Being in spiritual leadership is such an easy gig. It’s the little things; like how everyone respects your advice, and nobody causes problems. Nobody questions your motives or takes issue with your decisions; nor do people compare you with other preachers. Criticisms are few, always presented in love and gentleness, and never behind your back. Just ask Moses… or the Apostle Paul.
Of course, I’m being sarcastic. But I’m not complaining for myself. The life of Congregation Shema Yisrael has, for the 20 years I’ve served here, been mostly sweet, and our relationships authentic and kind-hearted.
But I can’t help thinking that the learned Rabbi from Tarsus is one of the most under-appreciated men who has ever lived. As we continue in 2 Corinthians chapter 1, we find him explaining his change of plans in not returning to Corinth as originally intended. What was it that precluded his return? Sadly, there were some in the Corinthian assembly who were quick to believe the worst about him. They chose to interpret these circumstances in the most uncharitable light. By contrast, what we find out as we read this letter, is just how deeply he loved and cared about them. What a contrast! This morning we’ll resume at chapter 1 verse 12, and will read through chapter 2.
Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God’s grace.
Paul has been accused of being fickle; of vacillating on his word to return to Corinth. Perhaps it appeared that way, but there were valid reasons. Paul is able to say that his conscience is clear on this matter. He has walked in uprightness and sincerity. The Greek word translated ‘holiness’ can also have the meaning of simplicity – in other words, there’s nothing complicated or duplicitous; it’s being exactly what you appear to be. He assures them that there’s no cynical worldliness about his conduct. He wasn’t taking a straw poll to see how they would respond if he did this or that. Walking in the grace of God is a very freeing thing. But you have to know that some people will interpret your actions cynically.
For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand. And I hope that, 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 Yeshua.
By all rights, the Corinthians ought to be giving Paul the benefit of the doubt, and not be so quick to interpret his actions cynically, or read anything into his words. Clearly, he loves and believes the best for them. He hopes for reciprocity. And in the coming Judgment, hopes that they will all be able to stand before Yeshua in mutual joy.
Because I was confident of this, I planned to visit you first so that you might benefit twice. I planned 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. When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, “Yes, yes” and “No, no”? But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.”
Paul fully intended to come to them a second time. It wasn’t wishful thinking, and it wasn’t an empty promise. Sadly, the Corinthians believed the worst about him. Look, we’ve all known individuals who have a habit of making big promises, but are reluctant to follow through. They talk a good talk, but you just know you can’t count on them. Messiah told us plainly that we need to be people of our word; that our ‘yes’ should be yes and our ‘no’ no. Honesty and reliability are the marks of Yeshua’s people. Meanwhile, Paul truly intended to come and be a blessing to his brothers and sisters in Corinth, and to be helped on his way to Judea by them. He had a plan in place, but it didn’t work out as he had hoped.
There are times when circumstances necessitate changes of plans. There’s a saying with which I think many of you are familiar: “We make plans; God laughs”. Of course, wise planning is always a good thing. But since we don’t know what a day holds, our plans are always subject to redirection by the Sovereign God. In this case, it was because of the sorrowful nature of his first visit – the fact that there were factions among them and unchecked pride and spiritual one-upmanship, and that they needed a stern rebuke.
That first visit was deeply unpleasant, and there seemed to be no point in a making second visit at that time. Gratefully, relations improved between the Corinthians and the great Emissary. We don’t live in a static world. There is always opportunity to learn and grow in our walk with the Lord. Paul will have approving words for them as well.
But I am reminded of the admonition in The Letter to the Messianic Jews (aka Hebrews):
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
For the Son of God, Messiah Yeshua, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not “Yes” and “No,” but in Him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Messiah. And so through Him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.
Some of your translations read “Silvanus” rather than Silas. Most commentators on the Scripture believe that Silas and Silvanus are one and the same person, and that Silas was the shorter, more familiar form of his name – like ‘Will’ for William.
But what a beautiful reminder! God’s word to us is “Yes”. He is full of compassion and mercy and love toward His creatures. Messiah Yeshua is, literally, living proof of just how much the Father loves us. With God we can truly say, “it’s all good”.
And Adonai is faithful to the utmost. His wonderful promises of redemption, originally given through the ancient prophets, and now more recently preached by Paul and his co-workers Silas and Timothy, were fulfilled at just the right time. And Paul would have his brothers and sisters in Corinth know that, just as God’s word is reliable, he too is reliable.
Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Messiah. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
The steadfast love and kindness of God, coupled with His infinite power, is the basis of our confidence that it will be well for us on that Great Day that is coming. The One who sent Messiah to die for our sins is the One who is able to keep us securely in Him. Aren’t you glad Paul didn’t write, “Now it is up to you; it depends on you to stand firm in Messiah”? I am so grateful that it is God who makes me stand firm, and that salvation doesn’t depend on my own volition or endurance. Frankly, I don’t think I’d make it one lap of this marathon of life.
Paul elaborates on the nature of the work God began in us. The One who makes us stand firm in Yeshua also set us apart and set His Spirit within each of us, like an enormous down payment, guaranteeing the full purchase of us. In terms of the World-To-Come, you have absolutely nothing to fear if you have committed your life to Messiah Yeshua.
As an aside, I want to tell you that the word ‘anointed’ is, in my opinion, grossly overused and misused today. People say, “That was such an anointed message!” when what they really mean is that they were moved by it; that they appreciated the message and it was meaningful to them. When we overuse words, they lose their significance. The word ‘anointed’ is so significant, that I believe we should reserve our use of it for biblical context, and not cheapen it as a substitute adjective for ‘good’ or ‘enjoyable’ or ‘moving’.
I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm.
Again, Paul is assuring them that it was for their sake that he put off his return to Corinth. People can handle only so much correction, and he knew that if he had returned there so soon, given the unresolved conflict among them, it would have been just too much. He would have to bring severe discipline, and instinctively knew that it would be too much for them; it would push them over the top.
There is a very practical lesson for us in this. We need to be thoughtful and careful when we are confronting and correcting someone. When that person sincerely apologizes to you; you need to accept it and express forgiveness to them. If you keep pressing the issue, even after they have admitted the wrong and apologized, or if you are too harsh, or seem reluctant to forgive, you can push that person over the edge to the point of resentment and completely undo the reconciliation process.
CHAPTER 2, Verses 1-3
So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy.
Paul again explains his decision in light of the contingent of Corinthians who had accused him of being untrustworthy and reneging on his word to return to them. There were a couple of reasons, and he tells them that chief among them was that he was trying to spare them additional sorrow. He knew it wouldn’t be good for them or for himself.
Too much correction can damage a relationship. Of course, he intends to come to them; but at such a time that it will be a joyful visit and not a grievous one. He’s thinking long-term. He wants his relationship with the faith community there to be good and to endure.
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. 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.
One of my favorite Bible passages is Proverbs 27:5-6a – Better is open rebuke than love that is concealed; faithful are the wounds of a friend… I have had many an occasion to be both the giver and the recipient of open rebuke. It is painful, but sometimes necessary; and done right, it is medicinal to the soul. Some of the people I respect most in this world are those who were willing to confront me about an action or an attitude. I’ve learned to appreciate it for three reasons: 1) it shows they care about me 2) it shows they trust me to take it in stride [which is actually a compliment] 3) it prevents me from hurting others.
Paul’s heart is on open display. He loves his brother and sister Corinthians. It gave him no pleasure to have to confront them with their various sins. As you recall, his first letter was desperately needed; the situation in Corinth was dire. The disunity was grievous. But he wept as he wrote. You can only hope that when you try to bring godly correction that it is heeded and appreciated. The difference between a mature person and an immature person; or between a wise person and a scoffer, is measured in large part by how they handle correction. And we learn in verses 6-11 that the current troubles among them had largely been caused by one man.
The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. The reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Messiah for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.
Paul had admonished them previously to discipline the man. Most likely it was the man about whom he had written them in 1 Corinthians chapter 5. It was his earnest hope that they would realize how serious this was, and see the need of imposing discipline on the man, and carry out his instruction. And, thankfully, they did. But just as there is a time for rebuke, there is a time for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is important to know the right time for every kind of action.
They had punished the man; and from what we can surmise, he had acknowledged his sin, took the punishment to heart, was sorrowful and repented. Now the right thing was to forgive and restore him to fellowship – and promptly! I cannot overstate the importance of this. As I said earlier, if you press too hard for too long on a person who is willing to admit their wrong and repent, and if you are not quick to forgive and welcome them back, you risk them reaching the tipping point and becoming resentful and permanently alienating them.
That is what Paul meant by the term excessive sorrow and the need to be keenly aware of Satan’s tactics. Just as the devil at first exploited the man’s weakness in the area of lust, now if possible, he would exploit him by means of hopelessness and despair.
Prolonged isolation from the faith community is terribly destructive to a child of God. Like an ember that pops out of a lovely warm fire; if the ember is not promptly placed back in the fire, it will die out. Isolation for a time was necessary to bring about repentance. Now that repentance has happened, the right and timely thing to do is to restore him.
And Paul assures them that he will act in concert with their decision. Though in some measure the offense was against Paul himself, he stands willing to receive the man back in accordance with their decision. This is an important principle in Messiah’s Holy Community: the authority to send out, and the authority to welcome back, and such matters demand wisdom and humility and reverence.
Now when I went to Troas to preach the Good News of Messiah and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them and went on to Macedonia.
In outlining the events that kept him away, Paul recounts how he came to Troas, expecting Titus to be there. But when Titus was nowhere to be found, it was so disconcerting to Paul that he felt he had to move on to Macedonia. One thing to notice is that Paul wasn’t in the habit of putting on a one-man show. He much preferred to partner with others in the proclamation of the Good News. There is something inherently healthy about having others with you to keep you humble and to hold you accountable.
So Paul proceeded on to Macedonia. But he says nothing of what happened there. And he won’t say anything about it all the way until chapter 7! Only then do we find out that Paul arrived at Macedonia, and Titus later caught up with him there, which comforted him to no end. But imagine – a digression of thought lasting more than four chapters! In the interval, Paul will defend his apostleship and ministry. But at this point he uses some wonderful imagery to illustrate our relationship to Messiah Yeshua, and the contrast between how we are perceived by those who desire God and by those who despise God.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Messiah and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Messiah among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?
The imagery of a triumphal procession was easily understood by Paul’s audience. It is that of a Roman general returning victoriously from battle, leading the most valiant of his warriors, all of them on horseback, amidst pomp and great pageantry. Chariots and war horses and cleaned and polished armor, and the majestic sounds of trumpets announcing their arrival. And in the midst of that parade would come, walking in chains and wearing tattered clothes, some of the high ranking enemy officers who had been captured in battle. There they were, on humiliating display for all of Rome to see.
Some suggest we are among the victorious warriors and officers accompanying the General, and that Yeshua, being the Commander of the Armies of Heaven, is the great General leading us in the procession. Others suggest that Paul intended us to see ourselves as those taken captive by Him, but instead of humiliation, we are delighted to be His subjects. I am okay with either interpretation, since both see Yeshua as the Victorious One who leads us in the great procession.
The burning of fragrant incense was part of the great Roman victory parades. Paul extends the illustration, likening that fragrance to the effect that we, His followers, have on those around us. Some people, namely those who are on the path of redemption, consider us to be a lovely scent, causing them to be thankful to God. Others, namely those who want nothing to do with God, consider us to be a repulsive stench. It is truly astonishing how one and the same person can be regarded with such appreciation by one group and with such disdain by another.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. There is, deep within every human being, an awareness, however vague, that we have an appointment with God, and will have to answer for our decisions and actions in this life. Some people would just as soon avoid that thought at all costs, and when they encounter us, they are reminded of something horrible – we are to them the stench of death. But those who love the Lord find us to be a lovely aroma of life. And haven’t you found that every once in a rare while a certain aroma suddenly takes you back to another time? The imagery Rabbi Paul uses is so apt!
But in terms of the enormity of the choice of eternal life or death, Paul is moved to ask a rhetorical question: Who is equal to such a task? It is rhetorical because not a single one of us is equal to it. Gratefully, we are not held responsible for the results of our evangelistic efforts. God is the One who saves. From soup to nuts as they say, all the glory belongs to Him.
Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Messiah we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.
Arguably, verse 17 belongs with chapter 3. Paul is introducing what will be a long and elaborate defense of his ministry, and the honesty and sincerity with which he went about it. I wish it could be said that all who minister the Good News were the real deal. But just as was the case in Rabbi Paul’s time, there are unscrupulous men and women to this day who masquerade as servants of Yeshua and ministers of the Gospel, all the while treating it as a vehicle to get rich. They certainly aren’t prophets, but they certainly aren’t non-profits, either. There were con artists in the First Century, and there are con artists in the Twenty-First Century.
Paul would have us know that where he is concerned, it is apples and oranges. He never enriched himself through ministry. In fact, he suffered more than most of us could ever imagine through his missionary journeys. His conscience was clear. He served Yeshua in all sincerity. May each of us do likewise.