2 Corinthians 12:11-21 - Edified Toward Congregational Repentance
But we do all things, beloved, for your edification.2 Corinthians 12:19c (NKJV)
Congregational Silence Criticized (Read 12:11-13)
Throughout this letter, the apostle Paul has been building a case against false apostles who had crept into the Corinthian church to sow seeds of heresy and immorality. Unfortunately, the believers in Corinth had been taken in by the leadership style and blandishments of these 'super apostles.'
Until this point, Paul has used mild irony and sarcasm, soft rebuke and gentle admonition.
In the passage we are studying in this lesson, we see him taking off the gloves. Writing with breathtaking bluntness, he boxes the congregation's ears, so to speak, until they are red with embarrassment for complying so easily with the seductions of false leaders.
In contrast to the intruders, Paul had avoided boasting about himself as long as possible, until finally he erupted with the exuberant confession, 'Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me' (2 Corinthians 12:9b). Boasting in his weakness, in his embarrassment and sufferings, became this apostle's mark of distinction.
Paul would rather have refrained from boasting, but the Corinthians compelled him to open his mouth. How? By their silence.
Rather than defending the apostle's message and manner among them, they had kept their collective mouth shut, giving the false apostles free reign in criticizing Paul and his gospel. The church should have commended him by defending his capacities as a servant of Jesus Christ. His preaching had been confirmed with powerful signs, miracles and wonders — what more did they need? These miraculous signs were done 'with all perseverance' (v.12), pointing back to those lists of Paul's persecutions and afflictions which he considered glorious (11:22-33; 12:7-10).
The Corinthians were ashamed of their spiritual father, the apostle Paul. Ashamed of his meekness (10:1), his modest rhetorical abilities (11:6), and his reticence in boasting about spiritual experiences (12:1-10). They had wanted signs but no suffering, power instead of persecution, victory without endurance.
But this congregation had nothing to be ashamed about (v.13), for the display of divine power among them was in no way inferior to that shown among other congregations.
True, there was one detail wherein the Corinthians were inferior to other churches: the apostle had refused their financial support. 'Forgive me this wrong!' the apostle pleads with biting sarcasm. The Corinthians couldn't stand it that the apostle had refused to place himself in their debt by depending on them for support. That's what all 'normal' preachers of that day did. People expected to be exploited financially, to be 'used' by charismatic leaders. Such a relationship had mutual benefits: the leader had his 'paying' (that is: adoring) followers, and the people could brag about their 'bought-and-paid-for' minister. (Question 1)
The apostle had written them earlier about his right to financial support (1 Corinthians 9), but indicated that for the sake of the gospel he had renounced that right. In this way, Paul was 'different' from his contemporaries — and the congregation didn't appreciate his oddness! Because the Corinthians were equating a nonessential right to financial support with a necessary qualification for being an apostle, Paul failed their test.
Pastoral Sacrifice in Pursuit of Souls (Read 12:14-16a)
When Paul arrives in Corinth for his third visit, he has no intention of changing his pastoral policy on this score. He will not be a burden to them, in order the better to show them his real motive: 'I do not seek yours, but you' (v.14). He's not after their possessions, their bank accounts or religious pay-offs, but their souls!
We must be careful to understand his supporting illustration in its context: 'For the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children' (v.14). From other passages we learn more about family responsibilities (1 Timothy 5:8), and also that other apostles did have the right to be supported by their 'children' (1 Corinthians 9:3-14). Here the point is that the apostle Paul resembles a parent who desires to bring children to maturity and independence, rather than to exploit them by living off their wealth.
Like any faithful parent, the apostle is gladly willing to spend (his own resources) and be spent (sacrificing his very self) to bring these believers to maturity. But, if that be true, will the Corinthians respond with proportionate love? Will they demonstrate gratitude toward the one who has led them into the green pastures of the gospel? Such thankfulness is much more than a courtesy;
it is simultaneously a powerful antidote to bitterness and malice, and potent acknowledgement that we stand by grace.Carson
No matter what the Corinthian response will be, the apostle's policy of self-sacrifice will continue. Paul will not adopt the standards employed by false leaders and by believers who naively follow them. For he is in pursuit of souls, not selfish gain. (Question 2)
Caught in a Contradiction? (Read 12:16b-19)
Paul refused to rely on the Corinthians for financial support. Yet, he had dispatched emissaries to canvas the congregation for financial contributions on behalf of the Jerusalem church (2 Corinthians 9). It might well be that someone started the rumor that Paul was in fact using these donated funds to line his own pockets.
The apostolic self-defense goes to the heart of the matter: Paul had sent Titus and probably either Luke or Barnabas (cf. 8:16, 18), whose methods and style had not exploited the Corinthians. Rather, these delegates had acted in the same spirit and pattern of the apostle who sent them.
Thus, it was not the apostle, but the congregation, who was caught in a contradiction. The church's scurrilous and unspiritual suspicions of the apostle, her silent complicity in the face of public rumor and reproach, rendered her guilty along with the false apostles.
The beginning of verse 19 can be translated as either a question ('Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you?') or a blunt declaration ('You have been thinking all along...'). In both cases, the effect is the same: Paul is aware of the Corinthians' mental reservations concerning his explanations. His response ought to put them to shame. He speaks before God in Christ. There is no higher Witness on his side, no greater Judge of his motives.
Just what is his motive? 'We do all things, beloved, for your edification' (v.19b). Building them up by fortifying faith and establishing virtue was the goal of Paul's ministry, the aim of his leadership methods. Not self-service, but soul-seeking. Not exploiting church members, but spending himself for their sake. Let every (would-be) church leader understand that the gospel ministry is not a professional career, but a pastoral calling.
The apostle avoids a trap that catches so many pastors, when their defense of the truth slips into self-defense, when they identify the congregation's wellbeing with their own. By contrast, what Christ's church needs today, more than anything else, is a sacrificial ministry. Pastors who demonstrate self-denial are, in reality, walking sermons that lend credibility to Sunday's homilies.
'We do all things,' writes the apostle — adding his affectionate address, 'beloved' — 'for your edification.' Imagine what would become of the Christian ministry if all pastors engraved this motive upon their hearts, and called it to mind at the outset of every hospital call, at the opening of every sermon, every church meeting, and every salary discussion!
Concern about Unmet Expectations (Read 12:20-21)
One of Paul's reasons for writing this epistle is to lay bare the kind of expectations held by both the apostle and the congregation for each other. If necessary, he wished to correct them, to reform them according to righteousness.
In verse 20, he admits his fear that the Corinthians might not exhibit the kind of godliness he desires. From 1 Corinthians we learn about the carnal sins that dragged the congregation down, about the divisive spirit that sapped her energy.
But notice why Paul fears this: 'lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented...' (v.20). Repented from what? From sins of sexual immorality. Back in those days, 'promiscuity' and 'Corinth' were as synonymous as 'Detroit' and 'automobiles' are today. Paul remembers the Corinthians' background, and fears that his next visit to Corinth will cause him grief over their impenitent carnality.
We must be sure to grasp the connection, presented here, between the church's carnal expectations regarding ministerial leadership, and the likely companion of a carnal lifestyle. Doctrine determines morality, and the Corinthian standards for leadership are the soil in which sexual sins thrive.
When a church or a denomination is characterized by such [doctrinal and spiritual] sins, it will not be long before it is also characterized by the grosser forms of immorality.Carson
Undisciplined theology and spirituality lead to undisciplined morality. Replacing communal restraint with the values of worldly arrogance will set the church up for a disastrous fall.
But that is not the only concern expressed here by the apostle. He fears that if his visit should uncover impenitence in the congregation, God will humble him in the presence of the church. By means of this formulation, pastor Paul conveys a deep sense of responsibility for the maturity level of the Corinthian church. So deeply responsible, in fact, that their immaturity he considers to be his failure! He's not the kind of pastor who 'washes his hands' of the situation, saying in effect, 'Well, I've done all I could; now it's on your head.' This pastor is simply unable to discipline with dry eyes, with the cool aloofness of the professional. Just as a parent ought to feel humbled by a child's rebellion, sensing a share of the responsibility, so the apostle Paul expects to be humbled if the Corinthians remain impenitent. (Question 3)
Recall, as we come to the end of our lesson, that the apostle explained his ministerial motive this way: 'But we do all things, beloved, for your edification.' 'All things' includes this portion of 2 Corinthians too! His blunt rebukes and biting sarcasm are aimed at building up the Corinthian believers — all believers! — in obedient faith. Look at yourself, whether pastor or pew-sitter, and examine your expectations and standards for ministerial leadership in the church. What is the church, anyway? Why do you belong to the church, anyway? As pastor or parishioner, what do you want out of what people nowadays call 'religion'? (Question 4)
Fundamental questions, that may just lead us to fundamental repentance!
Questions for Reflection and Reply
Today people refer to the practice of a minister supporting himself as a 'tent-making' ministry. In the light of the lesson, mention some advantages of a tent-making ministry, in contrast to a ministry that depends on congregational support — two benefits for the minister and two for the church.
Illustrate how a minister in pursuit of souls will do the following differently than one interested in selfish gain:
make pastoral calls
pastor the elderly
pastor the young people
In terms of 2 Corinthians 5:20 and 12:19-21, and in view of our lesson, what makes the gospel ministry a unique calling?
Mention several ways in which the apostle Paul's teaching in this lesson has 'edified' or built you up in faith and obedience.