A Heart for Reconciliation: A Walk Through 2 Corinthians
Background Material and Sermon Help
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) – The people ask for a king to succeed Samuel, despite his warnings.
Genesis 3:8-15 – The curse of Adam and Eve.
Psalm 138 – I will give thanks to you O Lord with my whole heart.
Psalm 130 – Out of the depths I cry to you. Lord, hear my voice.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 – So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed daily.
Mark 3:20-35 – The crowd was so large, they couldn’t eat. His family came out to restrain him, for the people said he was out of his mind. Can Satan cast out Satan? A house divided cannot stand. All sins forgiven except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Those who do God’s will are my brother, sister and mother.
Week 1: Don’t Lose Heart
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
2 Corinthians 4
For the next five Sundays we are in 2 Corinthians. This series consists of three things:
- Daily devotional readings for participants, in a book called A Heart for Reconciliation, found at Amazon in paperback or in digital format.
- Weekly Bible studies for Group Gatherings, which can be found in the back of the above devotional book, and also on my blog.
- Weekly background material and sermon helps, found on my blog.
Invite people to do a daily devotion for the next five weeks, attend worship and join a study group. Recruit a group of hosts, so that there are a lot of groups at different times of the week and places in your community. All hosts have to do is open their homes and read the questions. You’ll be surprised at how much people grow, and what gets stirred up in the life of your congregation.
Many thanks to Megan Dosher for writing the devotions. I prepared the group gathering questions. Another useful group study tool you may want to check out is 2 Corinthians (N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides).
Texts and Themes
Pentecost 2B: June 7 – 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 – Don’t Lose Heart. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed daily.
Pentecost 3B: June 14 – 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 – New Creation. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. We walk by faith and not by sight, at home in the body and away from the Lord.
Pentecost 4B: June 21 – 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 – Open Heart. Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation. We have endured beatings, riots, hunger, imprisonment…
Pentecost 5B: June 28 – 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 – Eager Generosity. The offering for the poor in Jerusalem. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
Pentecost 6B: July 5 – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 – Powerful Weakness. Paul’s out of body experience, and his thorn in the flesh. My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Corinth was a city about half way between Sparta and Athens, on the isthmus between northern and southern Greece. Ships could be dragged across the isthmus, if one had enough slaves. It was at one time the second city of Greece and one of the major Roman centers, along with Ephesus.
Here stood the temple to Poseidon, god of the Mediterranean, whose anger kept Odysseus from returning to Ithaca from the Trojan wars. Here were held the Isthmian games, which happened biennially and attracted huge crowds. Nero attended on November 28, of 66 A.D., and he proclaimed freedom to all Greeks.
Corinth probably had a population of 130,000, though some estimate at a lower population of 90,000. It was perched 1,800 feet above the harbor on a mountain called the Acrocorinth. It was a worldly city. The verb “to Corinth” (Korinthiazesthai) meant to fornicate. The temple of Aphrodite (goddess of love) crowned the high mountain on which the city stood. The temple was staffed by a thousand female slaves, which probably lended to its great popularity with the sailors (according to Strabo, who was a famous Greek geographer from the late first century BC).
It should come as no surprise to us that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians deal extensively with issues of marriage, misconduct and sexual morality. Shortly after Paul left, one of the church members had an affair with his stepmother. Paul is offended: even the Gentiles don’t even speak of such things. It was against Roman law and against Jewish law as well.
Paul is suspicious of carnal relations, though not the prude that his contemporary Seneca is. “You and I who are still far from wise, must not commit the error of falling into a stormy passion which enslaves us to someone else.” —Seneca. Many chose celibacy as a “higher calling.” Paul probably would have agreed, but said it’s better to be married than afire with lust. Paul would say, though, that it would be better to remain single so as to do the Lord’s work. (I Cor. 7:32). He did not, however, advocate divorce, saying that couples should never refuse one another sexually.
Priscilla and Aquila
In Corinth, Paul meets up with two business associates, also tentmakers, Priscilla (a diminutive for Prisca, “ancient”) and Aquila (“eagle”), who have been expelled from Rome in Claudius’ purge of the Jews. In Priscilla we encounter another tradeswoman, like Lydia. Tradespeople belonged to business associations. If Paul was making and selling tents to earn his way, it would have been natural for him to link up with others similarly engaged. Think of the freemason’s lodge or Kiwanis Club, which provide business contacts and support as well as a shared social fellowship. The words, club, association, and church are all the same word in Greek: ecclesia. It is quite possible the church started this way, as it did with Lydia in Philippi. Juvenal blamed much of the immorality and superstition of the age on the fact that women had found emancipation through these clubs. Paul said Priscilla and Aquila had “risked their necks” for his life. (Romans 16:3-4)
After living with Prisca and Aquila for a couple of years, Paul moved in with Titius Justus, who, perhaps significantly, lived next door to the synagogue. There is a white marble lintel inscribed SYNAGOGE HEBRAION and an impost decorated with the seven-branched candlesticks on Lechaeum Road. Paul reminds the Corinthians after moving on to Ephesus that rich men supported their ministry and provided them with a meeting place.
Paul says, “I received from the Lord what I passed on to you,” this is my body, this is my blood of the new covenant… In those days, when the number of followers of Christ were so small they could fit in one house; communion was a piece of cake (if you’ll pardon the pun) — clearly a social meal, held at the home of the person with the most square-footage. But shortly after Paul leaves, he hears of problems: divisions among believers, drunkenness, and gluttony. Here’s the problem. Most Roman dining rooms would only have space for a few diners. The rich would probably eat first, as was the custom. The poor would arrive after work and wait around in the atrium until there was space. In addition, while waiting for the plebes to arrive, the rich were getting drunk. Paul saw this as an affront to the gospel. It is not, in his view, the Lord’s Supper at all. In addition, it could be that there would be manifestations of the Spirit that could be taken for drunkenness (e.g. tongues as in Acts 2), further clouding the issue. Which raised another divisive issue: those who spoke in tongues and those who did not.
Eating food sacrificed to idols
In most ancient cities, the butchers were the priests and the priests were the butchers. Should one be a vegetarian to avoid eating meat dedicated or sacrificed to some pagan idol? Many believed that the gods were devils. Is it proper to eat food that has been sacrificed to a devil?
Paul takes a liberal approach. Just because some priest mumbled some mumbo-jumbo over the animal does not make it evil. These gods are not gods anyway. For Paul, the important thing is that Christ made us free. Some practiced vegetarianism to avoid eating pagan meat. Others did not. Paul’s message: Live with one another. There were those who practiced celibacy and those who did not. Respect one another. There were those who were Jewish Christians and those who were Pagan Christians. Many divisions. One faith, one Lord, one baptism.
All their spirituality is worth nothing if there is not love, according to Paul in I Corinthians 13. Love is the subject of Paul’s most famous hymn, “words which, if he had written nothing else, would have guaranteed that subsequent generations would have revered Paul, seeing him as one the most stupendous religious poets and visionaries whom the world has ever known.” (A. N. Wilson, Paul, p. 173)
How many letters?
While there is little doubt among scholars that Paul is the author of 2 Corinthians, there is quite a bit of discussion over whether the Epistle was originally one letter or whether it is a composite of two or more of Paul’s letters.
Although the New Testament only contains two letters to the Corinthians, the evidence from the letters themselves is that he wrote four, at the very least:
- The Early Letter. 1 Corinthians 5:9 says, “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons”). Paul is clearly referring to an earlier letter that predates 1 Corinthians. This is sometimes called the “warning letter”.
- 1 Corinthians. Refers to the Early Letter.
- The Severe Letter. Paul refers to an earlier “letter of tears” in 2 Corinthians 2:3–4 and 7:8. 1 Corinthians clearly does not match that description; so this “letter of tears” may have been written between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians.
- 2 Corinthians. Refers to the Severe Letter and mends fences.
The tone of the first part (chapters 1-9) of 2 Corinthians is harmonius. Then there is an abrupt change of tone; 2 Corinthians 10–13 has a bitter tone. This has led some to speculate that chapters 10–13 form part of the “letter of tears” referenced in 1 Corinthians 5:9. Those who disagree with this assessment usually say that the “letter of tears” no longer exists. It may be lost to history, as are most of Paul’s letters.
There are several ways to outline 2 Corinthians. Here is one possible way:
- 1:1-11 – Greeting
- 1:12-7:16 – Paul defends his actions and apostleship, affirming his affection for the Corinthians. (Our first three readings.)
- 8:1-9:14 – Instructions for the collection for the poor in the Jerusalem church.
- 10:1-13:10 – A polemic defense of his apostleship
- 13:11-13 – Closing greetings
It is our recommendation that participants in this study read one half of a chapter of 2 Corinthians each day. At this rate, you will progress through 2 Corinthians in less than a month (26 days). It may be advisable to read the entire letter in one sitting at first, to get a feel for the whole of the letter.
2 Corinthians 4
This week’s text comes from 2 Corinthians 4. Chapter 1 proceeds like a typical Pauline letter. He identifies himself as the author, along with his travelling companion, Timothy, who with Silvanus helped Paul proclaim the gospel to the Corinthians. Paul gives his standard greeting and then a blessing that evokes images of his own suffering for the sake of the gospel.
Chapter 2 begins with the words, “I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit.” And “I wrote as I did…” Paul must have written a scathing letter to them, the “Severe Letter” mentioned above. With a hint of defensiveness, Paul insists on his sincerity saying, “We are not peddlers of God’s word like so many.” (2:17)
In chapter 3, Paul goes on to share his love for the Corinthians. They are Paul’s letter of recommendation, written on his heart not on stone tablets, like the law. Here he hints at what may be part of the conflict. As in Galatians, the Judaizers may also be working with the Corinthians, demanding they be circumcised, follow Jewish customs and abstain from eating meat and anything not kosher. “We are ministers of a new covenant, not chiseled on stone. Paul rehearses a common theme of frustration that his Jewish colleagues do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. They are “veiled” as Moses was on the mountain.
When we arrive at our chapter for today, Paul says, “we do not lose heart.” The gospel is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this world has blinded them. Paul says he and his colleagues proclaim “Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” The God who said “Let there be light,” has shined in our hearts. We have this gospel in clay jars, to show the glory is from God, not us.
Our text begins at verse 13. We have the same Spirit. And God, who raised Jesus will also raise us, and bring us all into God’s presence. Here we arrive at the heart of Paul’s faith. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (4:16) The suffering of this world is a “slight momentary affliction” in light of eternity. It is preparing us for something greater. We look beyond what can be seen to what cannot be seen. We look beyond the temporal to the eternal. The punch line comes in the first verse of chapter 5: If this earthly tent in which we live is destroyed, we know we have a house not made with hands in heaven.
One possible theme for the preaching might be perspective. Paul puts his momentary suffering in perspective. He takes the long view. In his book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey says to “begin with the end in mind.” Perhaps this is a Sunday to have people write their obituaries. There is something about this practice that puts things in perspective. It helps people get out of the tunnel vision of the moment and think about the broad arc of life. Our lives are atomized. What is the sum of the parts? What do our current priorities say about who we are? How will they be perceived by those who come after us?
Another theme might be spiritual growth – the outer nature and inner nature. Is your outer nature wasting away? If you’re over 25, probably so. It begins slowly at first, and becomes pronounced after 50. More importantly, is your inner nature being renewed daily? As our bodies deteriorate, is our spirit becoming more rich? Are you growing spiritually? How would you know?
Galatians 5:22 says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Are you growing in these fruits of the spirit? Are you a more loving person than you were at this time last year? Do you have more joy? More peace? Are you becoming more kind, generous, and faithful? As our bodies wear out, the Spirit grows our inner nature.
As we become more loving and patient, more Christ-centered, we find we have more resources for the momentary sufferings we encounter. They don’t go away, but we put them in perspective and find that joy helps us in our sorrow.
Invite people to make a commitment to their spiritual lives. Take time for prayer this week, and trust that the Spirit will grow their inner nature. Take time each day to read a little Scripture (half a chapter of 2 Corinthians). Make time for prayer, worship, and study, then trust that the Holy Spirit will grow their spiritual lives.
A third approach might be found in the phrase, “So we do not lose heart…” In the midst of all the ups and downs, Christ is our hope. We might draw upon a couple of verses earlier in chapter 4, prior to our reading (4:8-10):
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
It is faith that gives us hope in the midst of any trials that come our way. Our joy does not come from our circumstances, but from our ability to see beyond our circumstances. As Nehemiah said (8:10), “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”