September 23, 2020

A Letter for the Church Today

Mosaic of the Apostle Paul, Ravenna

A Letter for the Church Today (1)
A Study of 2 Corinthians 10-13

For the next six Sundays, I will do a series on chapters 10-13 from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. That sentence raises a question: Why pick out part of an epistle and study just that section?

Here’s my answer, to be developed in what follows — 2Cor 10-13 is a self-contained text that shows how Paul responds to Christian “ministry” which bears no resemblance to the way of Christ.

I first became aware of this portion of Scripture and its relevance to today’s church while I was studying at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, taking Pauline Theology from Dr. D.A. Carson. At the time, I was not only a student trying to master theology and Biblical studies, but also a young pastor, hungry to learn about the practice of ministry. And what I learned at TEDS was profound and encouraging.

I have often said that one thing seminary did for me was to introduce me to Paul the Pastor — to help me see and grasp what the Apostle said about being a minister of Christ. When thinking of Paul, many focus primarily on doctrine and think of him as the theologian, the thinker. Or, they mine his epistles for insights into “the Christian life.” They may approach Paul as missiologists and try to grasp his apostolic mission strategy. However, the passages that have meant the most to me over the years talk about how Paul the servant of Christ related to his neighbors and his brothers and sisters with pastoral concern and love.

My favorite text about ministry from Paul — 1Thessalonians 2:1-12 — summarizes his mindset and approach:

Paul, Rublev

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully maltreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (NRSV)

One sees that Paul approached the ministry at a supremely personal level. Entrusted with the Gospel by God, he related to others with integrity and genuine concern. He took great pains to guard against any suggestion that he was out to take advantage of his neighbors. And Paul worked small and quiet and face to face. He refused to take center stage under a spotlight, preferring to position himself in the wings alongside those he came to serve. You would not have seen Paul’s name displayed prominently in lights when he came to town — instead you would have had to search among the working class folks where he plied his trade quietly, with a kindness and friendliness that was contagious. As he says in verse 12, his focus was not on addressing crowds but on effectively encouraging “each one” around him as a father would his children.

As a minister, the Apostle Paul did not aim to impress but to simply practice Gospel-infused love.

Which brings us back to 2Cor 10-13. This portion of Paul’s letter identifies some so-called “apostles” who could not have been more different in their approach to ministry. In these chapters — which contrast so much from that which precedes them that they have been posited as parts of a separate letter which became connected to 2Corinthians — Paul confronts the Corinthian church for listening to “traveling Jewish Christian leaders who not only invaded his territory but also claimed credit for his work, stressed sensationalism and challenged his credentials and his ministry” (Beville, IVPNTC).

For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved,
but those whom the Lord commends. (2Cor 10:18)

What was the situation in Corinth that Paul addressed in 2Cor. 10-13? How does it resonate with the situation in the American church today?

Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. gives a good summary:

St. Paul Mosaic, Veria Greece

“In 2 Cor 10–13 Paul is defending his ministry. He feels embarrassed to do so, but he also feels trapped. Here is what’s happening. Paul’s ministry is under attack in Corinth by men he spoofs as “super-apostles” in 11:5. These false teachers are moving through the Corinthian church, boasting of their spectacular spiritual experiences and putting Paul down as inferior. The immature Corinthians are dazzled. Their growing attachment to the super-apostles puts them in danger of falling away from Jesus himself (2 Cor 11:3–4). Paul must rescue them, but he has been made the flashpoint of controversy in a personal way. So he cannot help the Corinthians refocus on Christ without also becoming self-referential in his appeals. He is in an awkward position. On the one hand, if he asserts his spiritual qualifications, his critics will point at him and say, “See? What did we tell you? He’s the arrogant one!” On the other hand, if he downplays his credentials, then they’ll point at him and say, “See? What did we tell you? He’s a second-stringer.” Either way, the Corinthians’ spiritual integrity before Christ hangs at this moment on their relational stability with Paul. He has no choice but to defend himself for their sake. But the way he boasts is surprising. He boasts, all right, but about unboastable things. He does step onto the turf of the super-apostles, but he plays the game by different rules.”

As to contemporary relevance, listen to what Linda Belleville says in her IVP commentary on Paul’s letter: “There is a tendency in evangelicalism today to place great store in charismatic preaching, professional programming and a worship service that is glamorous and glitzy — in short, to expect a good performance rather than a good message. Paul faced serious personal challenges throughout his ministry because he rejected the performance orientation of his own culture and focused only on preaching ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1Cor 2:2).”

Now listen to a few of Paul’s own statements in this section of his epistle:

  • “The truth is that, although of course we lead normal human lives, the battle we are fighting is on the spiritual level. The very weapons we use are not those of human warfare but powerful in God’s warfare for the destruction of the enemy’s strongholds.” (10:3-4, JB Phillips NT)
  • “Of course we shouldn’t dare include ourselves in the same class as those who write their own testimonials, or even to compare ourselves with them! All they are doing, of course, is to measure themselves by their own standards or by comparisons within their own circle, and that doesn’t make for accurate estimation, you may be sure.” (10:12)
  • “It is not self-commendation that matters, it is winning the approval of God.” (10:18)
  • “For apparently you cheerfully accept a man who comes to you preaching a different Jesus from the one we told you about, and you readily receive a spirit and a Gospel quite different from the ones you originally accepted.” (11:3)
  • “God’s messengers? They are counterfeits of the real thing, dishonest practitioners, ‘God’s messengers’ only by their own appointment.” (11:13)
  • Mosaic of St. Paul, Ravenna

    “Oh, if I am going to boast, let me boast of the things which have shown up my weakness!” (11:30)

  • “Therefore, I have cheerfully made up my mind to be proud of my weaknesses, because they mean a deeper experience of the power of Christ. I can even enjoy weaknesses, suffering, privations, persecutions and difficulties for Christ’s sake. For my very weakness makes me strong in him.” (12:10)
  • “Consequently I will most gladly spend and be spent for your good, even though it means that the more I love you the less you love me.” (12:15)
  • “We are glad to be weak if it means that you are strong. Our ambition for you is true Christian maturity.” (13:9)

In 2Corinthians 10-13, Paul confronts a model of “ministry” that is, unfortunately, all too common today. It is “power” religion, with an emphasis on the charisma of its leaders and their fine credentials, claims of spiritual “vision,” sensational gifts and otherworldly experiences, eloquent speech and striking presentation style, and of course, measurable and impressive “results.”

Contrast that with a man, called of God, who works with his hands, loves his neighbors, shares Christ with them, and forms them into a community that gathers around the Gospel, and you will see the difference between much American religion and Jesus-shaped apostolic ministry.


  1. The theology of the cross (Paul’s theology) starts with the outcome…death and then the resurrected life, in Christ.

    The dominant theology of today’s church starts with the potentials of progress, and “growth” and ascendancy.

    That’s the theology of ‘glory’, which is fed by humanism.

    Where we are concerned, God has nothing to work with. Nothing at all. So He needs to kill us off and give us a whole new life, in Christ. God creates out of…nothing.

    That’s what a real God does. He doesn’t give us a tune-up.

  2. I enjoyed this piece of insight this morning, sipping coffee and getting semi-ready for church.

    I have always believed that the mission of churches was to guide us sinners in personal growth in Christ, support us in our human fraility and failures, and remind us of the real reason we are here on planet Earth.

    ….and I have never had a CLUE what generating numbers of “converts” or counts of tushies in the pews had to do with being a church. Christ is not a product to sell, and Christian living, including ministry, simply cannot be measured by sales reports and growth numbers like God Almighty is a a new brand of soda, an upscale restaurant, or a trendy internet cafe.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      ….and I have never had a CLUE what generating numbers of “converts” or counts of tushies in the pews had to do with being a church.

      Lot$ of Tithe$.

  3. Nothing has changed since Paul’s time. There are still those who claim special knowledge and have the inside track to whatever they are pushing.But it’s all about Jesus and the cross and grace that saves us if we humble ourselves and let God do it.

  4. This is really insightful, I’m reading Clement right now and he’s dealing with the church at Corinth as well. Paul’s model is so humble and gracious, he sticks to the basics and takes great pains to make sure he point is being heard. His humility, grace and eagerness to encourage, all while getting his hands dirty, is such a stark comparison to what we see all around us today.

    We have so many self declared prophets, who can talk a great game, but are never seen outside of their custom tailored suits, or their plush offices. I stopped looking at the stage a long time ago and started measuring men by how they lived beyond the lights and emotion, thats where you find the true makeup of a man. Pauls mission was not just about conversion, but really growth and maturity. How far from that ideal have we fallen, wow.


  5. interesting…the sermon at church today was on the same topic. Pastor spoke about how we should partake in service to God , in humility & with integrity , always remembering that it is not us doing anything , but him working through us.

  6. After reading 2 Corinthians with my teenaged daughters, we sub-titled it ‘the Letter of Tough Love’. It also contains on of my favorite verses “I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it” (2 Cor 12:11 NIV) .

  7. Elizabeth, I looked up 2 Cor 12:11 on biblegateway and read it in different translations of the Bible. I liked how “The Message” puts it and the passages following it: “Well, now I’ve done it! I’ve made a complete fool of myself by going on like this. But it’s not all my fault; you put me up to it. You should have been doing this for me, sticking up for me and commending me instead of making me do it for myself. You know from personal experience that even if I’m a nobody, a nothing, I wasn’t second-rate compared to those big-shot apostles you’re so taken with. All the signs that mark a true apostle were in evidence while I was with you through both good times and bad: signs of portent, signs of wonder, signs of power. Did you get less of me or of God than any of the other churches? The only thing you got less of was less responsibility for my upkeep. Well, I’m sorry. Forgive me for depriving you.”

    Wow, that’s a bit of a rant from Paul, isn’t it!

    • I used to not care for Paul, then I found myself with two teenagers and a matchbox crazed little boy and now think Paul and I could start a good support group for the figurative ‘cat herders’ of the world. I like at the end of the book where he basicallly tells that they should be glad he is saying this to them in writing and not in person, because that would be really bad. 🙂

      I guess all this goes to show that being a pastor has always been a hard job and not for the timid.

      • Yes, Elizabeth, I like the part in 2 Corinthians 13:1-4 (again, in “The Message” ) where Paul writes to them, “If you haven’t changed your ways by the time I get there, look out. You who have been demanding proof that Christ speaks through me will get more than you bargained for. You’ll get the full force of Christ, don’t think you won’t. He was sheer weakness and humiliation when he was killed on the cross, but oh, he’s alive now—in the mighty power of God! We weren’t much to look at, either, when we were humiliated among you, but when we deal with you this next time, we’ll be alive in Christ, strengthened by God.”

        But a few sentences later he writes, “And that’s about it, friends. Be cheerful. Keep things in good repair. Keep your spirits up. Think in harmony. Be agreeable.”

        It’s like he’s playing good cop/bad cop all by himself! 🙂

    • Great passage, Joanie!

  8. Just curious Mike, do you think 2 Cor is a unified document or a collection of different letters (all by Paul) as some scholars argue?