Friday, September 21
2 Corinthians 8:8-24: Paul admits that the current admonition, in which much is made of the zeal of the Macedonians, is intended to test the commitment of the Corinthians (verse 8). With respect to self-sacrificial generosity, nonetheless, Paul appeals not only to the example of other Christians but also to that of Christ Himself (verse 9; Philippians 2:6-11).
To facilitate the collection at Corinth, Paul is sending, not only Titus, but two other emissaries to assist him in the work (verses 18-22; 12:17-18). Paul does not name these men, but it is not necessary to do so, because their identity will be know when they arrive with Titus. Moreover, these men are, in part, delegates of the churches participating in the collection (verse 23). Luke provides a list of those who carried the money after the collection, in which list we observe that he mentions the origin of each man: Beroea and Thessaloniki in Macedonia, Derbe in Pisidia, and Asia Minor. It is not unreasonable to suspect that the two anonymous emissaries mentioned by Paul are included in Luke’s list (acts 20:4).
Clearly Paul was much concerned with this collection when he wrote the present epistle. Indeed, the highly artificial character of his style in chapters 8 & 9 seems to suggest uneasiness on his part respecting the reaction of these sometimes-troublesome Corinthians. Paul had only recently quarreled with some of them, and now he finds himself asking them for money! From a pastoral perspective, the situation was a bit delicate. Still, Paul could not neglect this collection, which he had promised to undertake (Galatians 2:10).
Saturday, September 22
2 Corinthians 9:1-15: Paul continues, with a repetition suggesting uneasiness, to discuss the collection for the saints and the Corinthians’ participation in it. He has held up the Corinthians for emulation by the Macedonians (verse 2), just as he is currently holding up the Macedonians for the emulation of the Corinthians (8:1-5). The two cases are not equal, however. The Macedonians, with their longer track record of generosity, have actually contributed to the collection, whereas the most Paul can say about the Corinthians is that they have been “ready since last year” (cf. also 8:11 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-4). Still, this is not a point on which Paul is entirely confident (verses 3-5). Hence he is sending Titus and two others to give further encouragement in the matter.
Even as Paul continues to write on the subject, he says it is “superfluous: (perisson to do so. This is an expression of rhetorical irony, of course. Paul knows very well that it is far from superfluous! We are glad that he continues on the subject, because the present chapter richly develops the theme of generous giving.
First, he call this giving a “service” (diakonia–verses 1,12,13), which places the collection in the larger context of what all believers owe to one another, the obligation to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), poverty being one of those burdens.
Second, the underlying spirit of the gift is to be generosity, a true “blessing” (evlogia–twice each in verses 5,6), and not stinginess (pleonechsia). That is to say, the collection serves more than an economic purpose. It is designed also to enrich the spirit. Ironically the collection may be called self-serving, in the sense that one sows in order to reap (verse 6). The Lord, who is never outdone in generosity, invites believers to test Him on the point (verses 7-8). The collection involves the “heart” (kardia).
Third, none of this enterprise is of purely human inspiration. It is all “grace” (charis–verses 8,14), which is why he continues to speak of “abounding” (perissevo–verses 8,9,12; 8:2,714 [twice]). All generosity begins with God (verse 10), who is the source of all “righteousness” (dikaiosyne–verses 9,10).
Fourth, everything leads to thanksgiving (evcharistia–verses 11,12). God’s purpose in all things is to bring forth in human beings a thankful heart.
Sunday, September 23
2 Corinthians 10:1-18: We come now to the lengthy self-defense for which it is arguable that this epistle is most remembered. If Paul had inappropriate partisans at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:12-13), so he had his critics, and now he will proceed to answer them.
He begins with irony, perhaps even sarcasm, apparently referring to those that think him humble only in his personal presence but overly bold as a writer (verses 1,10). His critics regard him as sinful (“walk according to the flesh”) in this respect (verse 2).
Paul admits to fleshly limitations (verse 3), an admission earlier conceded in his image of the clay vessels (4:7), and later described as a thorn in the flesh (12:7). Being “in the flesh,” however, is no worse than being “in the world” (1:12). It is simply the human condition of frailty.
Paul shifts his metaphor from walking to warring (verse 3) (or from the Odyssey to the Iliad, as it were, from life as journey to life as struggle). Combat is the more appropriate metaphor for what Paul has to say (verses 4-6). If no evil forces were arrayed against us, walking might be an adequate metaphor for life, but this is not the case.
The real enemy is intellectual arrogance, a trait that Paul had addressed at depth in First Corinthians. This intellectual arrogance is what renders impossible the true “knowledge of God” (verse 5; 2:14; 5:6). Hence, the first obedience to Christ is an obedience of the mind. The context of this point is Paul’s authority as an apostle, an authority on which he is prepared to elaborate at some length in the rest of the epistle (verses 7-8). To prepare for this elaboration, Paul devotes the second half of this chapter to a consideration of true and false boasting (verses 12-18). This section sets up the remaining chapters of this book.
Paul starts with obvious irony (verse 12) that one scholar translates as “Well, I really cannot muster the courage to pair myself [enkrinai] or compare myself [synkrinai] with certain persons who are distinguished by much self-commendation [synistano–3:1; 4:2; 5:12; 10:12,18; 12:11].” Unlike these persons, nonetheless, Paul has special claims on the Corinthians as the founder of their congregation (verse 14; 1 Corinthians 3:6,10).
Monday, September 24
2 Corinthians 11:1-15: Paul here begins his self-defense against the criticisms of certain roaming preachers who have stirred up controversy at Corinth since his last visit to the place. From Acts and 1 Corinthians we know that Apollos and Cephas had done some evangelization in the city, but it is clear that Paul does not have these men in mind. It is impossible to determine who his critics were.
Was Paul accused of jealousy with respect to those critics? Evidently so, but he explains the motive, nature, and justice of this jealous (verse 2).This jealousy is for Christ, not himself; it is an expression of loving pastoral concern, for he fears the spiritual seduction of the Corinthians (verse 3). After all, the latter have shown themselves disposed to receive and accept new versions of the Good News (verse 4), preached by these itinerant evangelists whom he mockingly call “hyper-apostles” (verse 5; 12:11) and, more seriously, “false apostles” (verse 13).
It appears that Paul’s humble demeanor at Corinth, where he was supported by his own labor (Acts 18:3; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 9:18) and the financial support received from Macedonia (verse 9; Philippians 2:25; 4:10-20), made him the object of derision among his critics (verse 7). This suggests that Paul’s critics at Corinth may have enjoyed a higher social status, even as they accepted the support of the Corinthians. Since Paul did, in fact, accept support from other churches, it would seem that he had early sized up the spirit of the Corinthians and concluded that to accept their support would not be prudent in this case. Sometimes, after all, financial support comes with certain undisclosed obligations that will eventually render the recipient a debtor.
Paul’s language concerning his critics contains some of the harshest expressions to come from his pen.
Tuesday, September 25
2 Corinthians 11:16-33: Paul commences his autobiographical apologetic, recounting at length the various sufferings and trials attendant on his ministry. He is aware that his readers may regard his comments only as an exercise in foolishness (verse 16).
With sarcasm Paul comments that the Corinthians are already accustomed to tolerate foolishness, themselves being so wise (verse 19; 1 Corinthians 4:10). Their tolerance is so great that they have already been outrageously treated by these false itinerant teachers (verse 20). Their enslavement (katadouloi) at the hands of these teachers puts us in mind of the earlier situation in Galatia, where “false brothers” brought free Christians back under the slavery of the Law (katadoulousin–Galatians 2:4). The Corinthians have been similarly mistreated.
It becomes clear that Paul’s opponents are Jews, but so is he (verse 22; Philippians 3:5). They claim to be servants of Christ, but Paul’s credentials are stronger and more credible, and he proceeds to list them. Not only has he been beaten and imprisoned (Acts 16:22-23); he has also often been in danger of death (verse 23. Paul’s list here contains many details not found in the Acts of the Apostles. From the latter work we would not have suspected, for instance, that Paul had already suffered shipwreck three times (verse 25) prior to the occasion described in Acts 27. Mentions here the stoning recorded by Luke in Acts 14:19.
Eight times Paul speaks of “dangers” (verse 26) to describe the circumstances of his many travels. The culminating danger is that of betrayal by “false brothers” (cf. Galatians 2:4), a term that may include the critics he is answering.
All of these things have been endured in the context of Paul’s tireless ministry to the churches, a source of constant inner solicitude (verse 28). Inwardly identified with the plight of these churches, Paul suffers all that they suffer (verse 29; 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
This mention of weakness (verse 29) brings the Apostle more directly to his theme—namely, power made perfect in weakness (verse 30). He recalls the humiliation and indignities endured in his ministry, beginning with his narrow escape while lowered over a city wall in a basket (verses 31-33); Acts 9:23-25). Hardly any man is weaker or more dependent (with apologies for the pun) than a man being lowered in a basket.
Wednesday, September 26
2 Corinthians 12:1-10: The variant readings in the manuscripts for verse 1 testify to the difficulties felt by many copyists, over the centuries, when they came to the beginning of this verse. Those difficulties admitted, the correct sense seems to be: “Though it serves no good purpose, further boasting is necessary.”
Paul mentions the spiritual revelations of which he has been the recipient, even in mystical rapture (verse 2). These experiences surely included the direct revelation that he received from the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8; Galatians 1:16), also recorded by St. Luke (Acts 9:4-6; 22:6-8; 26:13-18). Speaking of an especially lofty experience fourteen years earlier, Paul’s sense of reserve prompts him to shift to the grammatical third person, as though he were speaking of someone else.
These spiritual revelations strengthened Paul in the apostolic ministry (Acts 18:9-10), and he would soon receive another one (22:17-22).
The mysterious character of such revelations is conveyed by Paul’s ironic expression “unspeakable sayings” (arreta remata–verse 4). The sheer ineffability of these experiences is mirrored in the irony with which Paul speaks of them. Thus, he is unable to say whether or not he was still in his body during the occurrence. Indeed, it is almost as though they had happened to someone else, a person distinct from powerless, frail Paul (verse 5).
The Apostle breaks off speaking of himself in this regard, lest his readers entertain too high a view of him. Such experiences, after all, had to do with his relationship to Christ, not his relationship to the Corinthians, as he had reminded them earlier (5:13).
Moreover, the Lord had taken care to humble Paul, so that he would not take personal satisfaction in those lofty flights of the soul (verse 7). His human weakness—“in the flesh”—was afflicted by a skolops, a torturing thorn, which he further describes as a satanic messenger that pounded the Apostle with closed fist (kolaphize). A comparison with Job, bodily afflicted by Satan with God’s permission, comes naturally to the mind of the student of the Bible, and perhaps Paul had something like this in mind.
Paul’s description indicates a bodily ailment of some severity, perhaps epilepsy, a diagnosis suggested by comparing this text to the description of the little boy in Mark 9:20. Whatever it was, nonetheless, this repeated or sustained experience was so humbling to Paul that he prayed for its removal (verse 8). Indeed, like our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemani (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42), Paul prays three times that it will be removed.
Like Jesus in the Garden, furthermore, Paul’s prayer, when God heard it, was rewarded more than it sought (cf. Hebrews 5:7-10). Through this painful experience, and the prayer prompted by this experience, Paul discerned the working of divine grace in his life; he learned that his weakness was the locus and occasion in which the power of the risen Christ—“the Lord” (verse 8)—was revealed. He was instructed by this experience; it taught him, in his very flesh, that divine power is rendered perfect in infirmity (verse 9).
This experience, transformed in prayer, provided Paul with a sustained and renewing paradigm for all his life in Christ, an interpretive key capable of opening many doors otherwise closed. He found that it had sustained him in every sort of suffering and misfortune (verse 10). Through this insight “the power of Christ” (he dynamis tou Christou) was active in his life and ministry. In his weakness he was strong.
Thursday, September 27
Psalm 83: In most of these names of the enemies enumerated in this psalm, we recognize Israel’s real military enemies. Such are Moab, Ammon, and Amalek (cf. Judges 3:12–30). The first two of these are likewise identical with “the sons of Lot.” Gebal was a city of the Philistines (cf. 1 Kings 5:18), against whom Israel fought in many a battle. The Edomites are remembered in Holy Scripture for their participation in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (cf. Obadiah, passim), and we will meet them again in Psalm 137. Hagar being the mother of Ishmael, the Hagrites and the Ishmaelites are apparently the same folk (cf. 1 Chronicles 5:10, 18–22). Assyria, finally, was one of the cruelest and most loathed of Israel’s ancient foes (cf. Nahum, passim).
A special feature of this list, nonetheless, indicates that the enmity involved is more than simply military. That element is the mention of the Phoenician capital of Tyre. Although Israel’s relationship with the Phoenicians may sometimes have been strained (cf. 1 Kings 9:11–14), we have no evidence of any military hostility between them.
Nevertheless, from another and more spiritual perspective, it may be the case that Phoenicia, with its capitals at Tyre and Sidon, was the worst enemy that Israel ever had, because it was through the various economic and political alliances with the Phoenicians that Israel learned ever anew the ways of infidelity to God. Solomon’s early pacts with this nation paved the avenue by which the likes of Jezebel and Athaliah traveled south to teach Israel to sin, and opposition to Phoenician influence was a sustained feature of the prophetic message, from Elijah’s encounter with the servants of Baal (cf. 1 Kings 18), through Amos’s condemnation of the Phoenician slave trade (cf. Amos 1:9), to Ezekiel’s lengthy tirade against their great economic empire (Ezekiel 26—28).
The introduction of Tyre into our psalm’s list of foes, therefore, shows that the threatened enmity is more than physical and military. Whether with hostility on the battlefield, or along the subtler paths of syncretism, materialism, idolatry, and cultural compromise, there is more than one way for the people of God to be destroyed. And the danger of destruction is the very theme and meat of this psalm.
The real threat to God’s people, then, is one of spirit, because “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
2 Corinthians 12:11-21: In the second half of this chapter Paul finishes his self-defense and expresses his ongoing concern for the spiritual state of the Corinthians. He seems hesitant and perhaps embarrassed by the lengthy glimpse into his soul that he has just shared with his readers.
Nonetheless, he calls on the Corinthians to remember that his presence among them demonstrated the marks of authentic apostleship (verse 12). These marks included miracles. Indeed, theologians have recognized in this verse the essential features of an authentic miracle. First, it testifies to God’s omnipotence (dynamis). Second, it is a “wonder,” an act beyond ordinary expectation (teras). Third, it serves as a revelatory “sign” (semeion. Only here and in Romans 15:18-19 does Paul ever speak of miracles associated with his ministry, though Luke describes some of them in the Acts of the Apostles. We should observe that Paul did not include these miracles in his “boasting.”
Again employing sarcasm, Paul asks the Corinthians to pardon him for not being burdensome to them. Unlike the other churches in his ministry, they had not been obliged to support him (verse 13; 11:7-12).
Perhaps the most notable feature of verse 14 is Paul parental attitude toward his converts at Corinth. This parental aspect of the Christian ministry is what has prompted most Christians, over the centuries, to address their pastors as “Father” (1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:11).
Even in his self-defense Paul has not been self-seeking. All has been done, even his “boasting,” for the sake of the flock at Corinth (verse 19). Still, the Apostle fears that his coming third visit to Corinth may not go well (verse 20). It seems clear that, in Paul’s mind, not everyone at Corinth has repented of the sexual sins that caused all the trouble in the first place (verse 21; 1 Corinthians 5:1-11; 6:12-20).
Friday, September 28
Psalm 88: Three further comments seem appropriate regarding the intense darkness characteristic of this psalm.
First, one must bear in mind that, like all of the Bible, it comes to us from the Holy Spirit. If death is portrayed in this psalm as a very bad thing, then the Holy Spirit wants us to regard death as a very bad thing. One occasionally meets pagans and unbelievers who avow that they are not afraid to die. Well, this psalm suggests that maybe they should be. In line after line of Psalm 88, a writer under the guidance and impulse of the Holy Spirit says, in the sharpest terms, that death is a most terrifying prospect.
Second, bearing in mind that our fear of death is a reaction of the fleshly man, the “old Adam,” still active within us, we should be mightily consoled to think that the Holy Spirit, in this psalm, has made such generous provision for this fleshly side of ourselves. The Holy Spirit, that is to say, gives our fleshly fear its due. If we yet feel this fear of death, the Holy Spirit is careful for this fear to find expression in prayer. Here is the tender condescension of God, that He provides even that our fallen nature may voice itself to Him in supplication and the lowly fealty of our very fear.
Third, Jesus took on Himself, not our pristine, unfallen nature, but our nature as tainted at the ancient tree and throughout the rest of our history. So the fear of death expressed in this psalm is certainly a fear that Jesus felt. This is why we pray it on a Friday, the day the Bridegroom was taken away.
If, in addition, as Holy Scripture indicates in so many places, death is but the outward expression of sin and our alienation from God, then a deeper understanding of sin must surely imply a more profound understanding of death. And who understood sin more than Jesus? Likewise was His perception of death vastly more ample and accurate than our own. And, as He knew more about the power of death than any of the rest of us, there is every reason to believe that He felt this fear of death more than the rest of us possibly could.
2 Corinthians 13:1-6: Throughout this letter Paul had played the theme of power made perfect in infirmity, a truth manifest in the condition and circumstances of his own life. The grasping of this truth is what prompted the Apostle, as he reflected on his ministry, to assume the extraordinary autobiographical style characteristic of this epistle.
Through this sustained experience of power made perfect in infirmity Paul learned, on his own pulses, the mystery of the Cross, and in the present reading he proclaims this mystery explicitly. The weakness in question is the weakness of Christ’s sufferings and death: “He was crucified in weakness.” The power in question is the power of Christ’s Resurrection: “He certainly lives by the power of God.” To live in Christ, therefore, is to test and live out the experience of that truth: “For although we are weak in Him, we shall certainly live with Him, with respect to you [eis hymas], by the power of God” (verse 4). When Paul will appear again before the Corinthians, he may seem weak to them, but they will experience in him the power of Christ (verse 3).
However, rather than simply wait for this godly disclosure, the Corinthians should meanwhile put themselves to the test. They should examine the evidence in their own lives to discern whether they are really believers, whether Christ is truly among them (verse 5).