing conflict and challenges that were going on there.  As part of Paul’s journey, he may have actually returned to Corinth to address these things head on, something that didn’t go well and turned out to be quite painful for Paul.

The words that Paul uses here are words of both reconciliation and rebuke, correcting some of the errors and challenging some of the false teachings that were present in the community.

While we don’t have the full story, having lost the two other correspondences that took place, we get a pretty good idea that not all was well in Corinth.

It is possible, some have suggested, that 2 Corinthians is actually two letters in one.  While the book itself contains a coherent whole, Paul’s tone changes from chapter 9 to chapter 10 in a very dramatic fashion.  There are a number of possible  explanations for this including a possible addendum to the original letter, he wrote it and then got a report which caused him to write more, or the desire to prepare the church for his upcoming visit.  Perhaps it is one of the two lost letters that somehow was attached to this one.

Whatever the case, as the early church councils and synods worked, led by the Holy Spirit, to affirm the full canon of Scripture as we have it now, 2 Corinthians in its present form was affirmed.  Therefore, whatever the case, Second Corinthians is part of God’s Holy Word and therefore both authoritative and divinely inspired by God.

1 Corinthians 16 – Final Instructions

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Today’s reading seems to be a great deal more context specific than the rest of the book.  As we talked about at the end of the book of Romans, however, even these parting words are a part of Scripture and are therefore useful and instructive to us.

Especially at the beginning of this chapter, Paul lays down some of the groundwork that has become the foundation for Christian giving practices throughout the last 2,000 years.  For him, giving was not always arbitrary or spontaneous, but rather a part of the Christian life as a response to the grace of God that is in Jesus Christ.

Spontaneous giving is not bad; certainly, Paul is not suggesting that.  However, when Paul picks up this topic again, we will see that giving is grounded in the Christian life and therefore is something we are intentional about, especially when it comes to giving back to God.

Now, this may seem oddly self-serving coming from a pastor.  It is important for us, and especially for me, to be truthful and honest when it comes to what Scripture says about this.  Paul, actually, did not receive money from the church.  In fact, he was a “tent maker,” holding a job for some time in order to fund his own work.  So when he speaks about this, he is not talking about it from some self-interested point of view but rather as a continuing application to what it means for us to live in our freedom in Christ.

No longer do we have to live, concerned for what we need, God will take care of us.  We have been freed from those concerns.  No longer do we need to hoard our possessions to take care of ourselves.  We are freed from those concerns.  God has shown time and again, His faithfulness and provision in all things and so, as we turn to Him in faith we also trust Him with our lives knowing that He who has created all things is more than able to care for and provide for all that we need.

1 Corinthians 15 – Concerning the Resurrection

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One of the arguments in the Corinthian church, it seems, had to do with the resurrection.  Whereas Paul spent a long time talking through freedom and love because of its many applications in the Christian life, here Paul is very direction.  Without the resurrection, the Gospel itself and our faith in Jesus Christ are meaningless.

So often, we talk at length about Christ dying for our sins, and rightly so.  It is one of the single most important events that has happened in the world.  But we need to always think about it as fundamentally connected with the resurrection of Jesus Christ; they cannot be separated.  Without Jesus’ death, there can be no resurrection.  Without the resurrection, Jesus’ death is meaningless and we have no hope.

But, Paul says, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and is the “first fruits” of all who believe in Him who will also be raised.  We have hope that, when Christ comes again, we will be raised with Him in a resurrected body, something fundamentally different and yet still congruent with what we are now.

Talking about this raises a number of questions for us to ponder, but few concrete answers about what life will be like in the resurrection and what happens to us in the meantime, after we die but before Christ comes.

The question of what happens to us after our earthly pilgrimage ends is one that people have sought to answer since the very beginning.  Paul doesn’t give us any direct answers here, but consistently talks about it in terms of “falling asleep” and “being with the Lord.”  We often think about death in a sort of disembodied existence in which our soul if active in heaven while our earthly body waits for Jesus to come back.

Again, there are few concrete answers here.  There is, however, a promise in all of this: the end of our earthly journey is not the end.  When we pass from this life into whatever is to come we can do so with hope, assured that God transcends even death and holds us in His hand (in whatever form that is) until the day of Christ’s return when we will be raised and live with Him from that time forth and forevermore.

1 Corinthians 14 – Good Worship

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For someone who talks a lot about freedom, Paul sure does spend a lot of time giving direction about having good order in worship.  This is an important section in Paul’s letter, though, not just for them, but for us as well.

He begins by grounding what we do in worship in the deep love of God that he just expressed in chapter 13.  This is the deep, “Agape” love that Jesus showed us by dying for us and loving us unconditionally.  Once again, Paul is pointing out that, while we have freedom in Christ, that freedom should always be directed outward in consideration of others.

The application here, then, is worship.  How are we to worship God in response to what Paul has explained here?  Simply put, worship needs to happen in good order so that the body of Christ may be built up.  If worship is chaotic and unintelligible, with people using their spiritual gifts as a display for themselves, nothing is accomplished and believers, especially new believers, would find themselves confused and perhaps even put off.

There are a number of reasons for this.  Paul is making sure that Christian worship doesn’t represent the temple cult worship of pagan gods, which was often chaotic and full of self-promoting displays.  This is one of the reasons Paul encourages prophecy over speaking in tongues as well.  People speaking unintelligibly in worship helps no one and may even serve as a way of judging others; those who speak in tongues being “more spiritual” than those who don’t.

In all of this, however, Paul says that we need to show our love.  Good worship is worship that honors God and therefore edifies the church.  Building each other up is an act of love, placing our own needs and desires aside for the sake of our brothers and sisters.  If we all truly did this today, we’d probably stop arguing about music styles and experience an abundance of worship renewal.

1 Corinthians 13 – True Love

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This chapter is a rather popular one for weddings, and rightly so.  When we talk about vowing to God and to each other it is this deep, self-sacrificial love that we steep ourselves in.  But actually, Paul didn’t write this passage with weddings in mind.  His thoughts here are the apex of his discourse here about how we treat others, how we use the gifts of the spirit, and the foundation of the life of Christ in general.

At the end of chapter 12, Paul says he will “show them the most excellent way.”  In fact, he has been doing this all throughout his writing.  All this time he has been talking about using your freedom, steeped in the love of Christ, in consideration of others.  Here, he describes in detail what this looks like.

In the original Greek language that the New Testament was written in, there were three ways in which the word “love” was used.  There is “eros,” the sort of romantic, erotic love that we often think about within the context of relationships and sex, “philos,” the brotherly love of friends and family, and “Agape,” the deep, self-sacrificial love that is used here in 1 Corinthians 13.  This “agape” love is used only when in reference to God’s love, to the love of Jesus Christ the led Him to the cross to die for us, and to the love that we are called to exhibit as those who are “in Christ Jesus,” as it is described here.

The love that is described here is also the foundation for the appropriate use of the gifts of the spirit as well as a description of our appropriate conduct in worship, subjects that bookend this chapter.  And this love grows, as we mature and are sanctified, our love in Christ grows deeper as our hearts beat more and more in sync with God’s own heart as well.

Jeremiah 1:4-12 "Living Witness"

1 Corinthians 12 – Spiritual Gifts

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The manifestation of Spiritual Gifts like speaking in tongues or prophetic words is, sadly, not something that is very prominent in the denomination that I come from.  In fact, in western culture, these types of things aren’t very prominent at all.  Yet they are a part of the Christian life.  We should not be quick to dismiss such things when they happen.  Neither should we accept them wholesale when things may be in question.

Paul addresses this issue likely because of troubles that arose from the crossover between a person’s life before they put their faith in Jesus Christ and now experiencing the new life that He offers them.  Such “spiritual” utterances were not uncommon in the cultic worship of other gods, however their purpose in the body of Christ is significantly different.

Whereas those who exhibited such gifts in pagan worship were thought to be somehow “superior,” and so could abuse that status, here Paul places the use of these gifts within the body of Christ for the purpose of building up the church.  Like all of what he has been talking about, these too are a part of our freedom in Christ which is always used in consideration of the other.  All gifts, no matter what they are, were meant for edification and building up, not self promotion.

This too is why Paul urges them to desire the “greater” gifts, not necessarily the ones that create a large public display drawing attention to one’s self.

Again, like Paul has continually said, the life of Christ and those included in it is firmly rooted in consideration for others; humble service that is rooted in love.  Paul will talk about gifts and worship again in chapter 14, a bookend to what he calls “the most excelent way,” which is that of deep love for one another as Christ loves them.

1 Corinthians 11 – Continuing Corrections

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Paul appears to shift focus in chapter 11, but he is not moving away from the continuing thought of avoiding bringing shame on the community which would damage the message of the Gospel.

In that light, he begins to address some of the issues that the church in Corinth was dealing with.  The first section, on the proper dress and appropriate place of women in worship, is hard to read for us 2000 years later.  Not only are our cultural contexts different, but we also are missing a piece of the puzzle: what issue is Paul actually addressing here?

A lot of what he is saying, though, comes from the continuing notion of not using Christian freedom in a way that jeopardizes or damages others.  Paul uses language of both dependence of both man and woman, and also mutual independence, perhaps leading to an understanding that it is about more than just “myself” and “my body” at stake here.  We always must consider others in our freedom and not use it to cause them to fall into sin.

What is acknowledged here is that sexuality is a real thing.  Long hair has often been a sign of status, of sexuality, and could even be considered a “private part” in that culture.  Is a woman free to wear her hair the way she wants?  Certainly!  Could doing so, both then and now, perhaps cause men to fall into temptation?  Yes.  Is that her fault?  Definitely not.  Paul is asking for her consideration of her weaker brothers in the same way he encourages people to stay away from eating food offered to idols in previous chapters.

The same is true with the Lord’s Supper discourse.  Likely what was happening was a deepening of socio-economic divides within the church.  Those who were rich and did not have to work would go ahead and begin the meal while the “blue collar” workers would come in later and find the food and drink gone.  This is clearly contrary to many, if not all, of the purposes of the Lord’s Supper.  It is meant to bring unity, not division.  Paul encourages them to check their hearts here.  Are there systems in place that cause divisions among believers?

While some of these words are difficult to read and place into a contemporary context, they are important.  In a culture where “my rights” and “my desires” are so often placed ahead of everyone else, Paul reminds us once again that the freedom we are blessed with in Christ is not for our own benefit, but to be used in the loving, humble consideration and service of all we encounter.

1 Corinthians 10 – Israel's Messed Up Freedom

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As Paul continues his thoughts on Christian freedom, he appeals to the example that is set by Israel’s failures in the past.  While they had the law, their ultimate calling and identity was to be about loving God and loving each other.  All of what they did and what they were was to point to the coming Messiah, something that Paul shows here.  They, however, thought that they were doing right, that they were standing firm, and were deceived and paid the price for it.

While things are different now, in the age of grace rather than the bondage of the law, our response doesn’t change.  We are still called to love God and love each other as well as to live a transformed life.

Therefore, Paul says, flee from idolatry.  What does this mean for us?  Paul is calling Christians to live into their transformed life.  Yes, you have freedom in Christ and forgiveness through grace, but that shouldn’t be a ticket to do whatever you want.  Not everything is life is beneficial to us.

I often liken his comments about food and idols to TV shows.  Are we free to watch whatever we want?  Sure, and we often do.  There are a couple that I would struggle to give up if I was told to.  Does this mean that they are beneficial to me?  No in the slightest.  In fact, they may even be footholds for temptation.  Whether violence and hostility or sexual images, these things can cause great harm to us and potentially to those with us as well.

So often I find myself encouraging people to watch this or that show.  Rarely to I take into account what that person may be going through or dealing with in their lives.  Paul implores us to not cause anyone to stumble once again reminding us that our freedom is not to be used to our own advantage, but rather in the humble, loving, Christ-like service of others.

1 Corinthians 9 – All Things to All People

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Over the last several chapters, as Paul has been addressing specific issues, whether we realized it or not, he has been maintaining the same two themes: appropriate use of Christian freedom, and not being a hindrance to the message of the Gospel.  Now, in chapter 9, he brings it full circle.

Paul points to his own position as one that would offer him a profound amount of freedom.  In fact, understanding the full scope of his freedom could have allowed Paul the excuse to act however he wanted, say whatever he wanted, and most of all, refuse the deplorable conditions that he faced whenever he wanted.

Instead, Paul models the attitude and actions of Christ, not using his freedom for self-indulgence but “becoming all things to all people” in order that the message of the Gospel may advance.  This doesn’t mean that Paul subjected himself to their rules, though he wasn’t under the law, but he respected them for the sake of the spread of the Gospel.

Now, this may sound simple on paper, but Paul points out that it isn’t.  This posture of service and self-denial is not one that comes naturally to anyone.  It takes training and self-discipline far beyond any normal or natural behavior that we may exhibit.

I often think of the mission trips that I have been on.  Places that we went to went to extraordinary lengths to make accommodations for us middle-class kids.  We were there, in a foreign place with a foreign culture, but we were never really there… we always had water, food, and air mattresses to sleep on.  I often wonder how our creature comforts may have impacted the message of love that we came to bring.

What about your neighbors?  Does the way you act / live impact your witness to them?  If we are called to use our freedom to serve one another in love, what does that mean for how we live at home?  At work?

1 Corinthians 8 – Puffed Up

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Reading the middle section of 1 Corinthians, Paul seems to meander through issues in a scatterbrained sort of way.  He’s here and there and back again without any seemingly logical progression.  However, if we take a step back and look at the whole of this section, the same theme continues throughout: “Don’t let the way you act diminish the message of the Gospel.”  Sometimes he talks about this in reference to “outsiders,” here it is in reference to conduct with other believers.

Sacrificing food to idols is archaic practice if ever there was one.  I think this is why Paul frames this in terms of knowledge, not the act itself.  The reality is, in every Christian community, there are those that understand and embrace the freedom that Christ offers and those that are still working that out.  Those that have “knowledge,” meaning they understand the freedom they have, must temper how the act on it so as not to hurt others.  In this instance, some people may know that food sacrificed to a false god that doesn’t exist is fine to eat.  Yet younger Christians who may still be working that out could find it offensive… or perhaps even a temptation to fall back into their former sinful life.

Perhaps a more contemporary example would be the idea that drinking alcohol is not a sinful act.  However, expressing our freedom by drinking alcohol in front of a recovering alcoholic causing him/her to fall back into that addiction is wrong, the very opposite of Christ’s call to love.

Christian freedom is always express in love and concern for others.  Knowledge is always expressed through the wisdom of God that is in Christ Jesus.  Therefore let us use our knowledge to build others up… not to boast and be puffed up.

1 Corinthians 7 – #marriedlife

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Paul would seem ill-equipped to talk about being married, having never been so himself.  In fact, he states often that he sees his position as being better than actually being married.  It is important to understand that Paul is not setting up an argument for people to not get married, or even to get divorced.  Rather, he is continuing in the same line of thinking that he has been for the past two chapters, to stay away from sinning and thus damaging the witness of the church and the message of the Gospel.

All of this is coming in response to the information that Paul heard about the actions of the corinthian church.  Rather than being set apart for the Gospel, as those who believe in Jesus Christ are called to be, they have been behaving in ways that not only damage the witness of the believers but are also detestable to outsiders as well.

His tone also indicates that his greatest desire for believers is to be dedicated to the ministry of the Gospel, having their lives set apart for God and their focus placed solely on Him.  Simply put, Paul says that this is significantly easier for those who are not married.  That said, he also recognizes that being perpetually single is not for everyone.

No matter where we find ourselves in life, there will be trials and difficulties that will come our way.  Being single, or married for that matter, doesn’t change that; neither is a sin.  Paul’s desire for them, though, is that their priorities would be kept straight and that God would be at the center of their lives.  When this happens, even those that are married to unbelieving spouses will see the impact of God’s love and grace on those they love.

1 Corinthians 6 – Going Outside

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It seems like Paul suddenly changes the subject here, moving from sexual immorality to dealing with lawsuits of believers against each other.  However, we will return to that, incorporating all of this together into one overarching subject: How is our conduct impacting our witness?

This is an important question, not because we need to pretend that we have it all together, but because it forces us to examine what we do in and outside of the church.  Do those things damage the message of the Gospel?

In the time that Paul was writing, lawsuits were not simple legal affairs.  There was some significant corruption that plagued the legal system and much of the injustice that took place happens on class-specific lines.  Those who could afford to could buy the verdicts they wanted while the poorer people were left in continual oppression.  When we look at the Gospel message, this sort of class discrimination is completely wrong.

When Paul returns to the subject of sexual immorality, amongst other sins, he draws his warnings about lawsuits into this to again pose the question: Are the things that we are doing damaging our ability to spread the Gospel?  When public perception of the church makes people question the message of the Gospel that we uphold, it should give us pause.

Paul draws this all together in verse 12.  The Corinthian church was pretty free with what it was allowing and even endorsing as acceptable behavior for its constituents.  Ultimately, though, the problem is not behavioral but rather is a weakness in their identity and beliefs.  They are not living into their new identity in Christ and are misunderstanding the freedom that is offered them through His grace.  How does your community view your church?  Is that helping or hindering the Gospel message?

1 Corinthians 5 – Are you Proud?

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Paul warns his audience at the end of chapter 4 that, should the not change, he would be coming to them with a “rod of discipline.”  Here begins some of the reasoning for the need of that rod.  As we move forward here, it is important for us to recognize that Paul is covering some difficult topics, made more difficult by the current cultural trends that are taking place in the world today.  Yet, despite their difficulty, Paul is able to speak both sternly and lovingly at the same time.  This too is the posture that we, the church, should be taking, never losing sight of our continual call to love others as God has loved us.

The presence of sexual immorality in the city of Corinth was not unusual.  In fact, it was quite common.  But the presence of it, and more importantly, the acceptance of it within the church community, was completely out of line.  Paul points out that sin this extreme would not have even been accepted by those outside of the church and yet the people in there were proud.

For Him, this was a blatant abuse of the understanding of Christian Freedom and a total affront to the Gospel.  Why?  Because of the type of sin?  No.  Scripture is quite clear that no one sin is worse than another.  The issue here comes in the pride that has led to more sin rather than transformation in Christ.  Jesus’ call was to “go and sin no more,” and instead, these folks were basking in it.

One thing to note at the end here as well: Paul’s words about judgment are directly pointed toward us as Christians holding each other accountable.  This does not place us in the seat of judgment for others but instead is a call to build each other up.

**One other thing: It is important to note here the way in which Paul talks about Christian discipline.  Yes, he uses words that seem harsh: “Hand this man over to Satan…”  However, the tone of that whole statement is ultimately restorative in nature: “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”  Christian discipline within the church… and at home… should always be restorative at its very core, upholding the Truth of grace and forgiveness that Jesus Christ brings and the love that He shows to us… a love that we cannot be separated from (even by our own sinful actions), no matter what.