2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4
July 19, 2015
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
Pastor Steven Nicoletti
Back in June I preached from 2 Corinthians 1:1-11, and I have decided to continue to move forward through 2 Corinthians for the next three Sunday mornings.
This morning our text is 2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4. But before we read the text together, I want to consider some of the categories and background to what is going on here.
In our text, we see two different views of what love looks like. One is from the Corinthians, and the other is from the Apostle Paul.
For the Corinthians, we will see that love is identifiable by a rather narrow set of behaviors. For the Corinthians, there is a fairly small set of actions which express love. And you look for those actions, and if they are absent from a person’s behavior towards you, then that person must not love you. It is fairly straightforward. That is the Corinthian’s view.
And their view is significant, because I think we can tend to take a similar approach to those around us. We often have a rather narrow definition of what it looks like to love others, and whether we are evaluating others’ actions towards us, or deciding what kind of action we should take towards them, we run everything through this narrow grid – a narrow understanding of what love is. And that narrow grid can look a bit different for each one of us.
This is all a bit abstract, so what am I actually talking about? Let’s take some examples.
Let’s start with parenting. Some of us tend towards thinking of love almost exclusively in terms of affection, in terms of making our children feel happy, in terms of providing a warm relationship. And all of these things are essential to loving our children. But they are not the whole picture. Because for parents in this category, saying “no” to your children, or disciplining your children, can be extremely difficult. You don’t like seeing them unhappy. You don’t like making them unhappy. For these folks, parental love is affection, and happiness.
For others, love in parenting is thought of almost exclusively in terms of training and discipline. Now don’t get me wrong – it’s not that parents in this category don’t feel affection for their children – it’s not that at all. But they see the hard work of love primarily in terms of training and disciplining their child. They may not enjoy that part of it, but they see it as their primary duty. They love their child by preparing them for life and adulthood, and saying “yes” to a child can often be looked at as in danger of overindulgence.
And this tendency towards one or the other of those options can be as true for parents of a two-year-old as it can be for parents of a teenager or beyond.
And if you’re not sure which end you tend towards, then a good way to tell can be to think about which of my two descriptions you scoffed at or were most concerned by. You’re probably the opposite one.
Sometimes both parents tend in the same direction. Sometimes they tend in opposite directions. Sometimes they tend in different directions for different children.
But in each case, you have a parent-child relationship where love has been narrowly defined. It is EITHER warmth and affection, OR it is training and discipline.
But, of course, we don’t just see this narrowing in parenting. We see it in many other relationships as well.
Think about marriage. How often does marital conflict come out like this?: The first spouse says they don’t feel loved by the second spouse. The second spouse responds by saying “How can you say I don’t love you? I do A, B, and C for you!” and the first spouse responds by saying “Yes, but you never do D!”
What is going on here? Well, it depends. Sometimes one spouse has come up with a narrow definition of what love in marriage should look like, and sometimes both have! Sometimes the spouse who has been accused of not showing enough love has defined love in an overly-narrow way. They list the duties they think they owe their spouse, they claim they have completed them, and so the other spouse has nothing to complain about. Other times, the complaining spouse has defined love so narrowly that they are ignoring all the ways their spouse has loved them, and making an all-or-nothing judgment on one thing that they want. And then, more often than not, both things are going on at once. Both spouses have come to a narrow definition of marital love, and they are contradicting definitions.
And, just a side note: the fact that it is often both spouses that do this, means that if you just grasped onto something I’ve said and you hope to use it against your spouse this afternoon, they have probably just had the same thought about you – and you better be ready to hear them as much as you want them to hear you.
So we see it in parenting, we see it in marriage, but we see it in other relationships too. Old friendships fall apart because one person feels neglected and the other can’t figure out why. New friendships never get off the ground because both people feel like they are making an effort but the other person isn’t. Work relationships disintegrate because each person feels like they are keeping up their end of things, but the other person isn’t.
In each case, we approach our relationships with others as if love is a narrow set of actions, and once we have carried out those actions, we have loved well.
Maybe it’s helpful to think of it this way:
According to IMS Health Institute, azithromycin is the most commonly prescribed antibiotic in the U.S. It was prescribed over 54 million times in 2012. You have probably been prescribed it before for if you’ve gone to the doctor with a respiratory infection.
Recognizing just how helpful this medication is in fighting bacterial infections, the World Health Organization has included it on their “List of Essential Medicines,” a list of the most important medications needed in a basic healthcare system.
Now imagine with me a doctor who took this fact really seriously. Imagine he studied the usefulness of azithromycin, learned how essential it is to medical care, and took it to heart.
And recognizing just how important this drug was, he began to prescribe it to everyone, and for anything.
Sometimes this worked. If you came in with a respiratory infection, he prescribed azithromycin, and you got better. Someone else would come in with another type of bacterial infection, and he would prescribe azithromycin. And they would get better. And he is encouraged.
And then someone comes in with high blood pressure. And they walk out with a prescription for azithromycin. Another comes in with chronic heartburn. Azithromycin. Someone else with a broken leg. Azithromycin.
Eventually this catches up with the doctor. An investigation is launched along with several lawsuits. Plaintiffs and investigators allege that the doctor was negligent in his medical care. He is surprised and confused – shocked even. He looks at them and says, “Of course I gave you adequate medical care – I prescribed you azithromycin!”
What I am driving at this morning is that, when it comes to relationships, we are a lot like this imaginary doctor who always prescribes azithromycin. For him, azithromycin is good medical care, and any medical problem can be solved with azithromycin. In the same way, we often narrow love and relationships to one set of needs and one set of actions. And once we have acted that way to meet those needs, we believe that we have done our duty. We believe that we have loved that person – whether they be our child, our spouse, our friend, or our co-worker. We look at others the way that the azithromycin-prescribing doctor looked at his patients. And that is a problem.
Moreover, it is the same problem that Paul is dealing with with the Corinthians in our text. The Corinthians are looking at Paul, and they are looking at his actions, and they are evaluating it through a narrow grid and saying, “Ah hah! See! He does not love us! He does not care for us!” And Paul says they are wrong.
To see how this is working out, we need to understand Paul’s history with the Corinthians up to this point.
The Apostle Paul first came to Corinth in the autumn of AD 50, and stayed there for about a year and a half, helping to establish the church. In the summer of AD 52, he set out from Corinth and proceeded to minister in several different areas. While he was away, a number of issues arose in Corinth, including questions among the Corinthians as to whether or not Paul was a real apostle. To answer this question, and several other questions that the church in Corinth had sent to him, Paul wrote First Corinthians.
Paul planned a future trip through Macedonia, and then on to Judea, and within that trip he included a plan to spend the winter in Corinth. But when even more bad news came to him about the situation in Corinth, Paul abandoned his travel plans and went straight to Corinth immediately, arriving almost a year earlier than he had planned. The visit was a difficult one, with much conflict, and Paul refers to it in our text as a “painful” visit.
During this “painful visit” Paul reorganized his travel plans, and told the Corinthians that he planned to visit them twice more in the future, instead of once, as he originally planned. He announced these plans to the Corinthians before he left again for Ephesus.
But, later on, in Ephesus, Paul decided to change back to his original travel plans. This meant he would visit Corinth once, instead of twice, and he would visit them later than he had said he would. Paul made this decision in part based on the situation in Corinth and what he thought would be best for them. And so instead of arriving there himself, he sent them a letter – a letter that is lost to us now, but which is usually referred to as the “Severe Letter.” This is a letter sent in between the “First Corinthians” and “Second Corinthians” letters that we have in our Bible.
After the Corinthian church received this “Severe Letter,” and learned of Paul’s change in travel plans, some in Corinth took it as grounds to accuse Paul of not really caring for them. They said that he made commitments lightly; that he did not really love them. They said that he was two-faced and insincere. They said that he made decisions by earthly wisdom. They said his yes meant no, and his no meant yes.
Paul then responded to those accusations in Second Corinthians, and we get part of that response in our text this morning.
With that background in mind, hear now from our text, 2 Corinthians 1:12-2:4:
12 For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. 13 For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand— 14 just as you did partially understand us—that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you.
15 Because I was sure of this, I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. 16 I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. 17 Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? 18 As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. 20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. 21 And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, 22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
23 But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. 24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.
2:1 For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. 2 For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? 3 And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. 4 For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
This is God’s word.
The Corinthians have given a simple assessment of Paul. They have said that, if he loved them, he would have visited them twice as he said he planned to. They had a narrow grid for what it meant for the Apostle to love their church. Since he did not meet their expectations, he must not love them. He must not be trustworthy. Or so they reasoned.
And now Paul responds. And his response is complex. Let’s go through it together. Have a look at the text (it is on page 964 of the pew Bible).
Paul begins in verse 12:
“12 For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.”
Paul uses the word “boast” here, and it is not in the sense we often use it. What Paul means is not “bragging,” but rather “confidence.” Paul begins by saying that his confidence comes first from the testimony of his conscience that he has behaved in a godly way towards the Corinthians – not in a worldly or deceptive way.
He goes on to explain further in verses 13 and 14:
“13 For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand— 14 just as you did partially understand us—that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you.”
Paul defends himself further, saying that he has been clear in the past. But then he makes an interesting turn. He says, “On the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us and we will boast of you.”
In sorting through this dispute, Paul jumps forward to talk about the return of Christ and the day of judgment.
Paul basically says, “Look, one day all of this and all we have done, and all our motives are going to be laid bare, for all to see, before the judgment seat of Christ. And I am confident that on that day I will have confidence in you and you will have confidence in me. We will each take pride in the other.”
And with that, Paul gives us a helpful framework for examining our hearts. Paul said earlier that his conscience is clear. And that is something we have all thought or said in various situations. But Paul reframes what that means. For Paul, having a clear conscience is not just that he looks at himself concerning a matter and doesn’t think he has done anything wrong in that situation. For Paul, it means considering the fact that everything he has done and thought in a particular situation will one day be displayed for all to see, including both those in this dispute with him (the Corinthians in this case) and, more importantly, Christ his Lord. And then he asks himself whether he thinks he will have anything to be ashamed of. And he doesn’t.
Paul passes the test, but it is a much harder test than we often put ourselves through.
So, in light of the future judgment, Paul says he has acted rightly towards the Corinthians, and they will all see it at the day of judgement. But that is not enough to settle the dispute. And so, after saying that, Paul begins his explanation of what happened.
Starting in verse 15, he writes:
“15 Because I was sure of this, I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. 16 I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. 17 Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time?”
Paul is explaining the details here. He really meant what he said when he initially planned to visit them twice. He wasn’t being deceptive.
And now, with what comes next, Paul seems to jump to a totally different topic. He seems to – but he doesn’t actually. In actuality, the verses that follow are the heart of Paul’s argument here. Starting in the middle of verse 17, Paul writes:
“Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? 18 As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. 20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. 21 And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, 22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
This is one of those strange shifts we see sometimes in Paul, where we read along and say: “What? … Where did that come from?” We were talking about Paul’s travel plans and suddenly we are talking about how Jesus is God’s “Yes.” What is going on here? Where did that come from?
Well, Paul is having the consistency and reliability of his love questioned. And Paul says two things. First, in these verses he is saying that the consistency and reliability of his love is rooted in the consistency and reliability of God’s love.
Paul reminds them that God’s love is a consistent and reliable love, and that becomes most clear in Christ. God’s consistent and reliable love finds its pinnacle in Christ. In Christ, all of God’s promises find their fulfillment. Through Christ we pray to the Father and can know that he always hears us. In Christ we receive the Holy Spirit as a guarantee – a down payment – of God’s future promises. God’s consistent and reliable love – his trustworthiness – finds its fullest expression in Christ.
And Paul is Christ’s. And not only does Paul belong to Christ, but Paul is Christ’s appointed representative. He is the means by which the Corinthians know of Christ. And so if the Corinthians agree that Christ has fully lived out God’s consistent and reliable love, then they must believe that his ambassador, his representative, Paul, has done the same.
So, first, Paul says that his reliable love is rooted in God’s reliable love, which is found in Christ.
But second, Paul goes on to explain his change in plans. Starting in verse 23 he writes:
“23 But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. 24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.
“2:1 For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. 2 For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? 3 And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. 4 For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”
Now we are going to look at 2:1-4 more closely next Sunday, but for now I include those verses to bring out one important point.
First, Paul explained that his consistent and reliable love is rooted in God’s consistent and reliable love. Now, Paul explains that the way in which that love was expressed changed, because the situation changed. In other words, Paul’s consistent love is still expressed in ways that are situation-specific. And when the situation with the Corinthians changed, Paul’s actions needed to change.
Put together, what we see is this: Paul explains that consistent and reliable love is expressed in a variety of situation-specific ways.
Paul alludes to the fact that this is the kind of love we see in God. God’s love is consistent. But it also expresses itself in a range of ways depending on the situation. We will actually be looking at one of those ways tonight, when we look at the beginning of the book of Jonah.
God’s consistent and reliable love is expressed in a variety of situation-specific ways, and his people’s love should be the same.
Or, as commentator Paul Barnett puts it, “Everything [Paul] planned, and indeed every change of plans, has been in accord with Paul’s total involvement in that great plan and activity of God, which he summarizes in the words ‘the grace of God’”
And this type of situation-specific love requires seeing. We need to see what is going on around us. We need to see what is needed by others. Most important, we need to see the person before us that we are trying to love – to really see them.
Earlier I told the story of the imaginary doctor who only prescribes azithromycin. That doctor’s biggest flaw was that he no longer saw the person in front of him. And medical care that does not see the patient in front of them is negligent medical care.
If you’ve ever had a doctor that you really liked, it probably had something to do with the fact that they really saw you. They really paid attention. You went in, and you felt like they were not just listening for a buzz word so they could write a prescription and walk you out the door in order to turn to the next patient. No, if it was a doctor you liked, chances are that you felt like they were seeing you. They were listening closely. They wanted to really understand what the problem was. And then they wanted to administer care that was aimed at your specific situation. What you wanted was consistent medical care and knowledge that is carried out based on your specific situation. That is good medical care.
It is also a good way to love others. It is how God loves us. It is how Paul is loving the Corinthians, as he explains in our text. And it is how we are called to love others.
Because while not in the same office as Paul, we too are called to represent Christ. We too are called, in a way, to be his ambassadors to everyone in our lives. And so just as God’s love is consistent and situation-specific, so should our love be. It means that just as God really sees his people and acts accordingly, so should we.
It means that as parents we resist the urge operate within our narrow grid of what love is. If your tendency is to be stern, maybe in the particular moment you find yourself, you’re called to give a hug. You are called to give warmth. On the other hand, if your tendency is to make excuses for your child, maybe in the particular moment you find yourself, you’re called to be stern – you are called to administer discipline.
It means that if your spouse has complained that you don’t show them love, you may need to let go of your narrow grid of what love is, the grid by which you often justify yourself. You may need to see them, to really hear them, and to love them in the way they are saying they feel unloved. You need to love the spouse you have, and meet the needs they feel, and not only meet the needs you want them to feel.
It also means that if you have complained about your spouse, you might need to stop, and take stock of all they have done for you, and realize that they are probably loving you in a whole host of ways that you are overlooking.
It means that with your friends, your coworkers, your parents, and more, you need to seek to love them in the ways they need to be loved. To see them where they are at. To meet their actual needs, and not just the needs you want them to have. And it means that you need to step back and consider how others have loved you. Maybe, if your grid has been too narrow, you have missed what some have done for you.
God has loved us with a consistent and reliable love that really sees us, and then loves each of us in ways specific to our situation. As God’s people, we must do the same for each other and for all the people in our lives.
Now, I could end there. We could leave it at that. But to do that would miss an important piece of reality and an important component of our text that we have not yet talked about.
The important piece of reality is this: It is REALLY hard to do that. I have just told you that God calls you to love others as he does – with a consistent and reliable love that sees the people in your life and loves them according to their needs in that moment.
And that is REALLY very hard to do. And if that thought has not occurred to you, either you have not been thinking my words through, or I have done a very poor job of communicating to you this morning.
Have you ever tried to love like this? Have you ever tried to love your child, or your spouse, or your parent, or your friend this way? When you do, it quickly begins to feel impossible. And we want to give up.
But here’s the thing. Paul tells us it is not impossible. Because he tells us that he has done it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We can’t love perfectly – and neither could Paul. But we can love in such a way that we model God’s reliable love. We can love in a way that sees people and responds rightly to them. We can love in such a way that we can look back at a situation, like Paul does here, and say that our conscience is clear.
But the reason we can do it is NOT because we are so amazing. It is NOT because on our own we are so capable.
No, this is only possible through Christ.
And Paul tells us that right in verses 21 and 22. He writes: “It is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, 22 and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
Now, there is something to the feel of the text that is lost in an English translation. It’s not any defect in the translation, but rather that in making the text make sense in English, some of the feel of the wording is lost.
Commentator Paul Barnett points out two things. First of all, Paul writes that God has established us “Christward”. In other words, Paul is commenting on the orientation of God’s people. God has made them a Christward people. And how has he done that? Through anointing us. It says so in verse 21. And here again, a little something is lost in the English. You see, the title “Christ” is the Greek version of the Hebrew title “Messiah.” And both the Hebrew and the Greek terms mean “Anointed One.” In other words, what Paul says is that through his Spirit, God has “anointed us towards the Anointed One.” Or, to put it the other way, as Paul Barnett puts it, through his Spirit, God “christed us Christward”. He anointed us towards the Anointed One. He christed us Christward.
In other words, we are not left to ourselves in this. God has consecrated us, and anointed us, towards Christ. He enables and anoints us to be more like him. He makes us, as Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis have said, “little Christs” – not in the sense that we pay for sins like Jesus did, but in the sense that we represent him, that we are his Body on earth, and that he has anointed us to be like him. By his Spirit, God has christed us Christward. And so we can begin to love like him – not because of any merit in us, but because he is at work in us through his Spirit.
Think again of our doctor analogy. A new med student is not sent into an exam room with a patient, by themselves, to figure out how to be a doctor on their own. First they have teachers and mentors. They have mentors who they observe and learn from. They see what they do and they try likewise to do the same thing themselves.
In the same way, Christ has given us his example. In the Gospels we see how he loved others. But it doesn’t stop there. We see how he loved others through his Church in the rest of the New Testament. We see how he loved Israel as Yahweh in the Old Testament. Everywhere we look in the Bible we see Christ’s love for his people, expressed in a variety of ways depending on their situation, and as the Apostle Peter says, we are called to follow in his footprints. Like a resident watches and imitates experienced doctors, we are called to do the same through the Scriptures, and through the examples of God’s people around us.
But God does not only give us an example. He gives us his Spirit and his ear. First, he gives us his Spirit. And here the doctor analogy simply breaks down. Because we have been supernaturally empowered by the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit we have been christed Christward – anointed toward the Anointed One. And we are empowered in ways we don’t even understand. And the Spirit works as we attend to the means of grace. As we hear the Word, as we gather with God’s people, as we receive the sacraments – God’s Spirit works in us and enables us to love.
And finally, we have God’s ear. In Christ, God our Father hears us. We can tell him, honestly, how much we lack of real love. We can tell him how far we fall short. And we can ask him to help us. We can ask him to grow us, that we might love others better – that we might love others as he has loved us. And he will hear us. And he will help us.
So, we have Christ’s example, we have his assistance through the Spirit, and we have God’s ear in Christ. And by God’s empowerment we are gradually, bit by bit, step by step, conformed to the image of Christ. And as we are conformed to that image, we can love more and more like he loves.
We have incredible help in this endeavor. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. It will not. But in Christ, we can grow in this direction.
And so, pursue him. Attend to his word. Eat at his table. Gather with his people. Remember your baptism. Pursue him in prayer. Remember his love for you and try to love those around you well. And Christ will work.
For in Christ, we can show forth the beauty of God’s love to those around us – a consistent and reliable love, that truly sees the people in our lives, and loves them where they are, all through Christ.
This sermon draws especially on material from:
Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.
Sources for illustrations: