2 Corinthians 3: Lifting the Veil

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Did you know that you are Christ’s letter of recommendation?

As I worked to publish my book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality, this year, one of the hardest things for me to do is ask for friends and colleagues to review my book and for well-known authors to read the book and write blurbs. I am too proud; I want to believe that I am independent and self-sufficient.  Asking for recommendations requires that I swallow my pride and admit that I need someone else’s help.  This is usually something painful for me to do.

The Apostle Paul walks this path in chapter 2 of his second letter to the church at Corinth.  Paul poses a rhetorical question, writing:  Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? (v 1)  His response is surprising: You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. (v 2)  In giving the law to Moses, God wrote on tablets of stone; in presenting the Gospel through Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, God writes on our hearts (v 3).  We are Christ’s letter of recommendation to the world.

Paul then uses a word that sounds strange to us:  glory.  Glory is a translation from the Greek word, doxa (δόξῃ, BDAG 2077), which means: the condition of being bright or shining, brightness, splendor, radiance. Paul is making reference to experience of Moses when he brought the Ten Commandments down from my Sinai to the people of Israel—

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God…And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. (Exodus 34:29 and 33 ESV)

The glory of God was so profound that Moses himself began to glow!

Paul then begins a comparison between the Law of Moses and the grace of Jesus Christ.  He writes:  For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. (v 9)  The law kills (the ministry of condemnation) while grace gives life (the ministry of righteousness; v 6).  In other words, Paul is saying that if you think that Moses glowed, you will glow even more in the grace of Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.  However, Moses’ veil not only covered his face, it veiled the hearts of the people hearing the law (v 15) and prevented them from experiencing God’s grace.  In Jesus Christ, this veil was lifted (v 16).

This is the process of becoming a letter of recommendation.

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2 Corinthians 2: The Path from Discipline to Reconciliation

Artwork by Narsis Hiemstra
Artwork by Narsis Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The notes of the true Kirk [church], therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God … secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus … and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished (Scots Confession, 3.18) [1].

Did you know that the church is not a club, it has its own court system?

In principle, members and church officers of the Presbyterian Church (USA) can be brought up on charges and tried by a church for disobeying church law, as articulated in the Book of Order [2].  In practice, charges are seldom brought.

Two kinds of justice exist in the legal system in the United States:  punitive and restorative justice.  Punitive justice serves to punish the lawbreaker; restorative justice serves to restore the lawbreaker to full community.  The adult justice system focuses on punitive justice while the juvenile justice system focuses on restorative justice.  The Book of Order makes it clear that the purpose of justice within the Presbyterian system is restoration, not punishment.  This is also the lesson that the Apostle Paul gives in chapter 2 of his second letter to the church at Corinth.

Chapter 2 focuses on Paul’s instructions to the church in dealing with a particular person who has caused a problem in the church.   We are not told who the person is or what the problem was—scholars still debate both issues (v 5).  Instead, Paul focuses on how to move forward in restoring this person to full fellowship.

Interestingly, Paul seems to be giving the church in Corinth a “timeout”, giving the church time to work things out themselves.  Paul writes:  For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you (v 1).  Basically, he says that the punishment leveled against the offender is enough (v 6). The offense was against the church and the church dealt with it through, among other things, public shaming (v 7).  Paul refuses to take personal offense (v 5).  Therefore, the punishment was sufficient for the offense and no more punishment is needed.  Instead, Paul writes:  so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (vv 7-8)  This is a biblical example of forgiveness and restoration.

Harris (2005, 234) sees a 6 step process involved here: offense, punishment, pain and sorrow, repentance, forgiveness, and affirmation [3].

Clearly, this is not the typical scenario in the church today.  What is typical is to hush up controversies and treat them as embarrassments.  Then, after some point the pot boils over and people split the church and leave.

Paul, by affirming the offense and the offender, allows punishment, forgiveness, and restoration.  The offender does not get off free; those offended are required to forgive.  In the end, the community is stronger.

 

[1]Office of the General Assembly.  The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA):  Part I:  Book of Confessions, Louisville, 1999.

[2]Office of the General Assembly.  The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA):  Part II:  Book of Order 2011/2013, Louisville, 2011.

[3] Harris, Murray J. 2005. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text.  NIGTC. Grand Rapids:  Eerdman.

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2 Corinthians 1: Sealed, Guaranteed, and Comforted

Rainbow over Fairfax, VA
Rainbow over Fairfax, VA

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22 ESV)

Paul begins his second letter to the church at Corinth with a statement of his apostleship:  Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God (1:1).  An apostle in the New Testament has roughly the same job description as a prophet in the Old Testament.  Prophets do not volunteer; prophets are called (e.g. Jeremiah 1:4-9).

Paul follows the normal form of a letter—from, to, and greetings—but he adds his own twists.  Most of his letters then offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipient.  Here, Paul follows the greeting with a lengthy (1.3-7) blessing of comfort suggesting the purpose of his letter.

In my experience, God is mostly obviously present in times of trial and can be recognized by the comfort He brings.  The psalmist writes:  Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. (Psalm 33:18-19 ESV)  Noah recognized God’s comfort and covenant through the sign of a rainbow (Genesis 9:13).  The apostle Paul writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (1:3-4)

Interestingly, Paul talks about God’s seal—a sign of ownership and protection—and guarantee—the Holy Spirit given as a down-payment on eternal life.  The Apostle John uses the word, Paraclete (παράκλητος; John 14:26 BNT), which is often translated as helper or comforter.

Garland [1] identifies 4 motifs in this chapter:

  1. Affliction and suffering;
  2. Comfort;
  3. Life and death; and
  4. The interconnectedness between Paul and the Corinthians.

Affliction and Suffering (1.4, 6, 8).  As we have discussed previously, affliction and suffering help us to abandon our idols—particularly the idol of control—and focus on God.  Paul writes:  But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (1:9).

Comfort (1.3, 4, 5, 6, 7).  As mentioned above, the Holy Spirit specializes in offering comfort.  Holy dreams and visions, for example, often not designed to inform us but simply to offer comfort.  To let us know that we need not be afraid.  Paul writes:  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (1:7)

Life and death (1.8, 9, 10).  Paul is not a complainer, yet, he sketches out a recent near death experience to reinforce the point that God is not only our comforter, but also our deliverer.  Likewise, the Jewish people remember the Exodus from Egypt not as a spiritual salvation, but a deliverance from physical destruction (Exodus 14:26-28).

Paul’s Relationship with the Corinthians (1.6, 7).  The Corinthians are the beneficiaries of Paul’s afflictions.  Paul writes:  If we [Paul and his friends] are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. (1:6) Elsewhere, Paul makes it clear that Jesus is the template for our life, death, and resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11).  When we minister to others, we then perform a similar sacrificial function on their behalf, like Christ for Paul and Paul for the Corinthian church (and us).

Comfort is God’s trademark.  Paul looks to God in his own afflictions.  So should we.

[1]David E. Garland, 1999. 2 Corinthians: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture.  New American Commentary.  Nashville:  Holman Publishing. Pages 56-58.

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2 Corinthians: Lifting the Veil

The Crucifixion
The Crucifixion

…a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV)

How can one be strong in weakness?

At the core of the Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Church at Corinth is a paradox. Christ was crucified in weakness, but in his weakness displayed the power of God (13:4).  This same paradox was displayed in Paul’s private pain (12:7-9) and his very public humiliation as he writes:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (4:8-10)

This paradox manifests itself in that when we find ourselves at the end of our rope, we abandon our private idolatries and turn to the living God who is our only real hope.  Paul writes: to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over [our] hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. (3:15-17) Herein lies the paradox, that our own strength (for the Israelites, the law) veils the presence of God in our lives.

Second Corinthians is a very personal and complex letter. For example, Paul provides two separate lists (6:4-10 and 11:23-29) of own afflictions—who brags about being beaten and thrown in prison?  He is writing from Macedonia (9:2) around 56 AD just before his final journey to Jerusalem.  Theological topics addressed include:  the character of God, salvation, the Gospel, the church, the nature of apostleship, Christian ministry, the Christian life, suffering, stewardship, Satan, and eschatology (Harris 2005, 105, 114-125).

The importance of Second Corinthians in the life of the church is underscored by the attention given to even small portions of this letter.  For example, The Confession of 1967 [1] adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) emphasizes these verses:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (5:18-20)

Paul’s emphasis is on reconciling the world to Christ; the Confession expands on this idea to speak about reconciling the church to divergent groups in society.

References

Garland, David E. 1999. 2 Corinthians: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture. New American Commentary.  Nashville:  Holman Publishing.

Hafemann, Scott J.  2000. The NIV Application Commentary:  2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Harris, Murray J. 2005. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text.  NIGTC. Grand Rapids:  Eerdman.

[1] www.pcusa.org/resource/book-of-confessions

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