Vocational ministry is not for the faint-hearted, which is why God’s call must be settled in the heart of a pastor or missionary. Sometimes, even lay leaders discover that church life is fraught with many dangers, toils, and snares. In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul reluctantly boasts about the ministry challenges he faced.
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was ship-wrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleep-less night, in hunger and thirst, often without food in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 11:24-29
Danger! Danger! Are you ready to sign up for ministry? Serving the Lord can be a dangerous endeavor, as the apostle Paul makes abundantly clear from his personal experience. Our next stop on the ultimate road trip through the Bible features Paul’s humble but powerful defense of his ministry to the Corinthians.
Second Corinthians is the most personal and autobiographical epistle Paul wrote. In Romans, Paul soars theologically, while in his Corinthian letters, the great apostle displays his missionary heart and pastoral skills. He loves the Corinthians, but he also grieves how false apostles from Jerusalem crept into the church and undermined his apostolic authority, turning the Corinthians away from the “spiritual father” who introduced them to Christ.
After he penned 1 Corinthians, Paul learned that some of the problems he had addressed persisted while more difficulties arose (2:1, 12:14, 13:1-2). For example, false teachers arrived in Corinth and convinced some in the congregation that Paul was dishonest, unimpressive, and unqualified to serve as an apostle. Paul sent Titus to deal with the situation and report back to him. When he had not heard from Titus, Paul traveled to Troas and then Macedonia to find him (2:12-13, 7:5-16). Titus delivered a mostly positive report, encouraging Paul that a majority of the Corinthians now supported his leadership. However, a small opposition led by a group of loyal Jews known as the Judaizers remained.
From Macedonia, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to thank the majority for their support and to make a personal appeal to the minority. While Paul’s overall tone in 1 Corinthians is disciplinary, his posture in 2 Corinthians is defensive. Thus, in 2 Corinthians, the great apostle describes his ministry (1-7), encourages the Corinthians to grow in the grace of giving (8-9), and humbly defends his apostolic authority (10-13).
Paul Describes His Ministry
After Paul’s gracious salutations, he thanks God for comforting him during his recent afflictions, which were serious enough for him to admit, “indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (1:1-11). Paul’s difficulties made him rely on God, who raises the dead, which made him grateful.
The apostle quickly tells the Corinthians why his visit to them was delayed. It was not because his desire to see them had changed, as he was not that fickle. Rather, he wanted to give them more time to repent and get their house in order (1:12-2:4). Paul assured them of his trustworthiness by saying, “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No” (1:18).
The apostle of grace then turns his attention to the subject of forgiveness and restoration after discipline was implemented on a church member, resulting in his repentance (2:5-13). To whom was Paul referring? Most Bible teachers point to the immoral man mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5. However, some believe the second Corinthian letter refers to another situation in which a person might have rebelled against Paul’s apostolic leadership.
In the end, it does not matter which view is correct. What matters is that Paul instructed the church to exercise grace by receiving the man back into the fellowship. It is a beautiful thing to see broken relationships restored when true repentance and the grace of God are at work in the church.
Then, Paul begins a lengthy description of his ministry to the Corinthians, starting with a discussion about how we are ministers of a new covenant. He compares his ministry to Moses, “who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” (3:12). Juxtaposed, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (3:14).
Paul also views himself and his ministry team as fragile and easily broken jars of clay. In other words, we are cracked pots through whom the light of the gospel and the glory of God shine (4:1-18). However, “we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Paul refers to his afflictions as momentary and light compared to “an eternal weight of glory beyond comparison.” Do you have an eternal perspective like Paul’s?
In 5:1-10, Paul continues offering an eternal perspective by comparing our earthly bodies to a temporary tent. While in this tent, “we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,” which he says is “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” He reminds the Corinthians that we “walk by faith, not by sight” and that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” a reckoning for believers that he introduced in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
Paul continues by emphasizing the ministry of reconciliation (5:11-21), the day of salvation (6:1-13), and the necessity of separateness, holiness, and purity in the Christian life (6:14-7:1). Finally, the apostle expresses his joy after receiving news from Titus that the Corinthians had a change of heart toward him (7:2-16). Authenticity and trustworthiness drip from Paul’s ministry.
Paul Encourages Generosity
In chapters 8-9, Paul invites the Corinthians to participate generously in a special offering he was collecting for the poor in Jerusalem. He inspires the Corinthians to participate by mentioning the gracious example set forth by the Macedonian churches. Surprised by their generous response, Paul writes,
For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. 8:3-5
Paul presents the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ as another motivating example of generosity. “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:8-9). Then, Paul encourages the Corinthians to complete the pledge they made one year earlier (8:10-15). In the largest section of Scripture in the New Testament pertaining to Christian financial stewardship, Paul also details how he entrusted Titus and another brother in Christ to handle the collection and the transportation of the offering to Jerusalem with integrity (8:16-24).
Some point to these chapters when downplaying the necessity of tithing for New Testament believers, the practice of giving ten percent of one’s financial increase to the Lord. Of course, Paul does not mention tithing in his financial stewardship instructions to the Corinthians. Rather, he says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (9:7). Does Paul’s New Testament instruction negate or replace the Old Testament practice of tithing? Is tithing not for today?
Paul’s encouragement to participate in the Jerusalem offering for the poor actually falls into a different biblical category of giving called a freewill offering. Freewill offerings and tithes are not the same. In the Old Testament, God’s people gave freewill offerings over and above their tithe to support, for example, the building of the temple. King David encouraged people to give to the temple project an amount God placed on their hearts, “freely and wholeheartedly” as they consecrated themselves to the Lord (1 Chronicles 29). Participation in the Jerusalem offering for the poor was a freewill offering, not a tithe.
Keep in mind that tithing predates the Mosaic law by more than four hundred years. Both Jacob and Abraham practiced tithing. After a war that rescued his nephew Lot, Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils to King Melchizedek of Salem (which later became Jerusalem), who was priest of God Most High. Significantly, the writer of Hebrews tells us that Melchizedek was an Old Testament type of Christ (Hebrews 7). Thus, tithing was a lifestyle long before it became a law handed down from Sinai. When God wanted to teach His chosen people how to live generously, He gave them the tithing laws, which were like financial stewardship training wheels until generosity became a way of life for them.
As New Testament believers, we do not tithe because we are still under the Mosaic law, and the church is not a theocracy, which Israel’s tithes funded. Instead, we tithe because it is the biblical starting point in our giving and the minimum expression of generosity found in the Bible. Rather than 2 Corinthians 8-9 serving as a polemic against tithing, it encourages New Testament believers to soar above the tithe by giving beyond our local churches, with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ inspiring the amount and serving as our motivation.
By using an agricultural analogy, Paul encourages the Corinthians to participate in the Jerusalem offering generously when he writes, “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (9:6). This reminds me of the words of Jesus, who said, “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).
Paul Defends His Ministry
In chapters 10-13, Paul finally turns his attention to his minority opposition, demonstrating how to appeal to those who resist your ministry leadership. While humbly defending his conduct, character, and calling as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he begins, “I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!” Then, he immediately states that the weapons of his warfare are “not of the flesh” (10:1-6). Paul knew that he was in a spiritual battle, and the battle belonged to the Lord.
So-called “super-apostles” had beguiled the Corinthians into believing Paul was not trustworthy and that he lacked apostolic credentials. Even though they persuaded a mere minority in the church of this vicious falsehood, a little erroneous leaven leavens the whole lump. Thus, forced by the situation to boast about his credentials (10:7-18), the humble apostle reluctantly defends his superior knowledge (11:1-6), generosity (11:7-11), and integrity (11:12-15). After boasting of his sufferings (11:16-29), Paul writes,
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. 11:30-33
Finally, in one of the most mysterious passages in the entire New Testament, Paul boasts of the heavenly revelation he received and the thorn that God placed in his flesh to keep him humble (12:1-10). Though the lowly apostle speaks in the third person to conceal the identity of the man who was “caught up to the third heaven,” his willingness to share his personal experience was still like a poker player turning his cards over and revealing a royal flush. Afterward, the opposition had no choice but to fold and push their cards toward the muck pile.
In chapter 13, Paul brings final warnings to the opposition. He challenges them to bring the kind of evidence against him that would stand up in a court of law by saying, “Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (13:1). He knew the charges against him were flimsy. Then, he turns the spotlight on his accusers by saying, “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!” (13:5).
Why does Paul encourage their self-examination? Because they were acting like unbelievers. Rather than pouring further shame on them, Paul ends by calling them “brothers” and encouraging them to “rejoice, aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, and live in peace,” while uniting around the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (13:11-14).