I Am Ready to Come to You
2 Corinthians 12:11–21 – 2 Corinthians: A Testimony to Suffering in the Power of God
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019 (am)
Let’s look into this text; I believe it presents us with some soul-searching lessons we need to consider.
Reviewing Paul’s Call to the Corinthians, and What Deadened Their Ears
As this section opens, knowing what we know from previous weeks, we can hear Paul moving toward a conclusion. He’s mentioned acting [foolishly] six times since the beginning of c.11 (11:1, 16, 16, 17, 19, 21; 12:6). Now, here again: 11 I have been a fool! And, again he puts it on them: You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, meaning they came to saving faith; their lives were changed! And more, his ministry was also accompanied with signs and wonders and mighty works. 13 [The only thing I did that has given you occasion for anything other than celebrating my work among is] not to burden you? 13 [I didn’t take money from you.] Forgive me this wrong! 16 But [worse than that], I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. They were suggesting that Paul worked among them for nothing, for [eighteen] months (Act.18:11), just to dupe them into giving more to the offering he was receiving for Jerusalem, like he’d get more out of them that way! That’s what he’s clarifying here (17-18); Titus and the brother (18) who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel (8:18), along with one additional [man] (8:22), were the ones Paul sent to Corinth to receive the offering (8:16-24). He must’ve been expecting pretty generous giving if he was going to forfeit a year-and-a-half’s wages just to get a part of it!
And he continues on addressing their misconceptions as v.19 begins: 19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? Is that what you [think], like we need to convince you that we’re worthy messengers in comparison to those false apostles some of you are still listening to? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and [that] for your upbuilding, beloved, hoping to strengthen you in Christ, not suggesting that there’s any credibility to your critique of us. You’re the ones in a problem place here, not me: Paul is saying. 20 For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish—you may not have [repented] yet, and… you may find me not as you wish—I may not be able to [build you up] at that point! In fact, I surely won’t if you haven’t repented —I’m thinking that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy (cf. 1Co.1:11; 3:3), anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. In other words, I’m concerned that the same struggles you’ve long had there in Corinth may still be present next time I come, and that won’t be good! That won’t work in your favor! 21 I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you—I may be [brought low] by the meager fruit that my labor among you has produced, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.
This is the first time these sexual sins have been mentioned as part of the problem in this letter, though they were front-and-center in 1Co. (cc.5, 6, 7, 10). Evidently such things were continuing to happen among the false apostles and those who hadn’t yet turned away from their teaching. The fact that Paul mentions these sins for the first time at the end of his argument indicates that [they] were not the direct problem, but were symptomatic of the larger issue that was still facing the church: which was the continuing rejection of Paul’s apostolic gospel for a different Jesus and Spirit (cf. 11:4). This fundamental acceptance of an alien message had led to the Corinthians’ continued lives of rebellion (Hafemann 488), continued indulgence in their [sin] without [repentance] (21).
So, Paul is telling them in no uncertain terms that he’s zealous for their [repentance]. He’s going to be returning to Corinth soon for a third (14) visit. And when he comes he will discipline them if he must (13:1-10). But that is not his desire, proven by the love he shows them in not taking their money for his gospel service among them. 14 Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And still I will not be a burden to you…. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. He [loves] them like they’re [his own kids]! In fact, 15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? Isn’t this sort of expression from me not some sign that you’re less favored that the rest of the churches (13), but in fact a sign that you’re [loved] as if you were my children? And surely it’s also a sign of what is my number one priority among you: 14 … for I seek not what is yours, but you!
Here is the uniqueness of Paul’s apostolic ministry among the Corinthians. He [loves] the churches! He wants them to know and love and trust the same God he knows and [loves] and trusts, so he’s willing to remove every potential obstacle to that happening! He’s willing to do anything that will set apart his work from that of the false apostles (11:13). He’s even willing to entrust himself to God and work without pay if that’s what it takes! He’s willing to be thought a fool, by refusing both to use the eloquent rhetoric or receive the precious money they held in such esteem. He even entered in (for a moment!) to the boasting (c.11) they thought so essential! He was willing to spend himself for them as his expression of love! And he wanted their love in return, their hearts—he wanted them! (14) And the very things he did in expression of his love, of God’s love, of gospel love, were the things that seemed to deaden their ears!
Reflecting on How This Same Scenario Often Plays Out in Our Lives
How often do we see that very same scenario play out in our lives, or the lives of our children, or family or friends or colleagues? The very words we hear that persuade us of the love and mercy and goodness of God confirm the opposite for them! The selflessness and humility Paul displayed was received by the repentant minority in Corinth, in addition to their own repentance, as confirmation of his authenticity as an apostle of God, delivering the clear, pure gospel. Yet those very same qualities gave sufficient grounds for the unrepentant minority to listen to the seeds of doubt and accusation that were sewn by the false apostles. It’s as though the very same words and actions and even results from Paul’s ministry meant entirely different things to each group: like to one they were a fragrance from life to life, and to the other a fragrance from death to death (cf. 2:16).
So, what made the difference back then? And what makes the difference today? Simplest answer: the [repentance] and faith Paul was seeking in Corinth is what makes the difference, both then and now! They needed to trust the work of God that was being done among them. They needed to receive it with faith, rather than suspicion and doubt. Remember Paul’s words to the Galatians? 3:1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law—that is, by some recipe that includes your own efforts—or by hearing with faith? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?
Clearly, it’s when God’s people [hear] His gospel, His Word with faith that His work is done in them and among them. It’s when they receive the confrontation of their sin and stubbornness with humility, [repentance], and faith that they’re cleansed and restored to fellowship like the majority part of the church in Corinth. It’s when they embrace that godly grief [which] produces repentance that [they experience the] salvation without regret (7:10) that truly satisfies their souls. That’s how it worked in Corinth. That’s how it worked in Galatia. And that’s still how it works today.
And the absence of that humble, [repentant] response of faith doesn’t just leave us in a spiritually neutral state. It works against us. It weakens us. It makes us vulnerable to things we feel like we need to excuse or cover up; it leaves us places where we feel very ashamed to be. And all of that is alluded to right here in our text today. Let me just condense them into three principles that we can ponder as we’re able.
Resistance of humble [repentance] in one (smaller, hidden?) area of life may well lead to spiritual stubbornness in other (larger, public/open?) areas of life. Paul gave a list of sins in v.20 each of which he’d already addressed in his first letter to this church: quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. These may well describe the disposition of the unrepentant minority toward Paul when he returns for a third visit, but they had long been issues that this body struggled with, and to which they continued to be vulnerable. These are sins that nestle into the recesses of our hearts and get very comfortable there. Then they begin to show up in our words and tones of voice and attitudes and outlooks on life. And finally, they become the things that stand up in opposition to the voice of the Spirit as He calls to us through the Word to respond to some prompting with humility, [repentance], and faith. These vices, now pretty deeply rooted, can leave us in the place where we can’t even imagine a humble, faith-filled response. It can even seem wrong!
The ways of the world can reach much deeper into our hearts than we realize and fuel a tolerance for sin we would not have thought possible. Paul mentioned more sins in v.21 that were, again, quite familiar in Corinth, but had been in the background in this letter until now. It appears here that part of the stubborn resistance that was evident in the unrepentant minority may have been attached to sins of the flesh that they didn’t want to give up. The adjusted sexual ethic of the day in Corinth either had never been fully purged from the church, or had subtly and steadily worked its way back into that community. And, just like today, the gratification of additions was hard to forsake. Also just like today, there seems to have been an idea either that these personal sins can remain hidden, or they should just be let out into the light and normalized. We understand that latter tendency today; it is stunning what many even among professing believers want to excuse in our day when the topic is freedom of sexual expression. But here we just need to note what an impact it was having on the unity and wellbeing of the church there in Corinth. The sins of some that made all among them vulnerable, was also in some sense tied to this minorities ongoing resistance of the work of the true gospel among them and was threatening to tear the church in two. The only effective answer had to be the words Paul had already spoken: 7:1 … let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God—humble, [repentant] faith.
Paul’s warning to the unrepentant Corinthians sounds very much like Jesus’ call on a far grander scale: to repentance and readiness for His return. Jesus posed the question: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luk.18:8) And that is a worthy question. Will we endure? Will we keep our eyes fixed on the Jesus and the great salvation He’s provided? Will we press on to embrace that godly grief [which] produces a repentance that leads us on to salvation without regret? (7:10) Will our confidence in the resurrection of Jesus continue to fuel undying hope in the day of our own resurrection?
Let’s take a few moments in preparation for communion to reflect on at least one of these three lessons in prayer; and let’s do so not just for ourselves but for our church.