2 Cor 2:5-3:6


My co-teacher, Brandon, did a lesson on this section almost three weeks ago. I was out sick, unfortunately. I’m, obviously, behind in my blogging. We’ve been using 21st Century Christian’s Life Links to God study materials for this class. I personally give it no more than a cursory glance and prefer to let the text speak to me on its own. Yet, sometimes the study aid does indeed come in handy.

Now, here’s my exposition of the NIV2011 text, courtesy of biblegateway.

Forgiveness for the Offender

5 If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely. 6 The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. 9 Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. 10 Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, 11 in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.

It helps to remember that the text doesn’t come to us in neatly packaged chunks. Right before this, Paul had explained that his reason for not visiting as he had said he would is because he didn’t want to dampen their morale in his own gloom. Yet, he reaffirms how much he loved them just in 2:4. I repeat the ending of the previous lesson in saying how amazing it is for him to overcome the selfishness that usually comes with despair and instead focus on sending a letter to focus on the needs of others. This in and of itself is quite remarkable.

Now, this section raises a few questions about the background of the letter: Who is the guy who is causing grief? Perhaps the guy sleeping with his stepmother in 1 Cor 5? Is this the one whose grief-causing made Paul decide to not visit in person, or was the grief in Asia Minor the only issue? What was the majority’s reproving response to the guy’s grief-causing?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. But, to look at Paul’s phrasing in verse 5, he seems to be downplaying the offense by saying “if anyone has”. I sincerely doubt that the troublemaker is the guy from 1 Cor 5, even though 5:2 specifically mentions grief and then talks about a sufficient punishment: “handing over to Satan”. I would take a guess that this means temporary exile, but that is only a guess. Whatever happened to that guy, Paul took the matter fairly seriously. His tone is quite different in 2 Cor 2, so I suspect it is a different matter.

Who it was and what he did is not something Paul focuses on. His focus is on the church’s proper response to the guy’s (assumed) repentance. Whatever punishment was given, likely a public rebuke and temporary exile, is enough. I say this is the punishment likely, because I think “the majority” would likely punish through some social barrier rather than through something that could be done by only a few.

Now that the punishment is over with, it is time to forgive [lit. “show grace”] and to comfort him so that he will not be overwhelmed by [lit. “drown in”] sorrow. Paul reiterates that it is now time to love him back into the fold. The offense and its punishment were not worth mentioning by name, nor was it necessary to point out who the offender was; Paul’s focus is on the man’s redemption.

Verse 9 carries its own question: which letter is Paul talking about when he says he wrote to them? If this is the guy from 1 Cor 5, then he is saying that his motive in writing that part of that letter was to test them and see whether or not they would hand out the discipline he prescribed. But, if this is a different person, then he is saying that a partial motive in writing 2 Corinthians was to test and see whether they would forgive. Honestly, disciplining someone you care about is a difficult task, and it’s tempting not to. And paradox or not, it’s also hard to forgive someone you care about. This could go either way.

Paul says that he will forgive as they have done, “if there’s anything for [him] to forgive.” Once again he downplays the offense and its severity/reality. Assuming that this is a real offense, that is a sign of graciousness. Paul says that he forgives for their sake in the face [perhaps meaning “sight”, “presence” through prayer, or “imitation”] of Christ. The purpose of forgiving is ultimately to be on guard against Satan and his well-known schemes. Satan would not want for the church to discipline someone who has gone astray, nor would he want for the church to practice forgiveness. Both actions foil his schemes.

I hope we can walk away from this section with a desire to use church discipline properly. Church discipline is very difficult in an age when the reprobate would be welcomed in a different church just down the street that affirms that behavior. Church is too easily replaced in our consumerist society. So, what we need to do is develop a proper sense of fellowship that is so deep and mutually affirmed that throwing it away is unthinkable. Proper church discipline will drive the offender to his/her knees instead of to the synagogue of Satan. Proper church discipline will cause tears for everyone involved, and will have the expressly spoken intent of showing the severity of the offense. Only if the world outside the church is so much darker than the world inside will temporary exile seem like being “handed over to Satan.”

12 Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, 13 I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.
14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? 17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.

Apparently Paul was worried for Titus’ well-being. It seems that they split up in Asia Minor and Troas was their arranged meeting place. Though Paul had an opportunity presented [lit “door opened”] to preach, he didn’t have peace of mind without Titus. It was for this reason that he went straight to Macedonia by a detour and avoided Corinth & Athens. Surely, concern for the life and well-being of a dear brother in distress is a valid concern for changing plans without warning. If that’s not a good reason, I don’t know what is.

Verse 14 feels quite sudden in its transition; one moment he’s worrying about life and death, and the next minute he’s praising God for victory in Christ. (Sometimes Paul is spontaneous, jarring his readers with sudden transitions.) The text says that God leads us in procession, but is not specific as to whether Christ is the general, and we are the other soldiers receiving a victory parade, or whether we are the captives. Due to the paradox of being a sweet smell of victory and also a foretaste of the world’s doom, it is more likely the NIV text is correct in specifying that we are lead “as captives”.

Paul seems to have in mind that through our endurance in hardships, we are as captives as well as being slaves/servants of Christ. Yet our captivity is to God the sweet smell of Christ’s victory. Christ’s victory-scent makes us the potpourri “from life to life” [from Christ’s sacrifice to our eternal life?] for those being saved, and “from death to death” [from Christ’s death to their inevitable death?] for those who are perishing. I dislike how the NIV simplifies these concepts. Christ is the general who leads us as captives through the streets, with a company of priests burning sweet incense. This incense, to some on the sidelines of the procession, calls them to become Christians. To others, it is indicative of their ultimate destruction. This incense is the Gospel or the faith in the Gospel (see Philippians 1:27-28).

Paul again interrupts his own flow of thought: “and who is capable of such a task?” This suddenly slams the brakes on his previous line of thought: who is capable of spreading the aroma of Christ? While we are at once both the captives and the priests within the procession metaphor, the question still remains: what qualifies us to be anything more than condemned prisoners? Paul proceeds with a partial answer: “For we [Paul, Timothy, Titus, Silas] are not like the many who peddle the Word of God for profit: we don’t speak due to selfish ambition; rather, we speak due to God, before God, in Christ.” I translate it this way to show you Paul’s rhetorical flourish in repeating “we don’t speak due to – rather, we speak due to”. It is not selfish ambition that drives Paul, as some claim but are themselves guilty of; it is God’s action in his life that motivates Paul. God is not just his motive for speaking, He is the content Paul speaks of, and this is something that takes place in Christ.

2 Corinthians 3

1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4 Such confidence we have through Christ before God. 5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

At this point, Paul realizes what he just said could be taken as a bald assertion of divine authority. He could be accused of hubris for it. So he doesn’t retract his point, but he does switch the angle of his approach to the question of his validity. The early churches used letters of recommendation to vouch for someone traveling from one congregation to another. This link provided an easy way to prove ones identity to a new congregation. However, it could perhaps be forged or otherwise abused. While the system was imperfect, Paul doesn’t seem to criticize the practice as is.

Rather, it seems that the false teachers at Corinth had letters of recommendation (forged or otherwise). Paul himself is above the need for such things among the Corinthians, since he is not foreign to them. The letters of introduction are for new people, not for an old friend like Paul. Even if the false teachers have such letters, that means nothing in comparison to how acquainted Paul was with them in person.

In place of having a letter of recommendation, Paul considers these churches to be the letter, with Christ as its author vouching for Paul, the letter-carrier. Paul is the messenger, Christ is the Author of the Message, and the Corinthians are living proof of the Message’s truth. In view of this, a physical letter of recommendation is a rather weak qualification.

The Message of the Gospel has brought permanent change and is inscribed on their hearts by the Spirit. What is written with ink is temporary and fades; what is written with the Spirit remains. This is part of Paul’s thought in this section, and he will continue along that vein very soon. But for now, he says in 3:6: “[God] also qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not by the writing, but by the spirit/Spirit; for the writing kills, but the Spirit/spirit gives life.” This statement can be taken two ways.

First, if we interpret pneuma to mean the Holy Spirit, then it says that this new covenant which involves the pouring out of the Holy Spirit gives life, while the covenant that involved a written law gives death. Paul follows that line of thought in a moment. Secondly, pneuma also means “breath”, and could instead refer to a message delivered personally in oral form rather than textually in written form. This would mean that Paul is saying that regardless of the power of a written letter of recommendation, writings are not always so great. What is given personally in talking face-to-face is far superior. That second meaning for pneuma would be unusual and awkward, but Paul acts as an expert in rhetoric in this book, and I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility.

In the next section, Paul will converge both of those meanings with what he had said earlier:
1. The writing fades, but the Spirit remains.
2. The writing kills, but the Spirit gives life.
3. The covenant inscribed in writing kills, but the covenant given orally gives life.

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