Saturday, December 20, 2014

2 Corinthians: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

To read my book report on 1 Corinthians, click HERE.

Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth (which he founded) has the following themes: consolation amidst suffering, power shown through weakness, criticism of false apostles, and an urge to be generous.  Unlike 1 Corinthians, which has a more instructive and contemplative tone, 2 Corinthians has an emotional, sometimes angry, and chastising tone.  This makes sense because it is a letter, not a theological treatise.  It is a personal correspondence written to a particular community to address particular circumstances.  

Paul begins his letter by introducing the theme of consolation amidst suffering.  It’s clear throughout that Paul has endured some extreme difficulties, yet endured through his faith.  He writes: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.”

"St. Paul in Prison" by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1627)

Then Paul contrasts his ministry with supposed false apostles who have appeared in Corinth.  Paul’s message is characterized by “frankness” and “sincerity” as opposed to “earthly wisdom.”  Unlike false apostles who are called “peddlers of God’s word” (those who personally profit from their ministry), Paul is a person of sincerity who does not work for payment.  Unlike the false apostles who show false credentials, Paul says that the believers in Corinth themselves are his credentials, written “not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

It is implied that the false apostles are encouraging the believers in Corinth to follow the laws and traditions of Judaism.  While this is acceptable for Jewish Christians, it is not required of gentiles.  Paul says some rather disparaging things about the Torah, which he calls “the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets.”  Indeed, Paul sees the new covenant through Jesus as superseding the old law: “For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation (the Torah), much more does the ministry of justification (the gospel of Jesus) abound in glory!  Indeed what once had glory (the Torah) has lost its glory because of the greater glory (the gospel of Jesus), for if what was set aside came through glory, much more has the permanent come in glory!”  Paul says that for non-Christian Jews, the law of Moses is “veil” which “lies over their minds.”  In contrast to the “old” law of Moses, Paul says that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”

"Moses With the Ten Commandments" by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1659)

Paul presents himself as a frank, sincere apostle who endures despite great suffering: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” and elsewhere that he has persevered “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”  These afflictions are meant, I believe, to establish Paul’s credibility as a true apostle.

Paul urges the believers not to associate with unbelievers, but to provide for other believers in need.  He sends his associate Titus to take up a collection for poor Christians in Jerusalem.  This may have struck the Corinthians as odd because earlier Paul says that he doesn’t collect money for himself.  Paul says that the money to be collected is not for him, but for God and the church.  He calls the collection “a voluntary gift” and not “an extortion.”

Then Paul continues his self-defense against false apostles in Corinth who had apparently been criticizing him, saying “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”  Paul says that the gospel is not about human ability, but about God.  He says “let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”  He ironically criticizes these false teachers as “super-apostles” whose boasting makes them “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.”  

"Paul Preaching" by Raphael

Paul establishes his authority not through power, but through weakness.  This is an essential part of the gospel—the power of God shown through human weakness.  He writes, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”  When it comes to the gospel of Jesus, true apostles are not powerful, well-spoken, or comfortable.  Rather they suffer a lot, and are thus characterized by sincerity and humility.  Paul is very open about his personal weaknesses: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a message of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.  Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’”

Paul concludes his letter with his usual greetings and a thinly veiled threat to the Corinthians to get their shit together: “So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not tearing down.”  He ends with a few imperative commands: “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace.”  Unlike 1 Corinthians, which has a more instructive and contemplative tone, 2 Corinthains has an emotional, sometimes angry, and chastising tone.  

“St. Paul Preaching to the Jews in the Synagogue at Damascus,” from Scenes from the Life of St. Paul (mosaic), Byzantine School, 12th century. Duomo, Monreale, Sicily, Italy.

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