Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 2 Corinthians

According to Acts 18 Paul first visited Corinth around 50AD. After writing our 1 Corinthians Paul paid a second visit, around 56AD, which in 2:1 he describes as ‘painful’. So what caused this pain? We get some clues from the second (or rather third) letter. He begins as usual with praise, but in a somewhat backhanded way he thanks God for his compassion and care during painful times.

It appears that people in Corinth are questioning Paul’s authority because they have doubts about his apostleship. Evidently some people had begun teaching that only those who had physically been chosen by Jesus to walk and talk with him for the three years of his earthly ministry were the real deal. Paul was an upstart, and as such who did he think he was to tell them off about the ways they were living their church life? In addition he appears to have changed his plans and not visited them when they were expecting a visit, which served to prove that he was fickle and unreliable. So a great theme in 2 Corinthians has to do with Paul defending his credentials as an apostle. He emphasises his sufferings for the gospel (1:8ff, 6:3-10), his lack of financial gain from his ministry (2:17), and the fruit of his ministry in changed lives and planted churches (3:1-6).

Nicolas Poussin. The Ecstasy of St. Paul.

He then attempts to lift their eyes off such pointless arguments and instead focus on the glorious truth of the gospel and the hope of resurrection life. Of course there will be trivial arguments while we are still here on earth, but we need to focus on a bigger reality. In 6:3-10 Paul recounts the number of ways in which he has suffered for the sake of Christ, but has remained resilient through it all.

In spite of this conflict, though, Paul can rejoice that his words have not fallen on completely deaf ears. The ‘sorrowful’ letter which he had written to them (7:8) did seem to make a difference, even though it upset them at the time. In a church where we don’t really like to do conflict Paul reminds us that hard truths can lead to repentance.

Paul then becomes more practical, and deals with generosity in giving, although he is soon back on his self-defence, recounting again the cost of his ministry and his equal status with ‘proper’ apostles. The book ends with a section warning them that he will continue to be hard on them if they don’t listen to his teaching, but that this harsh discipline is to build them up, not tear them down.

2 Corinthians is not an easy or comfortable book, but it reminds us of what is at stake, and raises questions about the place of godly discipline and hard words in God’s church today. Maybe we’re all just a bit too nice, and the mission of the church is weakened as a result. And maybe the lack of suffering for the gospel, at least in the comfy Western church, shows that we might not be trying hard enough to stand out from the culture around us. Discuss!

OT Lectionary Oct 11th Trinity 19 Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

All three of today’s readings are in some sense about finding (or not) God. Hebrews 4 assures us that we always have complete access to God through Jesus our High Priest, while Mark 10 reminds us that even when we find him we might also find him too demanding, such that we want to lose him again. But poor old Job has a more basic and fundamental dilemma – he can’t find God at all.

A psychiatrist in a famous joke is trying to convince a delusional patient that in fact he isn’t dead. After much fruitless discussion he has an idea: he asks his patient if dead men bleed when cut. ‘Of course not’ came the reply. ‘Dead men don’t bleed!’ So the doctor grabs a nearby scalpel and plunges it into the patient’s arm. Seeing the blood starting to flow, the patient declared in alarm ‘I was wrong – dead men do bleed!’

Job is sitting in the ash heap, bereaved, afflicted and apparently abandoned by God, and as if that isn’t bad enough he has three friends trying to help him by telling him that it’s all his own fault, as we sometimes are today by well-meaning prayer ministry team members who have had it revealed to them by the Lord in a word of knowledge that there is some secret sin in our lives which is preventing us from getting healed. The ‘comforters’, annoying though they are, can’t on one level be blamed: they are upset because their friend’s suffering refuses to fit in with their world-view where all suffering has to be the direct result of personal sin. So they try to force Job to admit his guilt by browbeating him to confess it all, to agree with them that dead men do bleed after all. Difficult thought this proves to be, it is even harder for them to give in and admit that innocent people do suffer.

Ilya Repin. Job and His Friends.

Job, though, is convinced of his innocence, which of course you could be in those days before Jesus came and complicated it all by saying that to think about it is just as bad as actually doing it. He knew only too well that he hadn’t committed adultery or anything like that, so his friends’ attempts to convince him that somehow he must have done were, understandably, rather annoying to him. So what he needed to do was to get things clear with God, who, he had every confidence, would agree with his take that in fact he was innocent. The problem was that God was nowhere to be found: wherever Job looked, there was nothing but absence.

You may have experienced something like this at some time in your life, and it can be mildly comforting to know that even this sense of complete abandonment has biblical precedent. But the key verse, I think, and the nearest we’ll get to a happy ending for a few chapters yet, comes right at the end of our text. God has terrified Job by his refusal to show up and vindicate him, yet (v 17) ‘I am not silenced by the darkness’. Anyone who has known severely depressed people will know that silence is the hallmark of despair, but Job has not yet got there. While he still has the strength and will to rant against God, he is still alive, and, paradoxically still has hope. It is when we decide simply to ‘curse God and die’ that we are really love. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.