Plans and Pastoral Care, Part 2
2 Corinthians 1:23–2:11 – 2 Corinthians: A Testimony to Suffering in the Power of God
Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019 (am)
When we last looked in on Paul and the Corinthians, he was explaining to them his change of travel plans. Some among them had seized upon those changes to suggest that [Paul was] vacillating, that he was [making his] plans according to the flesh (17). But he explained to them in no uncertain terms that he was doing just the opposite.
As we saw last week, Paul was making his decisions in dependence on the grace of God (12), and for the benefit of the Corinthian believers (15). He was acting, speaking, writing (13) with [holiness] and godly sincerity toward them (12). What the Corinthians needed most kept changing, so Paul adjusted his plans accordingly—because [his] intention remained the same, his plans changed! (Hafemann 85) That’s not vacillating. That was his amen to the finished work of God in Christ: he’d do whatever it took to communicate the grace of God to his churches.
Well, that disposition continues on toward them in today’s text. We mused together last Sunday about what it might look like if the only reason believers would change their plans—personal, social, business—was for increased gospel impact. Can you even imagine living such a gospel-centered life? That’s what Paul is modeling here with the Corinthians. And he takes it a step further as he moves on to explain his second change in plans here. He gives a bit more detail that helps them see his others-centered thinking. Then he calls them to do the same in their relationship with a brother in need. Then finally, he unveils his ultimate purpose (Hafemann 90) for this instruction that is as essential as it is surprising. Let’s consider this text from three angles.
Modeling a Ministry of Comfort – 1:23-2:4
Paul opened last week’s passage appealing to the testimony of [his] conscience to validate the case he was making with the Corinthians—like a witness in court. Today he does the same, and even steps it up in a couple ways! I call on God to witness against me (1:23). This could sound like he’s [calling] on God to be a witness for the prosecution. But that’s not really true. Literally, he’s saying: I call on God for a witness upon my soul (cf. YLT), or I call on God as a witness against my life (Hafemann 87). He’s inviting God to take his life if he’s lying!
Paul is dead earnest on this point he’s making with the Corinthians. And what he’s saying is: 23 … it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. … 2:1 For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. After visiting them the first time on his way to Macedonia, and having such a singularly painful experience, addressing their rebel-lion against his authority (Hafemann 86), he knew that if he returned so soon, he’d likely have to implement some form of discipline against them. He didn’t want to lord it over [them]. He wanted to work with [them] for [their] joy (1:24). But, given where they were at his recent visit, he decided to give them some space and just write them a letter instead (2:3).
2:3 And I wrote as I did, Paul says, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. [He] felt sure that they would respond well to this painful letter (2:4), that it would bring them to repentance for their rebellion in siding with his opponents, that it would restore their [joyful] fellowship with one another (2:3). He was confident the abundant love that [he had] for [them] would shine through his writing (1:13) and melt their hearts (2:3-4)—that by God’s abundant grace his words would bring comfort in this affliction.
And the good news is, it did! The ones Paul is addressing here have returned to fellowship with him. That’s why we have a 2 Corinthians! 76 … God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, 7 … as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. 8 For even if I made you grieve with my letter, … 9 … I rejoice, … because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief…. And 10 … godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret…. 2:5 Now…, Paul says, I have an assignment for you!
Requesting a Ministry of Comfort – 2:5-11
2:5 … [I]f anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but, in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. Paul is letting them know that he’s not just protecting his own best interest here. The dissension that’s been created by his opponents has hurt the Corinthians more than it’s hurt him. Your own Elders, Grace Church, can testify to the truth of this observation. In any season of painful trial, the heart of the Elders aches for the burden that is placed on the body. I recall one of our Elders voicing that request to God in prayer when we were facing such a trial a few years ago. He said: Father, please let this burden fall on our shoulders and not those of this body. That’s just the work of God’s grace in those He calls to shepherd His people.
Paul is mindful of such a burden on the shoulders of the Corinthian here. The criticisms against him have caused them pain, discord in their body. It even put them in the place of having to discipline one of Paul’s opponents. And they did so. But just as Paul has joyfully forgiven them upon their repentance (7:9), he’s calling on them to extend [forgiveness] to the one they have disciplined: 7 … you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. He wants to see if they can extend the same [forgiveness] they’ve received. It can only be granted in response to genuine repentance—born of godly grief—and the pain it has caused doesn’t immediately go away. But repentance is met with [forgiveness] from one believer to another just like repentance is met with [forgiveness] from God to all believers. And if the Corinthians will forgive, so will Paul:10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. …
This is an amazing exchange, but we’ll get back to it in a moment. First, note how Paul finishes this thought. Note the ultimate purpose (Hafemann 90) of his point here. 10 … Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. The truest battle here is not… against flesh and blood (Eph.6:12). Let’s think about this.
Reflecting On a Ministry of Comfort
Let’s reflect on the elements of Paul’s ministry of comfort in Corinth, especially as he expresses it here in these closing verses of today’s passage. We can see at least three things that Paul is doing here that are quite unusual in our day.
Paul esteems others’ burden ahead of his own. From the start of this letter, those who were stirring up trouble in Corinth were doing so by questioning Paul’s suitability as an apostle. But equally from the start, he is not taking that personally. He’s recognizing it as rebellion against God and injury to God’s people. And in the strategy he’s mapping out, from his travel itinerary to his letter-writing to his situation instruction of them, Paul is putting their need, burden, trial, affliction ahead of his own. And his instruction was a test for them, so that he could know whether [they] are obedient in everything (9)—whether [they] are living out their faith against the push-back of the fallen world around them or caving in to those forces, or even just stopping short of full [obedience] because of them.
The advance of the gospel and the wellbeing of the church are higher priorities to him than his own comfort in affliction. Or better, extending comfort to his churches in their affliction is not only the purpose of his comfort (1:6), but the realization of it! That is his comfort! (7:6-7) This is what abundant love (4) looks like, how it acts, not just in leaders, but also in and among the church. This is what Paul wants for the Corinthians.
Paul entrusts his burden to them. This is a sweet quality in a church community: trusting one another, and entrusting ourselves to one another. As Paul sees the Corinthians [standing] firm in their faith (1:24) and being obedient in everything (2:9), even a hard test like implementing church discipline, and an even harder one like ending it, extending [forgiveness], he can entrust his wellbeing, his honor, to them and know it will be handled in a manner worthy of God. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. Any cost to me just sets the stage for your growth in Christ.
Trust is such an essential commodity in the life and wellbeing of the church, and indeed in all relation-ships. When it is present, truly any obstacle can be overcome. But when it is absent, the slightest conflict, real or perceived, can bring you down. Trust shows itself most clearly in a unity that endures under fire, through trial and affliction. That’s why preserving that unity is such a high priority in the church. Paul wrote (Eph.4:3 niv): 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Paul unmasks what is truly at stake here. As he [forgives], as he shepherds these Corinthians toward a strong and loving faith, toward tender [hearts] with firm convictions, toward [faithfulness] in gospel affliction and also [faithfulness] with gospel comfort, there is a lot more at stake than just a bit more peaceful and settled life. When conflict and feeble faith tear at the fabric of the Christian community, much more is happening than just that we’re ill-equipped to offer a compelling witness to the world, or that we may be giving them cause to revile God. And Paul nails down what that is here with his closing purpose statement. He’s doing what he’s doing with the Corinthians here 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
This is what’s at stake! When the church is in disarray, squabbling with one another, vying for power and prominence, resisting God-designed authority structure, stirring up discord and dissatisfaction, tearing down unity and trust, it is not God’s work that is being done, but the enemy’s.
Worldliness, it has been said (Wells Wasteland 29), is what makes sin look normal… and righteousness seem odd. And the real tragedy is when that happens even in the church. But worldliness ignites so easily in a church community—it is such a present and easy alternative to the hard work of [holiness] and godly sincerity (1:12). And this fire spreads so quickly. It burns so hot and so fast that we often don’t even have time to note the winners and losers it produces, the gains and losses. The Puritan pastor Thomas Watson said it best: Satan kindles the fire of contention in men’s hearts, and then he stands and warms himself at the fire.
Let’s hear Paul’s instruction to this church. Let’s see his model and follow his example. To summarize what we’ve seen and heard in in this text today, and to articulate a single charge that we can take with us: Let’s live in grace and [forgiveness] toward one another lest we be outwitted by Satan (2:11).
Let’s live in grace that not only shows itself in a gracious spirit toward one another, but also in loving, God-designed discipline of any among us who persists in some pattern of disregard for the authority and instruction of God’s Word.
And let’s live in [forgiveness] toward all who turn to God in repentance and faith, whether from sinful unbelief or from rebellious wandering from the path of life.
And let’s recognize one more time through Paul’s subtle but poignant closing here that Eph.6:12 … we do not wrestle against flesh and blood in this pursuit, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. This theme will arise again in this letter. And this is a church that knew much of the burden of it.
So does the church today, including ours. And the same grace of God that was sufficient to bring about the Corinthians repentance and [forgiveness], the same grace of God that was sufficient to enable them to forgive an erring brother, is the same grace of God that is available to us today for all these same purposes. And it is sufficient for every single one of them. Where do you need to receive [forgiveness] today? Where do you need to extend [forgiveness]? Where do you need to taste afresh of the grace of God, to be strengthened in your trust in Him and His people? Let’s seek Him for that today in silent prayer.
Now let’s celebrate the Answer He’s given. Please join me at the Lord’s Table.