Archives For 2 Corinthians

Dealing with SinA couple of years ago, our church had the privilege of hosting a number of law enforcement officers from our community for morning services. More than 100 police officers who patrol the city of Los Angeles responded to John MacArthur’s invitation to join us for a Sunday morning that, in part, honored their commitment to protecting our society and gave them the opportunity to hear what the Word of God has to say about them: the civil authorities. Pastor John preached on the various institutions that God has raised up for the sake of restraining evil and maintaining order in a society: the conscience, the family, the government, and the church. Each of these God-ordained institutions, he explained, serves to restrain evil and maintain order in a society.

As would be expected, Pastor John focused on the institution of government that morning. But there’s reason to focus on the fourth of those institutions as well. Just as there is a great need for law and order to keep the peace in a civil society, so also is there a need for such law and order in the church. A civil society that has no laws, or that has no system of order to enforce those laws—no system to punish and rehabilitate offenders—is doomed to chaos. So severe is the nature of human depravity that a society of depraved human beings unrestrained by law and order is just unthinkable.

And the same is true of the church. Now, it’s true that our depravity has been overcome by the work of Christ on the cross. It’s true that we who are believers in Christ have the Holy Spirit of God dwelling inside of us, directing our desires and causing us to strive against the flesh, and leading us to walk in righteousness. But those realities are not true for all who enter through the doors of the church on Sunday. Even within the visible church, there are those who believe that they’re saved, but who have not yet turned from their sins and put their trust in Christ alone for their righteousness. And for those who have been born again—even though we have been set free from the penalty and power of sin through the Gospel—we have not yet been set free from the presence of sin in our flesh. Galatians 5:17 reminds us: “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” Paul says elsewhere, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:21–23).

And so even though we who belong to Christ have been declared righteous in God’s sight on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, we nevertheless strive against the presence of remaining sin in our flesh. It is unhappy but all too familiar reality: Christians sin. And that means that the church needs to know how to deal with sin in its midst. There needs to be law and order in the church—a process for identifying, disciplining, and rehabilitating sinners.

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Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer.
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.

– 2 Corinthians 5:16–17 –

2-cor-517Paul speaks about regeneration in this passage. If anyone is in Christ—if anyone has become united to Jesus Christ by saving faith in the Gospel, if anyone has died to sin and self in union with the One who died to sin once for all—he is a new creation. Working backwards, from cause to effect, the second half of verse 16 notes that the very first result of regeneration is a new view of Christ. As unbelievers, we all once regarded Christ from a fleshly point of view, according to worldly standards, paying special attention to the way things looked outwardly and externally rather than internally and spiritually. But the regenerate regard Him in this way no longer. When Almighty God issues His sovereign decree for light to shine forth in the heart that is dead in sin, when the eyes are opened and the ears unstopped, when the heart of stone becomes a heart of flesh, the first thing that changes is the sinner’s view of Christ. We see Him for who He is, in all His beauty, glory, and suitableness to our need.

Working backwards even further to the first half of verse 16, Paul speaks of a second result of regeneration. Not only does the regenerate sinner have a new view of Christ, but he also has a new view of everyone else. When we’re transformed from the inside out in regeneration, and our assessment of Jesus changes, so does our assessment of everyone else in the world.

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Life and DeathThose of you who read the Cripplegate week to week know that over the past few Fridays we’ve been taking a look at 2 Corinthians 4. Three weeks ago, we discovered that the orienting principle for Christian ministry is that there is a fundamental contrast between the glory of the New Covenant ministry and the weakness and shame of the New Covenant minister. We have the treasure of the Gospel in earthen vessels.

After stating that orienting principle for ministry in 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul turns to illustrate that principle by means of two paradoxes. The first is that the Christian ministry is marked by power in the midst of weakness (2 Cor 4:8–9). We see the second paradox In verses 10 and 11. True, faithful Christian ministry is also characterized by life in the midst of death. Paul says, we are “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

These two sentences are parallel to one another; verse 11 simply restates verse 10 in a slightly different way. And together they form a theological interpretation and summary of the four contrasts in verses 8 and 9. Paul summarizes being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down and calls them “the dying of Jesus” and “being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake.” And he summarizes not being crushed, in despair, forsaken, and destroyed as “the life of Jesus.”

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Power in the Midst of WeaknessTwo weeks ago, we took a look at the orienting principle for Christian ministry: we have the treasure of the Gospel in earthen vessels. In other words, there is a disproportionate relationship between the glory of the New Covenant message and the glory of the New Covenant messenger. There is a fundamental contrast between the glory of the New Covenant ministry and the shame of the New Covenant minister. In the next verses, Paul turns to illustrate this principle by means of two paradoxical truths that characterize the Christian ministry.

And the first of those paradoxes comes in verses 8 and 9. There we learn that the Christian ministry is marked by power in the midst of weakness. He says, we are “in everything afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” In what commentators have called “one of the more powerful rhetorical moments in the Pauline corpus” (Barnett, 233), Paul makes his point by means of four antitheses. In each first word, we see the weakness of the earthen vessel. And in each second word, we see the surpassing greatness of the power of God. Let’s look more closely at each pair.

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But we have this treasure in earthen vessels
so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God
and not from ourselves.
– 2 Corinthians 4:7 –

This verse teaches a fundamental, orienting principle for Christian ministry: there is a disproportionate relationship between the glory of the New Covenant message and the glory of the New Covenant messenger. There is a fundamental contrast between the glory of the New Covenant ministry and the shame of the New Covenant minister.

True North

Gospel Treasure

We see that by the word picture that Paul employs. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” The Gospel is a treasure. The glorious Good News of the New Covenant is absolutely priceless.

  • Whereas the Old Covenant brought only death and condemnation, the New Covenant brings spiritual life and saving righteousness (2 Cor 3:7–8).
  • Whereas the Old Covenant provided only limited access to the concealed glory of God, the New Covenant provides continual access to open-faced admiration of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ (2 Cor 3:12–18).
  • Whereas the Law made nothing perfect (Heb 7:19) and only further aroused our sinful passions (Rom 7:7–11), the New Covenant brings inward transformation and conformity to the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18).
  • Whereas the Old Covenant was powerless to transform the heart of man, the Gospel of the glory of Christ shines into that dead heart, and the Holy Spirit Himself awakens the affections to hate sin and to love righteousness (2 Cor 4:4, 6).

This Gospel is a treasure!

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Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.
– 2 Corinthians 5:9 –

AmbitionThe relationship between this verse and the previous is instructive. The “therefore” signals that this is a consequence of the preceding truth. What is the necessary consequence of having the settled preference to depart from this life and be with Christ? What is the necessary consequence of longing for unhindered, sin-free, face-to-face communion with Jesus? If the open enjoyment of Christ’s glory is the great hope of your life in the future, then that means your supreme ambition will be to be pleasing to Him in the present.

Ambition

This phrase, “We also have as our ambition,” speaks to the intensity of Paul’s desire to please Christ above all else. It is the all-consuming, driving force behind all he does. Usually, the concept of ambition has a negative connotation, speaking of someone who is wholly preoccupied with self-promotion and self-glory. A young man enters the corporate world with designs of running the company one day, determined to climb the corporate ladder no matter who he has to step on to get to the top. A politician strategizes and schemes and conspires as to how he can put himself forward, undermine his opponents, and portray himself in the best light, so that he can win the favor of the electorate. A young man has the ambition of playing professional sports, and he shapes his entire childhood around receiving the proper training and coaching, putting in the necessary workouts, watching his diet, getting good grades to go to a Division 1 university—he eats, sleeps, and breathes his game, all so he can wear that uniform and play in front of thousands of fans.

With that same all-consuming passion (albeit expressed positively rather than negatively), the Apostle Paul says: My supreme ambition is to always be pleasing to Christ. Charles Hodge comments, “As ambitious men desire and strive after fame, so Christians long and labor to be acceptable to Christ. Love to him, the desire to please him, and to be pleasing to him, animates their hearts and governs their lives, and makes them do and suffer what heroes do for glory” (500).

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“Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
– 2 Corinthians 5:6–8 –

“Therefore” points us back to Paul’s thoughts, where he celebrated the truth that even if his earthly tent was torn down—even the constant opposition, conflict, and persecution that results from his ministry results in losing his life—he was absolutely certain that God would one day raise him from the dead in a glorified body (2 Cor 5:1–5). And he could be that certain because God Himself had given him a pledge—an earnest—the down payment of the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit in his heart, guaranteeing that God will one day deliver all the fullness of Paul’s heavenly inheritance (2 Cor 5:5).

The Pledge of the Spirit

The consequence of that Spirit-guaranteed assurance of a resurrection body is “good courage.” Verse 6: “Therefore, being always of good courage.” And then again in verse 8: “We are of good courage, I say.” The word means to be boldly and confidently courageous. Whether the beatings and stonings and imprisonments that would come as a result of preaching the Gospel to the lost, or the distrust and the false accusations and the heartache of broken relationships that would come as a result of ministering to the church—he could face any circumstance with courage and confidence.

And as we lay our lives down in the service of Christ and His church, so can we. There is so much strength and courage to be drawn from the reality that the Holy Spirit of God Himself is dwelling in us, fighting sin in us, warring against the flesh in us, and will one day raise our mortal body from the dead into conformity with the body of Christ’s glory. As long as that Spirit dwells in you, and guides you and leads you into holiness, and empowers you for ministry, you need never despair in the midst of your labors. You can be always of good courage. One commentator said, “The good courage that animates the [believers] is as permanent and serene as the Spirit dwelling within” (Hughes, 175). The Father’s pledge of the Spirit in our hearts is cause for fearless sacrificial ministry.

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“You are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
– 2 Corinthians 3:3 –

2 Cor 3;3As false apostles in Corinth are challenging Paul’s credibility, they object to his authority and promote their own on the basis of letters of commendation. They’ve got doctored letters from some church in Jerusalem, and they’re calling Paul out because he has none. Paul responds by saying that Christ Himself has written him a letter of commendation. And it wasn’t written with mere ink or on stone, but by the Spirit on human hearts. The salvation of the Corinthians themselves was all the commendation Paul needed.

If we follow Paul’s imagery carefully, we wouldn’t have expected him to set up a contrast between human hearts and tablets of stone. He’s just spoken of natural letters written in ink, and you don’t use ink on stone. We would have expected Paul to say something like, “Not on papyrus, or parchments, which fade away along with the ink written on them.” But he doesn’t say that. He contrasts “tablets of human hearts”—literally, “tablets that are hearts of flesh”—with “tablets of stone.”

Why? Well, the false apostles (i.e., those whom Paul was defending himself against in 2 Corinthians) were Judaizers. They were teaching that circumcision and keeping the ceremonial law of Moses was necessary for salvation. And so by changing the contrast from “written on paper” to “written on tablets of stone,” Paul is contrasting the impotence of the law in under the Mosaic Covenant with the almighty sanctifying power of the Spirit under the New Covenant, which has now dawned with Christ.

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“For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears;
not so that you would be made sorrowful,
but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.”
– 2 Corinthians 2:4 –

SharpeningWhen Paul wrote this verse, false teachers claiming to be apostles had infiltrated the church of Corinth and aimed to discredit Paul’s legitimacy as an apostle. The controversy led Paul to change his travel plans and visit the Corinthians ahead of schedule, as he hoped he could put the matter to rest by being there personally. But when Paul arrived in Corinth, one of the men in the church openly flouted Paul’s authority and insulted him before the whole church. To make matters worse, rather than coming to Paul’s defense and defending the Gospel that he preached, the Corinthians were taken in by this false teaching, and allowed this man’s sin to go unchecked.

After this “sorrowful visit,” Paul returned immediately to Ephesus and wrote them a severe letter, sternly rebuking them for failing to deal with sin in the church properly, and for straying from his apostolic teaching and message. In the verse quoted above, Paul explains the circumstances in which and the motivation for why he wrote the Corinthians his severe letter. And there is a pastoral lesson for all of us in the church who give and receive correction to our brothers and sisters.

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“Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm. 1But I determined this for my own sake, that I would not come to you in sorrow again. 2For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful? 3This is the very thing I wrote you, so that when I came, I would not have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice; having confidence in you all that my joy would be the joy of you all.”
– 2 Corinthians 1:24–2:3 –

For Your Joy

Paul is elaborating on what he said in 2 Corinthians 1:23—that it was to spare the Corinthians that he postponed his second visit to them, because he didn’t want a repeat of a his painful visit. He didn’t want to come before they had time to repent, and then have to come with the rod and punish unrepentant sin. That, he says, would not have tended to their joy (cf. 2 Cor 1:24).

But in the first three verses of chapter 2, we learn that, though Paul’s change in travel plans was out of consideration for the Corinthians first of all, they weren’t the only ones he was trying to spare from sorrow. Notice the repeated emphasis in these three verses again: “But I determined this for my own sake, that I would not come to you in sorrow again. For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful? This is the very thing I wrote you, so that when I came, I would not have sorrow from those who ought to make me rejoice.”

Is Paul being selfish? He’s just repeating over and over again that his concern is that he would not be made sorrowful, and that he would not lose his means of gladness. Unless Paul has gone absolutely crazy, and has entirely forgotten what he’s trying to accomplish as he’s writing—namely, to convince the Corinthians of his love for them—and is now finally letting down his guard and showing his true colors that he’s just a self-seeking manipulator—unless that’s what’s happening here (and it’s not), what we learn from this passage is that there is a way to pursue your own joy and, at the same time, love people. And that is when you pursue your joy in their joy—when you seek the happiness of others as your happiness. True, biblical love consists in the sharing of mutual joy—of seeking one another’s joy as one’s own.

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