2 Corinthians 12 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul Threatens Punishment on His Next Visit

The reality of the church is not seen in the splendor of its buildings, the size of its congregation, the number of its programs, the amount of its budget or the sophistication of its liturgy. It is seen in changed lives--and if there are no changed lives, there is no church. Paul, in rather blunt language, reminds the Corinthians of this truth in the final section of his letter: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you--unless, of course, you fail the test?" (13:5). The challenge is not an idle one. There is every possibility that the Corinthians--or any church, for that matter--will fail the test, if the vices listed in verses 20-21 are, to any extent, a reality in the life of the congregation (see Rev 2--3).

But before Paul can call the Corinthians to account, he must dispel any notion that he is the one on trial here. All this bragging that he has been doing could sound as if he were mounting a defense that the church, as judge and jury, was called to pass judgment on: Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? (v. 19). In actuality the apostles' only judge is God, in whose sight they speak (v. 19). The Corinthian intruders cared a great deal about what people thought of them, and so they fashioned their preaching to appeal to their audience (11:4). But Paul cared only about God's opinion, which was wholly determined by whether he spoke in Christ (as Christ's representative) or "in himself" (as his own advocate).

The authority Paul received as Christ's representative was intended for constructive, not destructive purposes--although not everyone always saw it that way, especially where discipline was involved. Growth toward spiritual maturity is not always an easy process for the church. Just as correction is a necessary, if somewhat painful, part of growing up for children, so also it serves as a needful part of the maturing process for the church. Yet the church rarely looks on correction in this way. Too often we gravitate toward the pastor or teacher who flatters us and not the one who corrects us.

This is why Paul goes on to say that everything he does is for the church's strengthening. Ta panta (literally, "the whole") is placed first for emphasis. Everything without exception is done for their good--even correction. The good, in this case, is defined as that which "builds up" (NIV strengthens). Oikodome is Paul's favorite term for the church's growth toward spiritual maturity (Rom 14:19; 15:2; 1 Cor 14:3, 5, 12, 26; 2 Cor 12:19; Eph 4:12, 16, 29). The image is of a building that is still under construction. In some cases the work involves laying the foundation of a new church (1 Cor 3:9); in other cases it is erecting the walls of a more established congregation (Eph 2:21). This is what ultimately distinguished Paul from his rivals. He did whatever it took to upbuild the church, while his rivals did whatever they could to upbuild themselves.

The average pastor does not enjoy rebuking a congregation. Paul is no different. For this reason he expresses too fears about his upcoming visit to Corinth. His first fear is that when he comes, he will not find the church as he wants them to be (v. 20). The Corinthian worst-case scenario is formidable: quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder (v. 20)--not to mention impurity, sexual sin and debauchery (v. 21). The eight vices listed in verse 20 typify a community fractured by envy, conceit and selfish ambition. The initial four--quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions--are found in the same order in Galatians 5:20.

Quarreling (or better, "rivalry," eris) heads the roster. The basic idea is fighting over pride of place. Jesus' disciples argued over who was the greatest (Mk 9:33-34) and who was to sit at Jesus' right and left hand (Mk 10:35-38). Pride of place also characterized the Corinthians from early on (1 Cor 1:11; 3:3). Jealousy (zelos) should logically precede quarreling, since it is what often gives rise to it. With the exception of this reference, zelos is a positive attribute in 2 Corinthians, denoting the capacity of passionate commitment to a person or cause ("zeal"; Stumpff 1964a:877). But when zeal is for the things another person possesses, it easily moves--as it does here--toward jealousy. Thymos is passion that wells up or boils over. The NIV's outbursts of anger catches the sense well.

The word translated factions (eritheiai) most likely refers to a self-seeking mindset that views everything from a what's-in-it-for-me perspective. In the New Testament it is commonly linked with envy for what others have (Gal 5:20; Jas 3:14, 16). The next too vices are closely related. Slander is something that is spoken publicly, while gossip (literally "whispering") is something that is whispered behind the back. Both can be (and often are) devastating to the life of the church.

The Greek word translated arrogance (physiosis) means to be "inflated with a sense of one's own importance." It is a problem that crops up repeatedly in 1 Corinthians (4:6, 18, 19; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4). Finally, disorder (akatastasia) renders a term that normally denotes a public disturbance. It occurs in 2 Corinthians 6:5 in a list of troubles accompanying Paul's missionary labors. But here it likely refers to congregational disturbances of the sort implied in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Along similar lines, James states that "where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice" (3:16).

Paul's second fear is that the Corinthians will not find him to their liking when he comes. He prefers to come to them in gentleness. But if his worst fears are realized, he will come to them with the rod that his rivals claimed he was too timid to wield (10:1; compare 1 Cor 4:21). This will especially be the case if he comes and finds impurity, sexual sin and debauchery still in evidence (v. 21). Akatharsia ("impurity") is a general term for uncleanness of any kind--anything that would make a person unfit to enter God's presence (Barclay 1954:265). Porneia, on the other hand, refers more specifically to "sexual sins," which includes adultery but goes beyond (such as prostitution and homosexual offenses [1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10]). Aselgeia ("debauchery") denotes wanton defiance of public decency (Plummer 1915:370).

The trio is startling, especially since concern for such gross sins does not surface earlier in the letter. Indeed, the perfect tense signifies an ongoing state of affairs (proemartekoton), and Paul anticipates that on visiting the Corinthians he will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented (v. 21).

If Paul finds the sins listed in verses 20-21 present on his return, he will, in the first place, be humbled: God will humble me before you (v. 21). How exactly Paul expects to be humbled is not clear. He could be fearful that his third visit will be a repeat of the second one, when he was publicly humiliated and the Corinthians did nothing to support him (2:5-11; 7:8-13). Or he may be worried that on his return the Corinthians will show a preference for the false apostles over him, which would cause acute pain. The most likely possibility is that Paul will be humiliated by the Corinthians' lack of moral discipline. After all, like any good parent he took pride in his Gentile churches, and anything that disgraced them also disgraced him (Plummer 1915:369).

Paul has been bragging about the Corinthians to the Macedonian believers. If his pride in them proves to be false, he will experience no little embarrassment before the Macedonians who accompany him to Corinth. Moreover, such reports of sexual promiscuity would confirm the worst fears of the Jewish community about the Gentiles' ability to live a moral life apart from the Mosaic law. As apostle to the Gentiles and advocate of Christian freedom, Paul could well feel as if he were directly responsible for the Corinthians' lack of moral fortitude.

Continuing sin will cause Paul, in the second place, to be grieved on his return to Corinth (v. 21). Pentheo usually refers to sorrow that expresses itself in a demonstrative fashion (such as lament, wailing, tears). So Paul may fear that he will be overcome by sorrow at the shame brought on the community by the reprehensible activities of some of its members. Then too, if faced with the kinds of sins listed in verse 21--not to mention those found in verse 20--he would be reduced to using his authority in a punitive way, which would cause him great sadness.

It is startling to hear Paul give voice to such ethical misgivings at this point in the letter (Plummer 1915:370). Nothing in the earlier chapters prepares us for what we find here. How is it to be explained? The sins in verse 21 are of the libertine sort that Paul tackled in 1 Co-rinthians ("a man has his father's wife. And you are proud!" 5:2). Verse 20, on the other hand, catalogs some old and some new problems. Quarreling, jealousy, factions and arrogance are old. Outbursts of anger, slander, gossip and disorder are new.

The single ingredient that would account for both the new and the old concerns is the activity of the Corinthian intruders. The list in verse 20, in particular, is symptomatic of the schismatic influence of outsiders on congregational life. Many of these problems were undoubtedly there all along, but Paul had restrained himself in order to address the larger issue of his apostolic authority. After all, if he does not have the Corinthians' loyalty and is no longer confident of their ready obedience, how can he hope to effect a willing change in their behavior? What would be the point of reasoning with them as he did in 1 Corinthians?

Paul's response on finding such sins at Corinth will not stop at shame and grief. He will, third, be forced to act severely toward the Corinthians. If the church does not clean up its act by the time he comes, he assures them that punishment will not be spared them, as it was on his previous visit (1:23).

In the Roman legal system, punishment was meted out on the basis of a verdict reached by a magistrate (and sometimes his council) regarding a person's innocence or guilt. As in our Western legal system today, the process included the drawing up of charges, the formal act of accusation, the solicitation of witnesses, the hearing of evidence and the presentation of arguments for and against the accused (compare Jn 18:28--19:16). At 13:1 Paul turns the tables on the Corinthians and puts them in the position of the accused, while he takes up the role of the plaintiff. The expert witnesses become Paul's visits to Corinth: This will be my third visit to you. "Every matter must be established by the testimony of too or three witnesses."

It is legitimate to put the second half of verse 1 in quotation marks, as the NIV does. Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 19:15, which stipulates that one witness is not enough to convict a person accused of a crime; such matters must be established by the testimony of at least too witnesses. Paul had previously made too visits to Corinth--his founding visit in A.D. 50-52 (Acts 18:1-17) and his so-called painful visit a few years later, at which time he had been humiliated (2 Cor 11:21) and his apostolic authority publicly challenged by someone in the Corinthian congregation (12:3). This third visit will constitute the decisive witness, going beyond the minimum witnesses required by Jewish law.

For some infractions of Jewish and Roman law it was possible to merely give a warning (as in Acts 4:18). Paul's grace extends to giving the Corinthians not one, but too warnings. He had given the Corinthians a warning on his second visit, which he now repeats while still absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others. Those who sinned earlier are most likely members of the Corinthian church who were still engaging in the illicit acts mentioned in 12:21 (proemartekoton). Who then are "all the rest" (kai tois loipois pasin; NIV's any of the others)? It is improbable that Paul is referring to those who had fallen into sin since his last visit (Bratcher 1983:143). More likely prospects are those who had come under the sway of the false apostles (M. J. Harris 1976:412) or those who were committing the divisive sins listed in 12:20--although in all probability the too groups are one and the same.

The disciplinary action Paul promises to carry out is not specified. Public censure would surely be a part of it (compare Mt 18:17). Excommunication was what Paul mandated in the case of the incestuous Corinthian Christian (1 Cor 5). Some suppose that supernatural infliction of bodily suffering would be included (for example, Plummer 1915:374). The Corinthians had experienced this early on as a punishment for their disdain of poorer brothers and sisters at the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:27-34).

Either way, they will have the proof they are demanding. Paul will clearly show them that Christ is speaking through [him] (v. 3). The Corinthians had apparently insisted that Paul give some convincing sign of his apostolic status. They may well have been looking for some display of miraculous power similar to what his rivals laid claim to. Paul states that he will indeed provide proof, but it may not be the proof that they are expecting. For one, it will not be his power but Christ's: He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you (v. 3). Two, the power Paul speaks of will not be a wonderoorking display but a disciplinary rod used on members of the congregation who continue to sin in flagrant disobedience of Paul's authority.

Paul goes on to warn the Corinthians not to be fooled by his gentle demeanor. It may seem as if he operates out of weakness, but beware: this was the same mistaken estimate that Jesus' adversaries made of him. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God's power (v. 4). What Paul means by he was crucified in weakness is debated. He could be speaking of an erroneous human perception, similar to his statement in 5:16: "we once regarded Christ [from a worldly point of view]." By the world's standards Jesus' ministry was a failure. He claimed to be the Messiah and asserted that he would usher in the kingdom of God. But in the end he succumbed to weakness and died a criminal's death.

Yet this reading of the text overlooks the aorist. Christ was crucified in weakness--not "seemed" to be or "was regarded" as such. The opening kai confirms this point: to be sure (NIV), "true" (NEB), "yes" (JB, Phillips). Paul is acknowledging that Christ did in fact die in weakness. The Greek is literally "out of weakness." Ex astheneias can specify the reason ("by reason of weakness," Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979:3f) or the underlying rule or principle ("because of weakness," Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979:3i). Either way, the point is the same: the crucifixion showed Christ's essential mortality. Weak and frail human being that he was, when he was subjected to physical trauma, he died just as we do.

Unlike us, however, Christ did not remain in weakness. Divine power prevailed over human weakness, and he came to life. The same idea is powerfully captured in the familiar lyric by Sandi Patti, "They Could Not":

So, finally upon a rugged cross

They killed the man who would not suffer loss

And when at last they took what willingly he gave

He died--but could they keep him in the grave?

They could not; they could not.

Praise God, they could not!

Not only did Christ come to life, but even more, he now lives by God's power (zh ek dynamews theou, v. 4). The present tense emphasizes ongoing life. So we might translate this "he continues to live by the power of God." As Ralph P. Martin notes, Christ's weakness, as shown in the crucifixion, was not the result of a lack of power. When Christ chose the cross, he did so because he was acting in God's power (1986:475). And as Christ, so the apostle: Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God's power we will live with him to serve you (v. 4). Paul places the pronoun hemeis in an emphatic position and broadens the thought to include his associates: we are weak. He undoubtedly is referring to the frailty and hardship that typify the life of the itinerant preacher (11:23-27). His rivals thought otherwise--as did some of the Corinthians. But just as many were mistaken about Christ, so they are mistaken about the lot of the apostle.

Even so, his opponents were right on one point. There is a very real power at the disposal of the Christian. Not only does Paul share in Christ's sufferings and become like him in his death, but at the same time he also shares in the power of his resurrection: By God's power we will live with him to serve you. We will live with him has an eschatological ring to it. But to serve you snaps us back into the present order of things. So what is Paul talking about? How will he live with Christ to serve the Corinthians? Eis hymas (to serve you) is perhaps better translated "toward you" or "in our dealings with you." That is, the same power that raised Christ from the dead and sustains his life even now is the power that Paul will wield on his next visit to Corinth (that is, "by God's power we will live toward you").

Previous commentary:
The Matter Is Summed Up

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