September 1, 2014.
As the theme of my past few posts can attest, I have been going through I and II Corinthians over the past couple of weeks or so and I have gained a lot from it. I finished II Corinthians today and there is a subject that Paul brings up as a final warning before he ends his letter. Paul has told the church that he plans on visiting them, and it probably will not be a happy visit, as there are still some who insist on living in sin and not listening to Paul in his letters, because he has been humble when he is with them but bold when he is away. The tone that Paul uses in II Corinthians 10-13 does not seem to fit with the tone of the first nine chapters of the book, leading some scholars to believe that chapters 10-13 are actually part of another letter written by Paul to the Corinthians, known as the “sorrowful” letter referenced in 2:4, that was written between I and II Corinthians. I tend to agree with this reasoning. Over all, Paul probably wrote four letters (that we know about) to the Corinthians, one before I Corinthians, one between the two epistles (possibly contained in II Cor. 10-13), and II Corinthians (perhaps only chapters 1-9).
If we assume that chapters 10-13 are indeed part of the sorrowful letter that Paul wrote to the church before II Corinthians, then these chapters shed some light on Paul’s rejoicing in the fact that the church had come to repentance in chapter 7 (read more about this here). The Corinthian church had a rough start after they had been established. The city of Corinth was known to be a very worldly city, full of idols and pagan worship that no doubt pressured Christians in every way. Even when the good news was preached and accepted, some of their number took the concept of “freedom in Christ Jesus” beyond its scope and used it as an excuse to continue in sin (ref. I Cor. 5). You can read in the post linked above about Paul’s close relationship with the church at Corinth and the anxiety he had for their souls as many seemed to be departing from the faith. Paul loved the church so much that he was willing to make hard decisions that had the possibility of turning many against him for the sake of their repentance and salvation. In the “sorrowful” letter, or chapters 10-13 of II Corinthians, Paul says that he is going to come for another visit to Corinth but he gives them a chance to clean up their act before he comes. In the last chapter, he tells the church to do something that I think we can all benefit from today. Rest assured that the Corinthian church, much closer to the time of Christ than we are, is not the only church in history that has dealt with similar problems. Even today we are faced with worldly influence, and there are many who are allowing this influence to creep into the church unnoticed. Let us examine what Paul would have the church at Corinth to do.
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.”
(II Corinthians 13:5-10)
The possibility of error.
The first thing in this passage that Paul tells the Corinthians to do is to examine themselves to see if they were in the faith. Now, one might say “What? They were Christians, right? How could they not be in the faith?” This is a fair question that I believe teaches a truth that so many would not like to accept today. Paul is writing to a church that he and his fellow workers had personally established during his second missionary journey. He spent a year and a half in Corinth preaching and teaching the word under divine protection and revelation that the Lord had many people in this city (ref. Acts 18). Paul poured so much into this city, just to turn around and tell them to examine themselves to see if they were in the faith? I believe this teaches that you indeed can walk away from the faith. Many of the Corinthians certainly had done so. Sometimes we can walk away from the faith without even knowing! If they had known they had left the faith, Paul wouldn’t have told them to examine themselves. He would have just had to say “You know who you are.” But as it was, there were many who were still claiming the name of Christ who had gone astray.
There is a lot of false teaching today that would suggest that this is not possible. Those who would teach this might say that these Corinthians who had “left the faith” were never in the faith to begin with. But I would have to disagree with this, as this would imply that the word of God was wrong:
“Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.”
For as many of them to depart as is implied in I Corinthians and the end of II Corinthians, if all of them simply weren’t Christians to begin with, there would have had to be a very good charade put on to deceive Paul, and arguably God (as we know can’t be done). But how does this fit with the rest of scripture? Doesn’t the bible say that no one can pluck us out of his hand? Indeed, but we certainly have the free will choice to leave on our own accord. This has always been our choice. “But isn’t there no condemnation in Christ Jesus? Doesn’t his blood cover all of our sins?” Indeed the blood of Jesus continuously cleanses our sins. So long as we continue in the faith:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
Peter puts it this way:
“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.”
(II Peter 2:20-21)
So we can see that it is possible to fall away from the faith. So what were the Corinthians to do?
Paul told the Corinthian church to examine themselves. Test themselves, to see if they were in the faith. Self examination is a key aspect of our walk of faith if we want to have a strong bond with the Lord, one that is firmly rooted. As we saw in the section above, it is possible to wander from the faith without even knowing you are gone. I think this is what happened to King David in the Old Testament. Known as “David’s great sin” that ended in adultery and murder, the first steps in the wrong direction did not start with adultery and murder. They started with seemingly innocent things, perhaps things that weren’t even sinful, like not going to war when it was the time for kings to go out to battle. But each little thing led to the next and the next, and all of the sudden he has sent Uriah out into the front lines of battle so that he might be killed to cover up his adulterous relationship with his wife Bathsheba. In the end, I’m not even sure that David had realized what he had done and how far away from God he had wondered, because God had to send Nathan the prophet to him to make him realize that he was in the wrong. If you are interested, the full story can be found in II Samuel 11-12.
I think this is how the deceiver introduces sin in our lives today. He doesn’t just wave prostitutes and strip clubs in our face trying to get us to stumble. That wouldn’t be very smart; typically, we can recognize that as sin and avoid it easily. Instead, he uses small things, things that might not even be sinful, to allure us away from God until we are caught up so deeply in a sinful situation that we might see no way out. I think this is what happened to the Corinthians as well. Paul didn’t just step out of the city and all of the sudden the whole church is in the can. I think the pressures from the immoral world around them gradually sunk in until they were arrogant about one of their members who had taken his father’s wife! This broke Paul’s heart, prompting him to write strong, critical letters to the church in hope that they might repent.
Paul’s letters gave them an explicit chance to repent, much like the letters to the seven churches penned by John at the dictation of Christ in Revelation 2-3. Today, we aren’t going to get a letter from Paul telling us to examine ourselves and repent, so it is up to us to look to the scriptures and see the examples laid out therein and have the humility to admit that we are not infallible. We need to admit that we can be in the wrong, and test ourselves to see whether or not we are in the faith. Notice how Paul does not say “a faith” but “the faith.” A faith is not sufficient to pass the test. We must examine our lives through the lens of the word of God to see whether we are living according to our calling. Paul was giving them a chance to repent before he got there. It would seem they didn’t take it. Let us not make the same mistake.
Aiming for restoration.
As Paul pens his final words to the Corinthians in chapter 13, I really like his admonition.
“Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
(II Corinthians 13:11)
Even in all their struggles, they were told to rejoice. This is a common theme throughout the New Testament assuming that struggles will purify and refine our character as Christians and produce patience (ref. James 1). Then Paul says “Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace…” I am glad to find my roots in the restoration movement, as there as always been a call to go back to the original teaches in effort for purity and unity. This is the only way we will ever restore the unity of faith. Speak where the bible speaks, and be silent where it is silent. For who are we to go beyond what is written? Who are we to claim authority over the steadfast words of God? Some people in the Corinthian church had claimed this authority and led many astray. Paul says to aim for restoration and agree with one another. I don’t think this is a suggestion. This is what we need to do, and I’m afraid the longer we wait, the harder it will be to restore unity. But all things are possible through Christ, and we know that it is His will (ref. Eph. 4 and I Cor. 1,3).
Let us begin restoration with ourselves, and then press on towards the unity of the body of Christ through the word of God.
Suggested Daily Reading: Acts 18, I Corinthians 1, 5, II Corinthians 13.
May we all be of the same mind and the same judgment.