Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: A Discussion …

My martial arts instructor often talks about the difficulty of trying to put together a puzzle when all the pieces are still face-down on the table.  It can be done, but without a sense of the larger picture, the task of putting together the puzzle becomes much more complex – much more arduous.

This morning, on the eighth day of reading through the New Testament, I felt as if I had the opportunity to turn over some of the puzzle pieces; and I’m starting to get a sense of the larger picture.

The first piece that was turned over this morning is found in 2 Corinthians 3:1-3.  Here, the Apostle Paul talks about whether or not he needs “letters of recommendation” so that others might be willing to listen to Gospel he is preaching/living.   Now look at what Paul says:

“You yourselves are … a letter of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets  but on tablets of human hearts.”

Typically, in the past, when I have heard others teach on this passage, the discussion turns to issues of piety.  We are told that others will “see” Christ if we avoid certain behaviors and activities (e.g. swearing, drinking, gambling, pornography, etc…).  But this morning, as I read through 2 Corinthians in one sitting, something else become abundantly clear.  Take a look at the following themes that are discussed in the chapters that surround these verses:

  • We don’t want to keep you in the dark about the suffering we went through in Asia.  The load we had to cary was far too heavy for us; it got to the point where we gave up on life itself.”  (1:8)
  • God brings suffering so that comfort can be delivered to others (chpt 1)
  • “We are under all kinds of pressure, but we are not crushed completely; we are at a loss, but not at our wits’ end; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are cast down, but not destroyed.” (4:8)
  • “For we know that if our earthly house, our present “tent,” is destroyed, we have a building from God (5:1a)
  • “We recommend ourselves as God’s servants: with much patience, with sufferings, difficulties, hardships, beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, going without food” (6:4-5)

So when you look at these words  from chapter 3 in the context of the entire book, it becomes clear.  We are not meant to be “letters” solely through our acts of piety.  We are meant to be blood stained ink.  We are meant to live our lives is such a way that our suffering for Christ bears witness to the centrality of His claim to be the Son of the Living God.

So now, when you look at this in context of the Gospels, which call us to reach out to the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed, it starts to come together; and the questions become obvious.

       Does your discipleship involve reaching out to those in desperate need? 

       Does it involve any kind of significant sacrifice on your part? 

       Is your life marked by suffering? 

       If it is, does your suffering cause others to pity you or see Christ through way you handle it?

Now for the harder question: 

       What does it mean if your life is not marked in this way?

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9 Responses to Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: A Discussion …

  1. The book of 2nd Corinthians is such a comfort. Don’t think I’ve ever read 1st and 2nd Corinthians as a whole.
    I really like the 3rd theme you pointed out: “We are under all kinds of pressure, but we are not crushed completely; we are at a loss, but not at our wits’ end; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are cast down, but not destroyed.” (4:8). Reading those words this morning, I felt God’s presence overwhelmingly!

    2 Corinthians 4:8 is partially similar to 1 Corinthians 10:13, “…God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability…”

    Many of us have heard the phrase, “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” This is true. Though it may FEEL like we’re at our “wits’ end”, doesn’t mean we actually ARE.
    This blog really made me think…thank you!

    • Hey Rebecca. It think it’s really cool that you are jumping in to read along with us. Many students your age would look at this and say, “That’s way too hard.” But it’s not that hard if you think of it in terms of reading a book. So kudos to you for coming on board.

      So here’s a question for you: what makes you feel like you’re at your “wits’ end?” I’m not asking for you to post that on this blog. But I’m asking you to think seriously about it? Paul talks about being at his “wits’ end” in terms of the burdens of ministry. He’s traveling all over for the sake of Christ and the burden is absolutely massive. For me, I look at that and I compare it to my life (when I’m feeling at my “wits’ end) and I’m left with a sense that I have a very long way to go as a believer.

      Glad to take this journey with you.

  2. Bob Bryant says:

    I think it is interesting, in light of your comments about suffering, that the apostle Paul himself refers to this entire process of suffering and burden that he has been through as a “light momentary affliction” (4:17). I must say that his resume of suffering in chapter 11 reads a far cry from light and momentary, as this took place over years of proclaiming the gospel and contains a list of experiences that would draw most men to suicide in our culture.

    So I guess I find myself asking, what is the nature of this suffering? Is it specifically to come as a result of our own attempts to live out the gospel and reach others for Christ? Paul’s suffering had a specific calling in relation to the purposes through which Christ sent him to the gentiles. Acts 9:15-16, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” There is a specific scope and calling for the life of Paul here. Now, perhaps many Christians would at this point site the words of Christ who said “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” The calling here is to die to yourself, to die to the sin nature that enslaves, to crucify the old man and its ways. So what is the nature of this suffering then that appears throughout 2 Corinthians and other writings of Paul? Are we to understand this suffering more in line with living in the tension of the already, not yet nature of the kingdom. This seems to be the thrust of Romans 8. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved” (8:23-24). In this sense, all humanity suffers greatly in being separated from the creator of heaven and earth. The unique suffering to those who are now in Christ, instead of in the world, is that separation from the world. And so as Jesus declares, we are living in the world, but are no longer of it, no longer to be defined by its language and idolatrous marks. Perhaps this is why we see such staggering statistics in the church today that reflect a group of individuals claiming the name of Christ that don’t look or live all that differently from the rest of the world. Yet suffering is the very source of joy and hope in Paul’s writing that gives him a greater perspective and points to the “weight of glory” that is to be revealed allowing him to declare, “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phillippians 1:21). Perhaps it is the lense through which we view suffering that makes all the difference. To keep an eternal perspective and “look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

    I think that the writers of the Psalms of Lament, and the prophets like Jeremiah and Habbakuk understood this same concept. There is much to lament over as we gaze upon the great suffering of all creation. Yet the lament did not have the final word as the promise and hope of a restored remnant, the promise that the seed of Israel would be saved brought the writers of the lament to a place of praise and renewed faith and trust in YHWH. As I attempted to lead the students into a time of lamenting and sharing their doubts about God the other night, there was a sense of heaviness in the room. For many of them though, the lament was the end of the story, as they had no greater narrative or truth from which to speak about their suffering and loss and doubt. Praise God that our hope is not found in what we see, but rather in what we do not see, so that we wait patiently for it.

    • Morning Bob,

      I think the biggest thing that I am wondering about after reading your thoughts centers around your discussion of Acts 9:15-16. Just before that, you wrote: “Paul’s suffering had a specific calling in relation to the purposes through which Christ sent him to the gentiles.” Do you think Paul’s calling was somehow elevated or different from the calling on the rest of us. Obviously, he was called to be an Apostle, which means he was called to announce the Gospel/Kingdom to the rest of the world. But how is that different from the close of Matthew 28, which has always been read as a call to all Christians?

      It seems to me that the call to preach/teach/evangelize is actually on all of us (in one form or another) and that suffering for His name is to be expected as we undertake these activities?

      Agree? Disagree?

      • Bob Bryant says:

        I don’t disagree with the nature of the general calling from passages like Matthew 28 for all Christians to preach, teach and evangelize. However, I do believe that Paul received a special and unique calling that resulted in specific suffering due to his being Jewish and taking the gospel to the gentiles, that cannot be in the same way generally applied to all believers as the great commission. I was simply exploring the nature of suffering that results from our eyes being opened as believers and living in the tension until the kingdom is fully revealed and realized.

        I have no sense of what to compare or describe the intended life of suffering for the Christian living today. What should that look like? Its a completely different culture that the one that Paul found himself ministering in. About the closest understanding that I can get is to begin to understand our lives as being “poured out like a drink offering” as Paul writes later. Living our life in service to others and being spent for the sake of Christ. Physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion seem to accurately describe that life. Yet I am not convinced that this is the path of discipleship that Christ calls us to either. One that can lead us to neglecting our families and the discipline of sabbath rest. Perhaps we can talk more about it over lunch tomorrow.

  3. It’s Sarah typing, but as scott and I were talking about our reading this morning I was telling him that I enjoyed John and Romans much more than the book of Acts. I think that Romans is the crux of the Christian life. It clearly explains that one must believe in the death and resurrection of Christ to become a believer.

    Also, I was comparing Romans to 1 Corinthians. I told Scott that if Bill Hybels were writing the bible today, he would have written Romans. Even though it demands a high call to the Christian life, it is written with love. However, the pastor from our previous church would have written I Corinthians. This book is written with very little love in the language and just continues to tell the people their numerous wrong-doings.

  4. I would agree with Mr. Bob Bryant that Paul’s calling was certainly a special one. Paul was the mouth of the early church, wrote thirteen books of the New Testament (fourteen if you include Hebrews), and brought the gospel throughout the known world to the Gentiles. Somehow I don’t get the feeling any of us are going to be quite that influential to the church (at least on the second count). Each of us is a different part of the body. We each have different callings, and will accomplish different purposes. Not all Christians are going to suffer physical pain or intense ridicule in those callings, and that doesn’t mean they are somehow less of a Christian.

    On the flip-side, though, there is something to Mr. Scott Bryant’s point that the suffering of Christians is something to be expected. Christ suffered. Paul suffered. His companions suffered. The early church suffered. Even today, there are thousands upon thousands of persecuted Christians. The question is, I think, what does that suffering look like for people like us living in America which is, at least theoretically, religiously unbiased….

    and to that question, I have no definitive answer. Obviously, America isn’t completely religiously unbiased. A lot of ridicule is heaped on Christians. It’s obviously not the same as the intense physical and psychological suffering undergone by the persecuted church abroad, but could this be a part of it?

    We are all called to live out the Great Commission in our lives, but sometimes it’s harder and/or more complicated than it sounds. For me, almost all of my social activities involve doing things with fellow believers (my school, youth group, etc). I know people who have to be careful what they say in their workplaces because a non-PC/”intolerant” word that someone takes offense to could put their jobs in jeopardy. What then?

    Tough, tough issues. Thanks for bringing them up, Mr. Bryant! I’m really enjoying your blog.

  5. Josh … Maybe a good place to start when thinking about these sorts of questions is ask: what brings on suffering? I tend to think there are five sources of suffering in the world.

    (1) Suffering caused by my own sin, which brings about consequences in my own life.
    (2) Suffering brought about by the original sin: e.g. exhaustion, child birth, disease, death, etc…
    (3) Suffering brought on by the “systems of the world” or the “powers that be.” In this case, maybe it’s suffering caused by someone loosing their job because bankers made a bunch of foolish bets and trashed the economy.
    (4) Suffering brought on by spiritual attack.
    (5) Suffering caused by standing up for The Christ in a world that openly rejects Him.

    My personal suspicion is that most evangelical Christians experience suffering in the first three categories, but not necessarily much in the latter two categories. Maybe that seems unfair with regards to number (4), but I honestly think that many of us live such “watered down” lives that there is no reason for open spiritual assault. In Scripture, spiritual attack seems to come upon those that are sold out for the cause of Christ.

    What do you think?

    P.S. I’m glad you’re liking the blog. And I hope you continue to like it because I’m thinking about making it mandatory reading for the Classical Rhetoric II class next year. :-)

  6. Yeah, I would agree with you there, Mr. Bryant. I think that up until the past few decades, it has been “cool” to be Christian to a certain extent (correct me if I’m wrong here, because I’ve only lived in three of those decades). In one sense, that was good. In another, it was bad.

    It was good because Christianity and Christian ideas could be discussed more openly than today without the inherent backlash. It became bad because as the culture began shifting away from Christianity, many Christians began shifting with it. Could it be that this is the reason so many churches today openly espouse “tolerance” (a.k.a. intolerance of intolerance) to such a degree that abortion, homosexuality, etc. are accepted. If you continue that flow, it seems that this new idea of tolerance would lead to that “watered down” life that you mentioned.

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