Paul, part 8: 2 Corinthians 11:16–12:10
This is the final talk in the series.
This talk was given by Neil Banks on .
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Today, we’re continuing with Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. Last week, Paul discussed some of the trials and tribulations that Paul was recounting to the new church founded in the city.
At the time of writing his two letters, Corinth was a large and important city, with two ports linking trade routes to Europe and Asia. It had a population of some 600,000 people. This was an incredibly wealthy, cosmopolitan and multiethnic city, and undoubtedly, the most important in Greece at the time. Corinthians who’ve come to Christ bring with them pagan and cultural influences, as well as the vice and immorality that the city had a reputation for.
Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians did not accomplish the main purpose for which it was written. The factions in the church of Corinth, far from putting aside their differences and blending harmoniously into a unified church life, united all who for any reason objected to Paul. They then faced him and each of them more vigorously than ever. I’m not going to mention the B-word, but can you think of a modern similarity there?
From the NIV version, I’m going to read from 2 Corinthians 11:16 to 12:10.
Paul in 2 Corinthians, refers to a group that he calls the super-apostles. These are the false teachers claiming to be superior to Paul. In today’s reading, you can sense his growing frustration with the church in Corinth, as they’re taken in by slickly-dressed, well-spoken fakes, who talked down Paul’s lack of polish and his image problem.
I don’t know if you like Columbo, but my grandfather introduced me to the joys of watching Columbo on a Sunday afternoon. One of the big draws, for me, of Colombo, is this scruffy police inspector in his equally beat-up car, going around the posher areas of LA and Hollywood. The people he encounters, the suspects, completely underestimate his ability.
You get the impression that they would be much happier dealing with a sharply-suited, slick-speaking police officer, because they feel, in some way, that that suits their position in life.
In context, Corinth, also, feels like it likes the finer things in life. With that wealth, comes the obsession with image and following the fads of the day. We’re all also aware of the stereotype of the American televangelists, who delivered their version of the Gospel in their sharp suits, complete with bleached teeth and spray tans.
Compared to this, the Apostle Paul would look like a very meagre apostle, for instead of slick, Paul is humble, timid, physically persecuted, self-supporting, unskilled, and physically ailing. Paul goes on to explain that the Corinthians are being taken for fools. Here he is, telling them, “If it takes a fool to get through to a fool, then consider me a fool.”
He may not be a skilled speaker, but he preaches the true gospel of Jesus Christ. He may be unsuccessful by the image-obsessed standard of this rich city, but he did perform the signs of a true apostle. It is not because he is weak that he does not abuse his followers or take their money, it’s because he loves them. He is motivated by love for them and love for the Lord. His strength comes from weakness.
Paul is telling the Corinthians , and us, that to be truly great, they, and we, must serve the way Jesus did. True ministry is not celebrity. To be true super-apostles is to follow the example of Paul, who is following the example of Jesus.
Now we come to Paul’s thorn in the flesh. There is a widely circulated idea in Christianity in some circles that when events turn against us, when disasters happen, this is some kind of divine retribution for sins of the past; that all the major difficulties that come along in our lives are tests put there by God.
In our reading, today, Paul does testify that his struggle with physical vulnerability, revealed to him, more surely, than any divine ecstasy could, the true nature of the power of God. This is a power that manifests itself in and through weakness.
We often look to the Old Testament for answers in times of difficulty, and I believe this can present some problems. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, was unable to bear children, so she prayed for a miracle. When her prayers were answered, she praised God. Her prayer is recorded in the Bible in 1 Samuel 2:6–7. “The LORD brings death and makes alive, He brings down to the grave and raises up, the LORD sends poverty and wealth; He humbles, and He exalts.”
We also see the Book of Job quoted, and often when times are hard. In Job 1:21, he says, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. May the name of the LORD be praised.”
Now, this notion that the LORD gives and takes away, has passed down through millennia. It is arguably up there with an eye for an eye, in terms of how well known it is but how misquoted it is. We sing it as part of “Blessed Be Thy Name” when we sing that song in church, the LORD gives and the LORD takes away.
It seems to me that in both Hannah and Job’s experiences with God, there is a missing link in their understanding. Imagine driving down a road you didn’t know, and you’re trying to read the signs when you haven’t got your glasses on. Jesus is the lens that opens up the true picture of how God loves us, and makes the signage crystal clear.
We live in times after the cross, after God gave His son as the ultimate sacrifice. We know the Lamb of God takes away the sin of our world. When we fall into the trap that we’ve lost our job or relationship, or become seriously ill or been bereaved, or some other disaster has befallen us, that somehow, we brought it on ourselves, or that God has put it there. I believe that we forget that Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection was the new covenant that took all that away. Grace is the key to our strength in overcoming the challenges and obstacles that we face in our life.
The author Philip Yancey gives his view in the book “Where Is God When It Hurts?” He says, “In fact, I believe Christians walk a mental tightrope, and are in constant danger of falling in one of two directions. On this subject, errors in thinking can have tragic results. The first error comes when we attribute all suffering to God, seeing it as His punishment for human mistakes. The second error does just the opposite, assuming that life with God will never include any suffering.”
In 2 Corinthians 7: 8–9, Paul reflects on his strongly-worded first letter. “Even if I caused you pain by my letter, I do not regret, because that pain turns you to God.” In the case of Paul’s thorn in the flesh that we know is not literally a thorn, we see how he goes from not understanding the purpose of this burden and resenting it, pleading for it to be taken away, and being refused three times.
When Paul receives the lesson from God, that My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness, we see his attitude adjust from resistance to acceptance; and instead of begging for the removal of the thorn, he prays that the pain would be transformed to help him through. It is as if God is saying, “Paul, you aren’t one of them, don’t become one of them, stay the path.”
Of course, when the pain and suffering through physical illness, bereavement, relationship breakdown, depression, or any personal tragedy is very real to us and we are living with it day to day, it can be hard to sustain that understanding. Right now, in our nation and our world, there are countless good men and women of faith who are wondering, “Where are you, God?” and, “God, why this?” as they go through their ordeal.
Christian Reger was a German member of the Confessing Church in the 1940s, who was imprisoned for four years in the Dachau concentration camp for opposing Hitler and the Nazis. During his time in the camp, he witnessed many horrors. Speaking later of his ordeal, he said, “God did not rescue me and make my suffering easier. He simply assured me that He was alive, and I knew He was here. I can only speak for myself. Others turned from God because of Dachau. Who am I to judge them? I simply know that God met me. For me, He was enough, even at Dachau.”
How we as Christians respond to people who are suffering is one of the biggest challenges. Again, Philip Yancey says, “I have interviewed many Christians with life-threatening illnesses, and everyone without exception has told me how damaging it can be to have a visitor plant the thought, ‘You must have done something to deserve this,’ at the very moment when they need hope and strength to battle their illness. Instead, they get a dose of self-doubt and guilt.
“I’m glad the author Job took such care to record the rambling conversations of Job’s friends. That book serves as a permanent reminder to me, that I have no right to stand beside a suffering person and pronounce, ‘This is the will of God,’ no matter how much I cloak that sentiment.”
For a different perspective, I’d like to read you the testimony of a young Christian grappling with bipolar disorder.
To conclude, where is God? I strongly believe that God is on the side of the sufferer. Look at Jesus’ ministry. He didn’t lecture the suffering or make them feel guilty, he showed them love, compassion, and forgiveness. I believe that is where God is when we are facing up to our own suffering, or when we are trying to help others to get through their own.
Thanks be to God.
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Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the talk are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations marked NIVUK on this page and in the talk are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.