SAINT PAUL Part IX SAINT PAUL WRITES FROM MACEDONIA
ST.PAUL WRITES FROM MACEDONIA
We recall (FOUNDATION – Jan 2009) that there were actually four letters to the Corinthians. The first and third did not come down to us. Our first and second are actually the second and fourth.
Only six months after writing the first epistle to the Corinthians (actually St Paul’s second) from Ephesus, St Paul, now in Macedonia, is moved to write again. Our second Epistle to the Corinthians is actually his fourth.
It seems clear from this Epistle that what we know as first Corinthians and the missing third, had between them led to the correction of the abuses they addressed. But the peace was soon disturbed by some Jewish convert visitors to Corinth. They attacked not only Paul’s authority but even his personality. The power of his Divinely given mission and the defence of his personal integrity compel St Paul to meet this challenge head on for the sake of the truth and the well-being of the Church in Corinth.
The result is that we find in this letter a compelling defence of the essential importance of the apostolic ministry and a vigorous defence of his personal activity. In the process we are treated to a wonderful exposition of St Paul’s care for Christ’s faithful.
We can see from the text of St Paul’s response, the nature of the attack on him. Once again these Jewish converts have raised the allegation that Paul is inferior to the “real” Apostles who were appointed by Christ before the Crucifixion and Resurrection. And, they say, Paul is a defective personality, fickle, unreliable and manipulative – exploiting those he serves.
St Paul opens his letter with blessings from himself and Timothy in God the Father and Our Lord Jesus Christ. He thanks and blesses God for his many mercies and comforts, and also for His support in afflictions. Whether he is comforted or afflicted he sees it as being for the comfort or the instruction of the Corinthians. St Paul emphasises the simplicity and Godly sincerity that have always characterised his dealings with the Corinthians, contrasting it with worldly sophistication.
He explains that it was not fickleness that led him to cancel an expected visit to Corinth. Rather, he postponed the visit until his letters had their effect in correcting the errors that had been current. He emphasises that in doing the will of God there is no “Yes” and “No”. In his actions it is always “Yes” to the will of God just as in Christ it was always “Yes” to the will of the Father. Paul tells them that he wished to be able to come to them in joy rather than in the sorrow of correction. He speaks of his tears and affliction and anguish of heart at having had to write sternly to them.
St Paul asks the Corinthians to treat those who have caused the trouble with loving forgiveness when they have corrected their ways. He extends the same forgiveness to those concerned. He explains how he had gone into Macedonia in search of Titus.
Insisting that his mission comes directly from Christ in the spirit. He contrasts his situation with that of those Jewish adherents to the Law – obsessed with the details of its observance which could never bring salvation :..”….for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). He reminds them that when Moses had his encounters with God, he necessarily veiled his face until the radiance reflecting the glory of the Lord faded. Yet still the minds and hearts of the Israelites were darkened as if it were they that were veiled against the light. They remain in some way veiled, so that they will not see the truth of Christ. Returning again to thoughts of the Law and its bondage, he stresses that “ where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17)St Paul observes that those who will not see the truth of Christ’s Gospel have been blinded by “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) He reminds the Corinthians that he is their servant in Jesus, preaching and teaching His Gospel.
His next passage is so fine that we can only quote it :
“But we carry this treasure in vessels of clay, to show that the abundance of the power is God’s and not ours. In all things we suffer tribulation, but we are not distressed; we are pressed but we are not destitute; we endure persecution, but we are not forsaken; we are cast down but we do not perish; always bearing about in our body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodily frame. For we the living are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh. Thus death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Cor.4:7-12 )
St Paul movingly affirms his integrity and his happiness to have every aspect of his being and activity manifest before God – “For the love of Christ impels us” (2 Cor. 3:14) He shows how everything he does in Christ is done for their good and their eternal salvation. He counts his present afflictions and sufferings as nothing when contrasted with “ an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all measure” (2 Cor. 4:17)
Which awaits him and them.” Now He who made us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as its pledge.” (2 Cor. 5:5)
He reminds them that all of us must be made manifest before the tribunal of Christ, so that each one may receive what he has won through the body, according to his works, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10) (So much for Luther and his concept of salvation by faith alone!)
St Paul goes on to affirm the Divine action of Christ reconciling sinful man to Himself, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to Paul and the other Apostles who have been made ambassadors for Christ. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6: 2-3)
Now once again he writes so powerfully that we can only quote him:
“We give no offence to anyone, that our ministry may not be blamed. On the contrary, let us conduct ourselves in all circumstances as God’s ministers, in much patience; in tribulations, in hardships, in distresses; in stripes in imprisonments, in tumults; in labours, in sleepless nights, in fastings; in innocence, in knowledge, in long-sufferings; in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in unaffected love; in the word of truth, in the power of God; with the armour of justice on the right hand and on the left; in honour and dishonour, in evil report and good report; as deceivers and yet truthful, as un known and yet well known, as dying and behold, we live, as chastised but not killed, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet enriching many, having nothing yet possessing all things.
“We are frank with you O Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. In us there is no lack of room for you, but in your heart there is no room for us. Now as having a recompense in like kind – I speak as to my children – be you also open wide to us.” (2 Cor. 6:3-13)
He then implores the Corinthians to avoid as far as possible, relationships with unbelievers - to cleanse themselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
In continuing his plea to the Corinthians to keep their hearts open to him, Paul reveals that Titus has now returned to him with the most welcome news that they are.
Longing for Paul’s return to Corinth and that their zeal for Paul is strong, he acknowledges that his last letter to them was strongly worded (this is the missing third letter) and made them sorry. He says he is glad – not that they were in sorrow but because it led to their repentance. He rejoices at Titus’ conviction that they are reconciled to Paul in Christ
St Paul now speaks of the collection being taken up for the poor Catholics in Jerusalem. He notes how the Macedonians – poor themselves – have given more than they can afford: such is their generosity. He notes that the Corinthians abound in faith, preaching, knowledge and zealous love and hopes that they will excel in this work also. He has sent Titus and another to them for the purpose of this collection.
St Paul tells the Corinthians that he is on guard lest any slanderers should attack him over the administration of the funds collected, taking prudent precautions not only by the standards of God but also of honourable men. He urges them to be prompt and generous, noting “ God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7)
Toward the end of the letter St Paul returns to addressing the criticisms levelled against him by the Jewish convert visitors to Corinth.
In reading this section of the letter we need to bear in mind the circumstances of the times and the way the letter would be used. Communication, even by the high standard Roman roads, was slow – but in a gossipy sense thorough in the making and breaking of reputations. Paul knew that his letters had a wide circulation among the churches of the region. He knew the criticism of him would already have made the same rounds. He knew that he must nail this slander thoroughly and finally.
Nor should we forget St Paul’s volatile personality and his present state of illness ( so recently near to death) and exhaustion from his many labours and trials. His defence is going to be a little testy.
He opens with a little sarcasm “I who to your face indeed am diffident when among you, but when absent am fearless towards you “-he flings the comment his detractors have obviously made, back at them. He reminds them that he does not make war according to the flesh but spiritually – powerful against anything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God. Again he quotes the detractors “for his letters” they say” are weighty and telling, but his bodily appearance is weak and his speech of no account” – but he reminds them that his bodily presence and speech will amply back up his writing.
St Paul shows that he has betrothed the Corinthians to Christ and yet he fears that the Serpent may seduce them. He reminds them how freely he preached the Gospel of Christ to them. He warns against false preachers appearing among them sowing dissent and division – the work of Satan.
St Paul then holds forth with a strong assertion of his credentials against the troublemaking Jewish converts. “Are they Hebrews? So am I! Are they Israelites ? So am I! Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I!(2 Cor. 11: 22-23) He justifies his position as a minister of Christ in many more labours, imprisonments, lashings, risks of death, five times 39 lashes, 3 times scourged, once stoned, 3 times shipwrecked – a night and a day adrift at sea, in journeys suffering the perils of floods, of robbers, from the Jews, from the Gentiles, in cities, in the wilderness, at sea and perils from false brethren. He recounts hardships, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, fasting, cold and nakedness. He carries the burden of the weak and the fallen in all the churches he has founded. He has even been lowered over the wall of Damascus in a basket to escape arrest.
Following the conventions of the time, St Paul writes in the third person to reveal a remarkable spiritual privilege granted to him 14 years earlier. He had been taken up into Paradise – whether inside or outside his body he did not know. He does not dwell on this experience at length – but he is plainly aware of its likely effect on his readers.
He quickly follows the account of this spiritual privilege by revealing the physical affliction sent to him –“ a messenger of Satan” he terms it. Three times he begged God that it might pass, but he received the reply “my grace is sufficient for thee, for strength is made perfect in weakness”. (2 Cor.12 : 9 ) There has been much speculation over this “thorn in the flesh” over the centuries, but a careful examination of all St Paul’s writings seems to suggest a physical and debilitating illness, perhaps seriously affecting Paul’s appearance.
He announces that he will visit the Corinthians again and begs them to abandon all the errors of the recent past so that he will not find it necessary to reprove them in person.
He concludes wishing them the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
Like so many of St Paul’s writings, this letter shows signs of having been written in several stages, the last section possibly written in some haste and anxiety as its deliverer was soon to depart. This haste and perhaps Paul’s health on the day seen likely to account for the firmer tone of the final section. We cannot know what the circumstances were. However we do gain a great insight into the truly heavy pressures the great Apostle laboured under and his constant burning dedication to Jesus Christ and to the salvation of mankind in Christ’s Name.
Copyright This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of FOUNDATION.