2 Corinthians 2 – Pleasing Aroma

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In Hebrew culture, hundreds of years before this was written, there was a prevailing understanding that our actions, as well as our prayers, rose up before God in the same way the smoke rose from the fires of a sacrifice.  When we love God and love our neighbors, our actions are a pleasing aroma to Him.  However,  in the case of Israel, when the turned away from God, even the smell of the Temple sacrifices was repulsive before Him.

Paul draws on this theme as he addresses the church in Corinth, knowing full well that the divisions there, between each other and even what has happened between them and Paul are anything but a pleasing aroma.  What’s worse, this so-called aroma is one that everyone else around them can “smell” as well.  Rather than being the pleasing aroma of Christ, Paul warns them such actions (as well as many others) could be an aroma of death.

Reconciliation is what Paul is seeking here; living into the call of the Gospel for unity in the Holy Spirit.  Paul longs to be reconciled to them and them to each other, that their actions of forgiveness and love would be the “aroma” that those around them smell.

People can almost smell fakeness on others.  I think this is something that the church today struggles with a lot.  We all want everyone else to believe that we have it all together; that somehow our faith has made everything in life perfect for us (because obviously, it is for everyone else).  The reality, though, is that we’re not perfect… we’re all messed up.  Pretending to be perfect, or that the hurts of the past don’t matter, doesn’t actually help and those outside of our faith communities can see right through it.

We are called to be reconciled to each other.  In fact, we are given the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation as those who are in Christ and it has to start with us.  As much as it may be easier to call others to it while ignoring ourselves, reconciliation is the “plank in our own eye” that we may need to get out first.

2 Corinthians 1 – Comfort and Joy

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As Paul begins this letter to the church in Corinth, he praises God for an abundance of comfort and joy in the midst of a number of trials and struggles that he has faced.  Given the context of this letter he could be referring to a difficult visit that he had with the church in Corinth or some other physical threat that Paul faced, and there were many.

What he faced, however, is not as important as how God has once again shown His faithfulness to Paul in bringing him through it.  In fact, Paul says, the trials he faced were there so that Paul would learn to trust more in God and less on himself.  This deliverance and provision is ongoing and Paul encourages the believers in Corinth to join him in this through prayer.

After saying this, Paul abruptly changes subjects for a moment, to talk about the change of plans that he has made.  Apparently, this has caused a bit of a stir in the community even so much as to cause them to question Paul’s truthfulness.

Yet Paul brings this all back together, speaking of God’s plans for him and for all believers and how they are much more important.  While we should certainly aim to be truthful and honest about how we speak, not committing to things and then dumping them when better offers come along, something that seems to happen in our culture today, we do need to always have a listening ear for the Spirit’s voice and direction.

God is certainly not out to do us harm but is always working to shape and mold us into the image of His Son.  For in Him, as Paul says, the answer is always “yes,” though not always in the way that we might think.  Paul’s change of plans, while sudden and abrupt, was God’s working for the benefit of both Paul and the church in Corinth.  We too much have this listening ear, allowing God to guide and grow us into mature faith.

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.

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.