30 May 2024

Image - 2 Corinthians always makes it onto my list

2 Corinthians always makes it onto my list

Karl Deenick

A few times over lunches or dinners at SMBC someone has asked a question like: “If you were trapped on a deserted island and could only have three books of the Bible with you, which three would it be?” The aim of the question, of course, is not to encourage people to devalue certain parts of the Bible! Rather it’s a fun way of reflecting on those books of the Bible that we have found especially helpful. Whenever I’m asked, 2 Corinthians always makes it onto my list.

2 Corinthians might seem to some like an unusual choice. But over the years it has become to me a very precious book. Although Romans is often close to the top of most people’s list because it covers so much rich doctrine. It’s interesting to note that 2 Corinthians also has a lot of rich doctrine. For example, one of the greatest and simplest articulations of the gospel is found in chapter 5:21, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (NIV)

But there’s lots of other things too. Chapter 3 talks at great length about the movement between the old covenant and the new covenant, and the movement from letters written on stone to letters written on hearts. Chapter 5 is one of the few places in the New Testament that talks about the “Intermediate state”—what happens to believers between their death and the return of Christ to judge the world.

"Paul describes his ministry life as like that of a slave being paraded in God’s victory procession"

2 Corinthians also takes rich theology and connects it to Christian practice in helpful ways. Chapter 6 takes the Old Testament themes of cleansing and purity and shows how they map onto the life of Christians today. Chapters 2 and 7 deal with the deep and complex issues of sin in the church, together with forgiveness. Chapters 8 and 9 form one of the most profound expositions of gospel-hearted generosity. Paul gives the beautiful model of the Macedonian Christians, whose poverty “welled up in rich generosity” (2 Cor 8:2 NIV). We so often give out of our surplus; the Macedonians gave out of their want. Of course, Paul goes further and grounds that in the gospel itself: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9 NIV).

There are also other reasons that over the years have caused me to treasure 2 Corinthians. First, it is so painfully honest about the realities of Christian life and ministry. Paul begins by talking about his own struggles in ministry, which made him despair even of life itself (1:8). Shockingly, at least some of those troubles arose from the way the Corinthian church had treated him—casting accusations against him about his unreliability (2 Cor 2:1–4), closing their hearts to him (6:11–13), and ditching him for what seemed more powerful and spectacular ministry workers (chs. 10–12).

In fact, Paul describes his ministry life as like that of a slave being paraded in God’s victory procession—he is the aroma of life to some but the stench of death to others (2 Cor 2:14–17). This is no comfortable ministry life. Instead, he is “hard pressed on every side”, “perplexed”, “persecuted” and “struck down” (2 Cor 4:8 NIV). Numerous times in the letter Paul gives lists of his hardships (2 Cor 6:3–10; 11:23–29). Soberingly, Paul describes his experience of Christian ministry as “carry[ing] around in our body the death of Jesus” (4:10) and “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (4:11).

"while it is painfully honest about the costs of Christian ministry, it is also wonderfully full of the overflowing grace of God"

Paul’s honesty is so tremendously helpful. It’s helpful because it’s true. The Christian life, but especially Christian ministry, is profoundly difficult. It involves daily being given over to death. Paul is not referring in this instance to his sin being put to death. Although he uses that image in other places (e.g. Rom 6 and Phil 3), here he simply means that engaging in ministry is an extremely costly endeavour.

And yet, it is important to say, that is only one side of the story. Which brings me to the second reason that 2 Corinthians is such a book to be treasured. That is because while it is painfully honest about the costs of Christian ministry, it is also wonderfully full of the overflowing grace of God. Overflowing being the key word. It appears in one form or other again and again through the letter (1:5, 12; 2:4, 7; 3:9; 4:15; 7:5, 13, 15; 8:2, 7, 14; 9:8, 12; 15; 11:23; 12:15). It appears in 2 Corinthians far more often than in any other New Testament book (see the graph below). Very often it refers either directly to the grace of God, or to God’s grace at work in the lives of Paul or others.

Although Paul was brought to despair over life itself, nevertheless, the rich and abundant comfort of God “overflowed” into his life (1:3–6). Although he was “hard pressed on every side”, “perplexed”, “persecuted” and “struck down”, nevertheless, he was also “not crushed”, “not in despair”, “not abandoned” and “not destroyed” (4:9). Although he was being given over to death daily, nevertheless, the “life of Jesus [was] also revealed in our body” (4:10). Although death was at work in Paul, life was at work in the Corinthians (4:12). Although God had given Paul a thorn in his flesh, nevertheless, God’s power was made perfect in and through Paul’s weakness (12:7–10). No matter the hardship, God’s grace overflowed to Paul.

The picture Paul paints of the pain and grace in Christian ministry is ultimately a gospel-shaped one. That is, as Chapter 4 makes especially clear, it is not only a cross-shaped ministry, but a cross-and-resurrection-shaped ministry. In other words, the picture it paints is of a life and ministry following the Lord Jesus—death in him, life in us. In the same way, Christian ministry follows the same pattern—death/hardship/suffering in us, but gospel life coming to others as, through our ministry, they find Christ.

"I’ve often said that 2 Corinthians ought to be the essential handbook for Christian ministry."

I’ve often said that 2 Corinthians ought to be the essential handbook for Christian ministry. Too often, I fear, we sell a vision of ministry in the same way that we sell other jobs—“it will be so fulfilling.” And, of course, ministry is fulfilling. But not in the way that we often think. It is ultimately, like the whole of the Christian life, a call to die. As Bonhoeffer said: “Every call of Christ leads to death.”[1] But Bonhoeffer told only half the story: every call of Christ also leads through death to life, both for us and, through our ministry, for others too. That is true for every Christian, but especially true for those, like Paul, called to gospel ministry.

Karl Deenick
SMBC Lecturer in Theology and Preaching; Community and Student Care Coordinator

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nachfolge, 3rd ed., ed. Martin Kuske and Ilse Tödt (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2008), 81 (my translation).

Next Step image

If you've enjoyed this taster by Karl on 2 Corinthians, keep an eye out for his forthcoming commentary in the Reading the Bible Today series: 2 Corinthians: Suffering Overflowing to Glory (Aquila Press).

Meanwhile, another popular book by Karl on the church is Gathered Together: The beauty of living as God's church.

Learn more about 'Gathered Together'

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