Saturday, July 31, 2010

Studying II Corinthians

Context and perspective: This is a book with a lot of nugget verses wedged between hard to understand parts. So, if you just sit down and try to read it like the newspaper, you will get sidetracked and confused, then find a neat verse (a promise for example) but miss the context and why it’s there and thus its full meaning. II Corinthians must be read SLOWLY. At the same time, once you understand the overall context , there isn’t a need for a lot of commentary because it’s pretty clear. It’s as if we are sitting down to listen to the intense conversation of a long-married couple. There will be a lot of emotion and many references to past incidents that won’t make sense unless somebody tells us the back story; after we know that, we’ll understand completely, or at least as much as another person can understand what is in another’s heart.

The book is more personal than doctrinal, more experiential than theoretical, and more emotional than logical (which is not to say there is no logic or doctrine in II Corinthians, only that the emotion and personal experience preside.)

So, what’s the background?

Paul planted the church in Corinth in Acts 18. There was some opposition from Jews; the church was a mix of Jews and Greeks, the Greeks coming from a pretty sordid background sexually and philosophically. He spent 18 months, at least, in Corinth; there is an indication he stayed a while longer. Sometime afterward he wrote a letter to them, which is referred to in I Corinthians. I Corinthians is his second letter, addressing some questions they had. After they received I Corinthians, he went for a visit where he had to deal with them harshly, face-to-face, because of the corruption in the church. Then he sent them another letter, very harsh, by Titus, his messenger, who stayed there to correct the damage. Toward the end of the book, Paul says he is coming to visit them a third time, although he says he hopes he will not have to mourn over those who have not repented of their fornication and lewdness (12:21).

The Corinthians could be very blunt in their criticism of Paul, such as in verse 10:10. Titus later returned to Paul and reported things were going much better; however, there are still corrupting influences in the church and Paul has to deal with them. Now he is writing II Corinthians, which is really 4th Corinthians. (The other two letters have been lost.) His tone is much more loving in this one, but he is trying to make peace with them. The letter is very much about their past relationship, his integrity as a spiritual father to them and as an apostle, forgiveness, reconciliation, and giving. He loves the Corinthians but cannot let them be self-satisfied with their spiritual status. He loves them too much to say, as we often do with people, “Well, that’s the way they are, let them be that way, it’s no skin off my nose.” He wants the relationship restored and peace made between them. That is a lesson for us.

Keeping all this in mind will help you read it, but still, you have to read slowly to savor everything. II Corinthians is often-quoted because it has so many great verses about heaven, the benefits of being in Christ, and grace, but it is not often preached from!

One word that comes up over and over is boast or boasting, especially toward the end. It’s used 29 times. That’s a little strange to us, because we think of boasting as “bragging on one’s self.” Here it is more about “who gets the glory—God, Paul, or the Corinthians?—and where does your joy come from?” Paul is making the point that if he wanted to boast about how much work he had done as an apostle, or how much revelation he had been given, he could do that, but he’s not going to. We’ll get into that later in this study. On the other hand, he’s not backing down. Three times he lists all he’s been through, and it’s a pretty horrifying litany of persecutions and tortures.

The following is a list of the “standout” verses in II Corinthians that thrill us in or out of context.
1:3-4; 1:20; 2:14; 3:17-18; 4:7; 4:14; 4:16-18; 5:6-8; 5:17; 6:2; 6:14-18; 9:6-8; 11:14; 12:7-10.

But we have to study what ties these nuggets together; what is the cement between these stones, what is the necklace that holds the jewels together. A good place to start is with 1:3-4, because it is the merciful, comforting, consoling character of God that makes reconciliation with others possible.

Questions: Is there a difference between comforting and consoling?
How does God console? How can we emulate His consoling activity?
Father of mercies—what does the name of God imply?
How did Paul see his experience of tribulation and comfort? What was its purpose?

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