2 Corinthians 1:1-2:4

13Mar11

This is the first text-unit covered in our 13-week class. I’m co-teaching with a friend on Sunday mornings, and I delivered this lesson on March 6th (along with the preliminaries). This post will be a bit more detailed, and I am using the NIV2011 courtesy of Biblegateway.com here. In class I used the CEB because I had an advance NT copy handy. I had spent two hours trying to work my own translation, but there are issues in the text I cannot rightly address without more time and resources, so defaulting to the NIV is my natural choice. We’ll take things one piece at a time.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia:

2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The author, obviously, is Paul. Timothy is acting as his secretary. He’s writing to primarily the church in Corinth, but this chain letter is intended for the entire province of Achaia/Achea, which would also include churches in Athens, if there were any.

Note Paul’s greeting. “Grace” sounds very similar to the normal Greek way to say hello, and then “peace” is a traditional Jewish greeting. It’s genius how Paul takes a Hebrew greeting and a slight pun on a Greek greeting to make a uniquely Christian theological greeting.

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

This section is Paul’s opening prayer. For him, it is not a mere formality. Whatever you may think Paul’s letter is about, you can probably find the main theme within his prayer. It is a key for unlocking the whole letter. In this case, the words “comfort”, “trouble”, “distress”, and “sufferings” leap off the page. In vv 3-4, the “we” refers to all Christians: God is worthy of praise because he comforts us in any and every trouble, and he pours out so much comfort that it spills over. When we are full of all we need, we give the same comfort to others that we have received from God. Psalm 23:5 comes to mind: “my cup overflows.” This is how God comforts us, and for this he deserves praise.

Paul switches gears in verse 6. Here the “we” refers to Paul, Silvanus/Silas, and Timothy: whether we experience trouble or comfort, it’s for your [Corinthians’ and Athenians’] comfort. Paul views the fate of all his churches linked with his own fate. If he goes through a hard time and experiences opposition for the sake of the Gospel, then he’s going to stand firm and provide a heroic example. Paul will pay any price for the Gospel. Every time he is forced to prove that, he gives “comfort” by providing a confirmation of the truth of the Gospel. He wouldn’t pay any price if he wasn’t 100% convinced in the resurrection of the dead. Brave examples provide encouragement. And, if he manages to catch a break, then that should provide confirmation that God does indeed watch over his people. Either way, what happens to him should provide comfort to the Corinthians and Athenians. His comfort reminds them that they too will receive comfort in anything they suffer. Hence, it encourages them to stand firm and endure hardship.

Verse 7 builds rapport with the readers by restating the point that their fates are intertwined with Paul and co. They share the same sufferings and the same comfort, both of which are on account of faithfulness to the Gospel.

8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

Now Paul moves on to reporting on his recent events and current circumstances. This is a pretty typical thing in a missionary’s letter. Verse 8 and the first sentence of verse 9 establish a sense of foreboding, then verse 9 explains the reason for this distress: Paul was stretched beyond his ability so that he would learn to rely on God’s ability. This included believing he would die, and quite likely, Paul had to learn to “let go” of the churches and accept that they could continue without him. We should not gloss over the specific attribute Paul names: God is the one who raises the dead. Paul knew that his death would not be the end, either of the churches of or Paul.

Paul is confident that God will continue to rescue him both in life and through resurrection. Yet the prayers of the Corinthians and Athenians is worth mention in this rescue, too. The many who prayed for Paul’s well-being will also be able to give thanks because the prayer was answered. For Paul, it is an accomplishment in and of itself to get people to praise God and give thanks together. Unity is a central goal, and if it has to be unity in prayer to save Paul from distress, then it’s worth the distress that he has to endure. When that prayer is answered and there is unity in thanksgiving, it is all the more sweet. Paul never draws attention to his own ability in this section.

12 Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace. 13 For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand. And I hope that, 14 as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand fully that you can boast of us just as we will boast of you in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Now Paul begins to get into the meat of the letter. He takes pride in his clear conscience about conduct among these churches. He’s always been completely open and transparent with them. While he could have been “smart” about how to deal with people, he chose to be honest instead. If you choose to be honest rather than crafty, then God’s grace is all you’ve got going for you.

Verses 13-14 explain that Paul thinks his message should be pretty clear about his intention to come visit them (see below). While on the subject of understanding Paul, he hopes that at the very least they fully understand how they will be able to take pride in him on the Day of Christ, just as he takes pride in them. Rarely do discussions between Christians today revolve around the Day of Christ, but for Paul it is a pivotal moment that unites all Christians and it pops up in his discussions frequently. He takes pride in his churches’ growth in Christ and their endurance of suffering, and they likewise can take pride in him.

15 Because I was confident of this, I wanted to visit you first so that you might benefit twice. 16 I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. 17 Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both “Yes, yes” and “No, no”?

Paul has just expressed his confidence that there will be mutual pride and a strong comrade-bond in the Day of Christ, and now he explains that this bond is why he had intended to visit them, not only once, but twice. Paul expects that common sense will give his readers the answers to the rhetorical questions of verse 17. Obviously, His intent to visit them twice was not arbitrary, and he doesn’t change his mind like a girl changes clothes.

18 But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silas and Timothy—was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” 20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

And now Paul switches gears. He lets those pointed rhetorical questions remain as the only defense of his own integrity, and now he focuses on God’s integrity. Paul’s own integrity is linked with the integrity of what he preaches. And he preaches Jesus Christ, God’s son. There is no pussyfooting around when we talk about Jesus — the answer is a consistent “yes”. If God is faithful [=consistent], and Paul preaches God’s son, then surely Paul considers consistency such a high virtue that he would seek to be consistent in his own promises, too.

It is through Christ that the early Christians spoke the “Amen” [=”yes”] at the end of each prayer or act of praise. It affirms that God is real, and that they really mean their prayers. Paul here explains that they say the “Amen” in Christ because Christ is God’s “yes”. Since Christ is faithful, it is simply fitting that we say “yes” to God through him. After all, it is in him that God’s promises have their “yes” to us, also. Christ, then, acts as the “yes” bridge both ways between us and God.

Paul’s defense of his own integrity is utterly fascinating and mind-blowing because he turns it into a lesson on God’s faithfulness and (successfully, I might add!) turns self-defense into an act of God-praise.

21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. 23 I call God as my witness—and I stake my life on it—that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth. 24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm.

Paul just spent a considerable amount of time explaining that God is faithful, and now he says that God is the link between him and the Corinthians: it is the same God that makes them stand firm in Christ. If that’s true, then God’s faithfulness links them. Paul then lists several things God has done: he put his stamp on us and gave the Spirit as a down payment of everything we will someday have. It is this faithful and giving God that Paul calls upon as a witness on his behalf (who could be a more faithful witness than God?). He swears by his own life, with God (who sets the standard for faithfulness and honesty) affirming it, that Paul’s reason for not visiting the Corinthians was to spare them the heartache of seeing him as an emotional (and physical?) wreck.

2:1 So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. 2 For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? 3 I wrote as I did, so that when I came I would not be distressed by those who should have made me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. 4 For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.

Paul then elaborates on why he decided not to visit them after all. “If I’m down, and I go and bring you down, then who’s gonna cheer me up since I just brought you down?” He decided instead to write them a very important and personal note. It’s much easier to keep your composure in writing than in person, especially back before electronic media. Every note took a few hours to a few days, so any emotional bursts could be erased before sending the final draft.

Yet because of his love for them, he wanted to write them and not simply leave them in the dark. If he loved them enough to want to visit them twice, yet he doesn’t visit at all, he must be pretty darned distressed. And if he’s willing to write them despite his distress, then he must really love them. He chose not to become self-absorbed in his pain, but instead focused his concern outward toward those who mean the world to him.

We could certainly learn a lot from that.

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