The letter of 2 Corinthians demonstrates probably more than any other epistle the personality of the Apostle Paul. We see a pastoral heart, the interests of a man who poured his sweat, tears, and soul into founding a local body of believers in a city full of idolatry and wickedness. He is now years removed from sending off his first epistle to this church, and he had to really take the wood to them about numerous issues – orderly worship, divisions, the rich shaming and humiliating the poor within the church in the context of the Eucharistic agape feast, applauding gross sexual immorality in the name of exalting freedom in Christ, etc. 1 Corinthians would not have been an easy letter to read!
Yet we see in 2 Corinthians 1:12-15 Paul’s hopeful confidence that the Corinthian church’s love will overwhelm and overcome any antipathy the church might have held against him for communicating such a stern missive. As Paul considers that he does not know the nature of the Corinthians’ sentiments toward him at this point due to his tough letter, to say nothing of all the poison poured into their ears by the Judaisers, he yet reiterates in trusting and loving terms the very words he’d written in chapter 13 of his first letter to them – Love hopes all things. He gives no indication that he expects them to reject him when he arrives.
And yet we see that in fact he had already tentatively planned to come to Corinth some time before, but then rejected the plan. Specifically:
1:15In this confidence I intended at first to come to you, so that you might twice receive a blessing; 16that is, to pass your way into Macedonia, and again from Macedonia to come to you, and by you to be helped on my journey to Judea…23But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth. 24Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm. 2:1But 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. 4For 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.
Here we can see some of Paul’s philosophy of pastoring, mentoring, leading, ministering. Paul, the very Apostle to the Gentiles, the guy whom God used to write almost half of of the New Testament, the guy who saw perhaps more converts than anyone in the earliest church, the guy who received crazy amazing revelations from the Lord (and a thorn in the flesh to keep him from exalting himself), he is explicitly unwilling to lord it over anyone’s faith.
These are the same Corinthians who demonstrated so many enormous spiritual problems as laid out in 1 Corinthians. The same who thought it was just great that a man was sleeping with a woman who was married to his father. And on and on. Paul sees himself as, what? A mature and powerful man, standing above the rest of the stupid sheep? A man above questioning (Acts 17:11)? No. Rather, he is a worker with them for their joy, in which he reflects precisely the sentiments of the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 5:3).
Why did Paul decide not to come to Corinth again? It is because he loves the Corinthian church. He longs to see them again, for they are his spiritual children (3 John 4) and he has deep affection for them. Yet he was afraid that he would be made sorrowful by his coming to them; what if he found them to be still unfaithful to the truth? Notably, notice the juxtaposition of two sentiments he had about his planned (and apparently aborted) visit, in verse 1:15 and in verse 1:23 and 2:1. 1:15 notes that he wanted to pass through twice, stopping each time, to bless (χαριν, “charis“) the Corinthians, yet 1:23 and 2:1 express a wariness that he might cause them sorrow by his visit(s).
So which is it? That he would bless them, or cause them sorrow?
Why would Paul be sorrowful, and cause sorrow if he came to them this second time? Find the answer in v3 – “This is the very thing I wrote you, so that when I came, I would not have sorrow…” He wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians so that he would not be grieved when he came to them again. And what constitutes the majority of that epistle? Rebuke, correction, and reproof. As noted above, the Corinthian church was a mess, and he wrote that epistle to clean it up. But remember, this is the first century AD. No email, no Skype, no Twitter. How was Paul supposed to know whether the epistle had been well-received by the Corinthians? What if they tore it up in a rage and gnashed their teeth at the man who had “judged” them?
No doubt Paul agonized in prayer over their reception of his tough-love epistle (see 2 Cor 2:4, 7:6-8, 11:28), and was thankfully relieved at the report from them brought by Titus later on (mentioned in 7:6-7). This report from Titus may be how he knew that they did end up disciplining the man in question and that the man did repent (2:6-8). But this report apparently didn’t give Paul the peace of mind he would probably have preferred about their state of mind and heart as well as their consistency in putting away sin, whether the sins he had rebuked them for or new ones.
We see at the beginning of chapter 2 that Paul decided to write 1 Corinthians instead of coming directly to them to bring the rebuke face to face. His motive was that having to correct and reprove so many people for so many things would have caused a strain in their relationship. His hope was that they would repent, having been grieved by the things he said in his letter that would lead to a godly sorrow (2 Cor 7:10) leading to a repentance without regret, so that they would know the love he had for them, “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” (2:3). It is very interesting to me, and an unexpected discovery from the text, that while many people today react against things like debates and rebukes over written media like the Internet, Paul himself chose a letter to bear difficult words rather than a face to face meeting, deciding to put off the face to face meeting until afterwards, when possibly the letter would have had the desired effecting of repentance.
Let us take special note of vv9-11.
9For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. 10But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, 11so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.
Again, probably a reference to his first epistle to the Corinthians, and in this specific context, he is probably referring to the sinning brother from 1 Corinthians 5. Why does he say that he wrote that epistle and that part of it to test their obedience in all things? Because hearing a stern rebuke about one’s sin is hard, and exercising righteous church discipline is harder still! Anyone who has participated in such an action, done in a biblical, loving, and sober way, knows the truth of that. Paul didn’t want the church to be taken advantage of by the deceiver, and that is why he wrote the difficult words he wrote in 1 Corinthians 5. That is why he took the risk of causing the sorrow, of rupturing the relationship. He knew that the painful reproof had to precede the joy of relationship that was free of and untainted by sin. He wouldn’t have to be constantly holding back his tongue when fellowshipping with them, hating that they were carrying on in wickedness, all the while smiling and appearing to think that all was well. He wouldn’t have to swallow hard against that pit in his stomach, and with trembling (1 Cor 2:3, 2 Cor 2:16) take some brothers aside or, more difficult still, address the entire congregation with words bitter to his taste.
This hard letter, these hard words – did Paul consider them an evil? Was he setting an example whereby we today might be inspired to pass over sin and ignore wickedness so that we will not grieve people or cause sorrow or difficulty?
We can find out answer to that question addressed again in 2 Cor 7:5-16.
5For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within. 6But God, who comforts the depressed (ταπεινός – “lowly, humble, low to the ground, downcast”), comforted us by the coming of Titus; 7and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more.
Matthew Henry comments:
“There seems to be a connection between 2Cor 2:13 (where the apostle said he had no rest in his spirit when he found not Titus at Troas) and the fifth verse of this chapter: and so great was his affection to the Corinthians, and his concern about their behaviour in relation to the incestuous person, that, in his further travels, he still had no rest till he heard from them…He was troubled when he did not meet with Titus at Troas, and afterwards when for some time he did not meet with him in Macedonia: this was a grief to him, because he could not hear what reception he met with at Corinth, nor how their affairs went forward. And, besides this, they met with other troubles, with incessant storms of persecutions; there were fightings without, or continual contentions with, and opposition from Jews and Gentiles; and there were fears within, and great concern for such as had embraced the Christian faith, lest they should be corrupted or seduced, and give scandal to others, or be scandalized.”
But finally Paul did find Titus to receive the good report from Corinth. Paul seems overjoyed by the reception with which Titus, who was known to be an apostolos of Paul, met there. Note that, along with the longing and zeal for Paul, Titus reported on their mourning. For what cause would they mourn? Over their sin, of course. This calls to mind Proverbs 28:23 – “He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with the tongue.” And why is that? Because of Proverbs 27:6 – “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”
8For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while— 9I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us.
Here we get a glimpse of the turmoil in Paul’s soul in the aftermath of having sent his letter. One might be forgiven for suspecting a wry smile on Paul’s face as he writes that he doesn’t regret sending the letter now, but he sort of regretted it after the messenger carrying it had passed just out of sight. Causing sorrow was not enjoyable for him, despite what some who hate holiness might be tempted to think about the man who employed some measure of harsh language in his epistles, but what Paul saw clearly is that sorrow must be caused and sin must be called out in order to find out what kind of sorrow would result. Would it be the good kind of sorrow or the bad kind?
If the bad kind, the Corinthians would have suffered loss, and Paul’s letter of rebuke and correction would have been the trigger for it, as the holy words, having fallen on deaf ears and obstinate hearts, would have served to condemn them because of what they approved. This would obviously have led to greater sorrow for Paul, that would not have been resolved, given 2:2 – “For if I cause you sorrow, who then makes me glad but the one whom I made sorrowful?”
But at this point he rejoiced (7:9), as repentance was produced. The sorrow was behind them, and him. “For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter” (7:11). Paul was obligated to write to warn them, knowing that he had to cause sorrow and hoping and praying the sorrow would be the kind that “produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” rather than the “sorrow of the world (which) produces death” (7:10). Given the sinful state the Corinthian church was in, however, there was only one way to find out. The friend, Paul, had to wound them so as to provoke a reaction of self-examination, which the friend hoped would lead to vindication.
Re-read Paul’s extravagant language in 7:7-16. He spoke of comfort, longing, zeal for Paul, rejoicing, earnestness, godly sorrow, vindication of themselves, indignation, fear, avenging of wrong, again comfort, rejoicing, being refreshed, vindicated boasting, affection, again rejoicing, having confidence in all things in them. This is the same church about which 1 Corinthians was written! How did they get from there to here? Simple – confrontation about sin in love but with directness, prayer, the grace of God, and repentance.
Where did it all begin? What if Paul had succumbed to his fear and had gone along with what has come to be the prevailing spirit of this modern age, that love is always “nice” and doesn’t say hard things, that criticism is always an “attack”? What if he had ignored their sin? Among many other things, the triumph we see in 2 Corinthians 7 would be absent from our Bibles today. Passing through the struggle, meeting and wrestling with sorrow, such that greater and real joy is the product on the other side – this is the example the Savior passed on to us, and it gleams through the pages of such books as 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Peter, Hebrews, and so on.
What excuse do any of us have for observing sin and skating over it? Let us be faithful to observe and repeat the examples that we have in Scripture passages such as this.
[Contributed by Rhology]