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Reading: Acts 18:1-
Text: 2 Cor.1:1-
An Empassioned Letter
Introduction and Background
In the years AD 50-
Corinth was a cosmopolitan city with the lifestyle that went with it. This lifestyle was a worldly one. Morality was poor and sexual morality poorer still. This was the background of many of the converts to the gospel that Paul preached – yet conversion did not automatically deliver the church from the perils of the surrounding culture and moral problems continued to pose a real threat to the purity and the integrity of the church in that city.
When we consider the church at Corinth we can see very clearly just how the church can be influenced by a world that is continually trying to squeeze the church into its mould. While the exact circumstances and practices may vary from one culture to another the pattern nevertheless remains the same – the world always brings pressure to bear upon the church.
When the 18 month period came to an end Paul moved on but he did not forget the church. He continued to feel a great weight of responsibility for the church even though this would concern would cost him much emotionally and spiritually.
Paul wrote a first letter to the Corinthians, a letter that we no longer have but which is referred to in 1Cor.5:9. In this letter Paul wrote to warn them not to associate with folk guilty of particularly public sins – he listed these as sexual immorality, greed, and idolatry. Paul didn't want them to have liaisons with those who were revilers, drunkards or swindlers. When the Corinthians received Paul's letter they misunderstood what he had written. They thought Paul was calling for separation from anybody who did such things but that was not what Paul had in mind.
Word got back to Paul about this misunderstanding and he wrote again – this new letter is what we have in our Bibles as First Corinthians. In this letter Paul not only availed himself of the occasion to answer several questions that the church was asking him but he also clarified the misunderstandings they had arising out of his earlier letter. The church if it was to be salt in society had to be in contact with folk who were still lost in the very sins he had earlier described! However the salt of the church must not be allowed to lose its saltiness! The church must be kept true to its profession! Paul was writing about the conduct of those who made a profession of faith. Christians were not to associate with those who carried on living a life of appalling moral standards while at the same time professing to belong to Christ.
The infamous example that illustrated just how the Corinthians were carrying on was that of a man living with his father's wife. Not only was he doing so but the church was proud of its willingness to accept such behaviour (1Cor.5:1-
Not long after writing First Corinthians Paul paid a brief visit to Corinth and it was a visit that didn't go at all well. Paul refers to it in 2Cor.2:1 as a painful or sorrowful visit.
Since Paul had left the church in Corinth others had arrived who had a very different take on the nature of the gospel. The agenda of these folk was very different from that of the apostle Paul and their arrival had a profoundly negative effect on the vitality of the church's life. You see it wasn't merely a matter of personal taste regarding which preacher you prefer to listen to, there were important matters of principle at stake!
These newcomers understood Paul to be standing in the way of their own ideas and they considered themselves to be the special ones. So what these newcomers did was to challenge Paul's very apostleship, not hesitating to denigrate the very apostle who had founded the church they were now seeking to guide in a new direction.
For us looking back on all this we might wonder how on earth they might hope to call into question Paul's apostleship – we are perhaps so used to thinking about Paul as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Well they did so by introducing what they thought was an obvious set of criteria that any leader worthy of the name would satisfy? And as they drew up their list Paul seemed to fail again and again while they, of course, thought they really were the special ones themselves.
If we highlight what they did we'll see that their criteria are still very much with us today.
What are the marks of a true apostle? That was the question then and with care we can apply this to our own day to answer the questions: what are the marks of a true Christian leader? Or what, more generally, are the marks of a true Christian spirituality?
It would appear that when Paul made his brief "painful visit" that the matter boiled over. Paul was openly criticised by one of these new leaders within the church and the church had done nothing, a silence which implied support for their leader and no defence of their founding apostle.
Paul had previously made and communicated plans to revisit Corinth. The events of the "painful visit" caused him to alter those plans. All this was grist to the mill of his opponents! Surely here was further evidence that Paul was not a man to be trusted!
While his letters might be weighty he was no orator and couldn't cut it with those who were ie. themselves. Surely a great Christian leader would be able to speak well? But how weak Paul was!
Now his weakness is seen in his inability to keep his promises – so on a whim he changes his plans: that is how they interpreted his actions.
They would further consider Paul to be weak -
He was weak too when it came to letters of recommendation: He didn't have any did he? Which respected leaders commended him? They could readily show how others valued their ministries but Paul had nothing to show – he was weak, weak, weak and weakness was not the hallmark of spiritual usefulness and blessing – or so they thought.
And Paul responds here in 2 Corinthians in what is an intensely personal letter. Of course Paul could simply have walked away and not bothered about this church. Why should he spend more time and energy on them when they were so unappreciative? Well the simple answer is because Paul was an apostle, a true apostle!
While Paul's letter here is intensely personal we should not imagine that Paul is concerned to rectify some purely personal affront that has been caused to him. The issue was not personality but principle. Paul must defend his apostleship because it is the nature of apostleship and indeed the very nature of the gospel that is at stake. After all the gospel focuses upon a crucified saviour – "We preach Christ crucified" 1Cor.2:2. If Paul is to be able to effectively carry out his apostleship in ministering to this church in Corinth he must demonstrate to them that he is a true apostle and to do this he will need to teach about the true marks of an apostle.
How easy it is for us even today to focus on the wrong things! Are we in danger of doing that ourselves?
In the course of this letter Paul will meet his adversaries head-
With God's help in the weeks to come we'll look more closely at how Paul went about his task and what he taught the Corinthians through this Second Letter.
The will of God
The church of God
The blessings of God
1. The will of God v.1
In most of Paul's letters he begins by drawing attention to the fact that he is an apostle and here at the start of a letter that is so bound up with the matter of apostleship it is not at all surprising that Paul declares that he is an apostle.
However Paul is very quick to point out just why this is so. He was not a person who had taken the mantle upon himself irrespective of what God wanted of him. No, he was an apostle because that was what God willed! If Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ it was because God had willed it so.
And Paul knew that this was true of him. He knew that he had seen the risen Christ, he knew that he had been set apart for this important work, and he did not allow himself to be puffed up and become proud because he knew too how totally unworthy he was of such a high calling. He had not forgotten that in the days before Jesus had turned his life around on the road to Damascus Saul, as he then was, had been on his way to persecute the church. The true church, as he now knew, was no minor matter it was the church of God.
More than this, Paul knew that he was writing as an apostle. His words then were not the mere words of a man, nor were they great words of a great and wise man, they were the words of God. He knew, writing as an apostle, that his words were "breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…" (2Tim.3:16).
2. The Church of God v.1
Yes, Paul had been at the origin of the church in Corinth but it was not Paul's church. Nor was the church in Corinth the property and preserve of those new teachers who had seeming infiltrated so well. No, the church was none other than the church of God. The true church is made up of "saints", that is people set apart by God for God by Jesus Christ. Do you recall that vision which had kept Paul labouring for 18 months in the city?
God's church made up of the Lord's own people! What a wonderful body the church is and here Paul is speaking about a local church that was full of factions, immorality, misunderstandings and mistakes. He was writing to a church that was being fed false information and which was being given wrong criteria by which to judge its leaders. What a mess! But it was still God's church!!
3. God's Blessings v.2
Yes, it may be a fairly standard Christian greeting that Paul employs here but just because we are familiar with it let's not fail to appreciate and enjoy the wonder of the gospel.
Grace – unmerited blessings to be bestowed; everything we need but couldn't ever secure for ourselves.
Glorious riches at Christ's expense
God's riches at Christ's expense
God's righteousness at Christ's expense
God's Righteousness At Calvary Extended
God's revealed and active commitment to every believer
Grace is so suited to us how we need grace.
And with grace Paul wants the Corinthians to know and experience peace in their lives. Peace in the Bible is much more than the mere absence of war or conflict: it is everything being rightly ordered and in its proper place. When the grace that is so freely offered to us in the gospel through Jesus Christ has been received and welcomed into the life of a believer then peace can begin to be experienced too.
Paul's opening greetings are God-
May that be our experience too!