Who Is Sufficient for These Things?

2 Corinthians 2:12–17 – 2 Corinthians: A Testimony to Suffering in the Power of God
Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 19, 2019 (am)

Our stated theme for 2Co. is: Paul establishes the relationship between gospel suffering and God’s power in life and ministry. As we can see from the opening paragraphs, this is a letter about suffering and comfort in the Christian life, and particularly in the life and ministry of Paul with this Corinthian church—the suffering and comfort that are both essential components of the gospel Paul preaches.

And he is suffering mightily as our passage opens this morning. But that’s not entirely easy to see. We know he’s been addressing the division that was created between himself and the Corinthians due to the accusations of some among them that he’s not worthy to be an apostle. But we turned the corner last Sunday when we realized that he’s writing this letter to them after that division was mended—in fact, we heard his instruction on how to handle one of those among them who had caused it (5-12).

As today’s text opens, however, we’re being shown how Paul himself felt just before receiving the news that they had turned away from this sower of discord. We’re getting a glimpse of the depth of his love for the churches he planted. We know that his call to such ministry was inextricably linked with his call to saving faith, and that his call to suffer was linked to both of these. We hear all of this in the words of the resurrected Jesus Himself to Ananias, that man from Damascus who was appointed to restore Paul’s sight just after he was struck blind at his conversion. Jesus told Ananias that [Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel, [f]or I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (Act.9:15-16). So, it was clear from the start that Paul’s work would never be free of suffering.

But there was also no clear understanding of what his suffering would look like. If we were to guess, we’d probably have imagined something like what he lists over in 11:23ff.: imprisonments, beatings, [stoning], [shipwrecks], and such. And surely these were part of it. But at the climax of that list, Paul wrote: 11:28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches, almost like this was the greatest suffering of them all. He felt it deeply. And he carried it daily! So: 12 When [he] came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for [him] in the Lord, 13 [his] spirit was not at rest because [he] did not find [his] brother Titus there. So [he] took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.

The apostle Paul bypassed an opened door to preach the gospel of Christ in Troas because of his concern for the Corinthian church! How big is that? But then we read his expansion of this period over in 7:5-7: For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within.But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus,and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. His painful letter (3-4) had brought them grief, but it was that godly grief that produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret (7:8-10)—that gospel affliction which sets us up to know true gospel comfort.

So, that’s where Paul is headed. But this whole scenario has not yet played out as he moves into v.14 here. He’s left Troas and arrived in Macedonia. But we don’t hear of him connecting with Titus until c.7. Until then, he takes some time to reflect on his ministry and explain it to the Corinthians. And the result is so foundational in Paul’s thought that it becomes the basis for understating not only his applicational takeaways in this letter, but really in all his letters! (Hafemann 105). If you struggle to understand why suffering is so essential to Paul, to Christianity, and to a healthy understanding of Christianity, this is the passage that will help you most in putting that picture together. Let’s answer just two questions.

What Is Paul Telling the Corinthians?

Understanding where Paul is as this passage opens—not geographically but emotionally, so agitated in spirit that he couldn’t even preach (13)—his opening words are striking. 14 But thanks be to God! He gives thanks to God well after he typically would in his letters. At that point he offered [praise] for God’s comfort in our affliction. And here, when thanksgiving finally appears, it is not for God’s work in the Corinthians but for God’s work in Paul himself, which has benefitted the Corinthians! 14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.

What a powerful expression! Paul gives thanks to God who always leads us in [victory] and [freshens the air around us] everywhere [we go with the pleasant spiritual scent of knowing] Christ! Doesn’t that sound like what he’s saying? But that’s why we spent so much time making sure we understand where Paul was in vv.12-13. He’s not talking spiritual victory! He’s explaining why he shouldn’t be surprised to find himself in the state he’s in here. He’s helping the Corinthians understand what it’s really like to be a true apostle, an [ambassador] for Christ (5:20)—how it’s possible to endure the daily pressure of his anxiety for all the churches (11:28). This verse doesn’t mean what it initially seems to mean. In fact, it’s nearly opposite!

The key word that reveals what Paul is saying in this profoundly important verse is triumphal procession (θριαμβεύοντι). This is a technical term that refers to the Roman institution of the triumphal procession, which was a lavish parade… to celebrate great victories in significant military campaigns (Hafemann 107). Paul used the same word in Col.2:15 [God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Christ].

These were enormously popular and familiar events in Rome, celebrating their victories, praising the greatness of the Caesar who led the procession and parading proud enemies as conquered slaves, displaying their utter defeat, then [offering them] as a sacrifice to their god(s) (Hafemann 107-8).

What Paul is saying here is that he has been conquered by God in Christ and is now being led in triumphal procession as a slave of Christ, one of his favorite descriptions of himself as an apostle. And he’s being led to death in Christ, in order [to] display, [to] reveal the majesty and power and glory of God {Who has conquered him]! This is what explains his many references to his suffering as an apostle, given over to or sentenced to death (Hafemann 109).

Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death, we saw in 1:9. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

In 4:10-12 we are 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

In 6:9: We ambassadors of Christ (5:20) are treated 9 … as dying, [yet] behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed.

Back in 1Co.4 we read: 9 … I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death….

And in 1Co.15:31 … I die every day!

Paul is telling the Corinthians that his suffering as an apostle, evidenced here by his anxiety (11:28) for them (12-13), is the means through which God is revealing himself (Hafemann 110), either delivering him yet again from whatever his present suffering is or by giving him hope in the midst of it (cf. 1:8-10). And in all of this, God is [spreading] the fragrance of [Christ’s] sacrifice to everyone around. His deliverance of Paul or the hope that enables him to endure bear witness to the truth of the knowledge of Christ and therefore the legitimacy of Paul’s apostleship to every single person he encounters. To some it’s a witness to the reliability of the life they have embraced through faith in Christ. To others it’s a witness to the death in which they remain as they reject faith in Christ. But it is surely a witness to both (16). And how they receive Paul’s message, confirmed by his suffering, reveals their true standing before God—either life or death! This is bold!

So, Paul asks: 16 …Who is sufficient for these things? How is it possible that his ministry carries such weight, revealing the eternal destiny of all his hearers? Who [can bear such a weighty role]? Again, the answer is not obvious. It is not: No one, as we would expect. Paul’s assumed answer to this question is: I am (Hafemann 112). [He is], but not on his own recognizance, not by his own authority, but by virtue of the very work he’s been describing here. 17 For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. We’re commissioned by God and we speak in Christ, with God as our witness (cf. 1:23). We’re not doing this for money (we are not… peddlers). And we’re surely not doing it for prestige (our suffering proves that). So, the only thing that accounts for my actions, Paul is saying, is that God has commissioned me, and He alone keeps me going even through all I must endure!

So, thanks be to God (14) for His comfort in this suffering! It is confirmation of His [commissioning] in my life. And how you receive my teaching is confirmation of His calling, or judgment, in yours. That’s what Paul is telling the Corinthians.

What Should We Gain from This?

This is not just Paul’s experience. It is the experience of all who embrace Christ by faith. Paul was uniquely called to bring the gospel to Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel thorough suffering (Act.9:15-16). He was uniquely commissioned by God to be a [foundational apostle] on whom the church was built (Eph.2:20). But the us in v.14, the plural, may not point only to apostles, as many suggest. It may suggest that what Paul is saying about himself always [being led] in triumphal procession in Christ is also true of the Corinthians, and indeed of all of us who are in Christ—all of us who are called to deny (ourselves) and take up his cross and follow [Jesus], all of us who are told that whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Jesus’] sake and for the gospel’s will save it (Mar.8:34-35). This is our calling! And it is good!

Paul wrote this to the Galatians (2:20) about himself, but clearly intending to include them: 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. We, too, have been conquered by Christ to live for Him!

This brings suffering. But it also brings comfort. And it is filled with blessing such that it will leave us giving thanks to God as well, for always leading us in triumphal procession in Christ! We will rejoice with Paul: 4:11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. And this is a good thing! 5:14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. This is a good thing! Rom.6: 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said (Cost 89): When Jesus calls a man he bids him come and die. He was just expressing what he heard in Scripture, from Jesus and from Paul. And we’re called to come and die, he adds, because only the [one] who is dead to his own will can follow Christ (Bonhoeffer 90). Paul understood that. And he was giving thanks to God for it even while struggling under the burden of his concern for this Church, because he understood that the burden he felt was present precisely because he shared Jesus’ heart for the church! He was a slave of Christ whose life was now wholly given over to the message of His gospel and the magnification of His glory!

That is what we need to gain from this passage. We have asked: Can you imagine changing your plans only because it opens a greater opportunity for the gospel? That is almost beyond our ability to imagine. But let me add a new question to it: Can you imagine feeling anxiety only, or even primarily, because of your concern for another Christian’s spiritual wellbeing—and then [comforting] yourself by remembering that, by God’s calling and [commission],  this sort of gospel love is central focus and purpose of your life?

The parents among us who have straying children can surely identify with this question. The anxiety that arises over an adult child who displays ever fewer signs of true spiritual life the older (s)he gets resonates with Paul’s description in vv.12-13. So, we know something of this. But the follow-up question is: Can you imagine loving God’s people and God’s work so much that you worry over one another the way you would worry over your own straying child?

Can you imagine that describing our love for one another in this body?

Youth, can you imagine that sort of love standing at the center of your relationship with one another—love that is hungry for one another’s spiritual health and growth?

Young families, can you imagine carrying that burden for one another as the [comforting] reassurance that you are indeed always [being led] in triumphal procession in Christ [such that you are spreading] the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere you go? Somehow, I imagine that as this focus becomes yours, even the concerns you carry for your own family will take on a wholly new light—a holy new light!


That is the testimony Paul is giving here. He’s unpacking the work of Christ in our hearts such that it makes sense of his behavior that could seem so erratic to some—multiple changes of plans, worry to the point of distraction, and yet deep confidence in God all along.

It’s all explained once we understand that, in Christ, our lives are [presented] to God as a living sacrifice (Rom.12:1), to answer His [commissioning], to pursue His calling, to present His gospel as though the sacrifice of Christ is the very aroma that wafts up around us everywhere we go. This really is what it means to be in Christ!

So now, our closing questions: Are you living the life Paul describes here? And if not, what should you do about that? Let’s take a few moments in silent prayer to answer these questions before coming to the Table of the Lord to celebrate together the overwhelmingly amazing price that was paid to provide this life to us.