Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 2

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-17

Chapter 2

WHEN A SAINT REBUKES ( 2 Corinthians 1:23-24 ; 2 Corinthians 2:1-4 )

2:1-4 I call God to witness against my soul that it was because I wished to spare you that I did not come again to Corinth. I am not saying this because we have any desire to domineer over your faith, but because we desire to labour with you to produce joy. As far as faith is concerned, you stand firm. But for my own peace of mind I came to this decision--not to come to you again in grief. For, if I grieve you, who then is there to make me glad, except him who is grieved by what I have done? I write this very letter so that when I do come I may not incur grief at the hands of those from whom I ought to have joy, for I have never lost my confidence in every one of you, and I am still sure that my joy and the joy of all of you are one and the same thing. So I wrote you a letter out of much affliction and anguish of heart, it was through my tears I wrote it, not that I wanted you to be grieved, but that I wanted you to know the love I bear especially to you.

Here is the echo of unhappy things. As we have seen in the introduction, the sequence of events must have been this. The situation in Corinth had gone from bad to worse. The Church was tom with party divisions and there were those who denied the authority of Paul. Seeking to mend matters, Paul had paid a flying visit to Corinth. So far from mending things, that visit had exacerbated them and had nearly broken his heart. In consequence he had written a very severe letter of rebuke, written with a sore heart and through tears. It was just for that very reason that he had not fulfilled his promise to visit them again, for, as things were, the visit could only have hurt him and them.

Behind this passage lies the whole heart of Paul when he had to deal in severity with those he loved.

(i) He used severity and rebuke very unwillingly. He used them only when he was driven to use them and there was nothing else left to do. There are some people whose eyes are always focussed to find fault, whose tongues are always tuned to criticize, in whose voice there is always a rasp and an edge. Paul was not like that. In this he was wise. If we are constantly critical and fault-finding, if we are habitually angry and harsh, if we rebuke far more than we praise, the plain fact is that even our severity loses its effect. It is discounted because it is so constant. The more seldom a man rebukes, the more effective it is when he does. In any event, the eyes of a truly Christian man seek ever for things to praise and not for things to condemn.

(ii) When Paul did rebuke, he did it in love. He never spoke merely to hurt. There can be sadistic pleasure in seeing someone wince at a sharp and cruel word. But Paul was not like that. He never rebuked to cause pain; he always rebuked to restore joy. When John Knox was on his deathbed he said, "God knows that my mind was always void of hatred to the persons of those against whom I thundered my severest judgments." It is possible to hate the sin but love the sinner. The effective rebuke is that given with the arm of love round the other person. The rebuke of blazing anger may hurt and even terrify; but the rebuke of hurt and sorrowing love alone can break the heart.

(iii) When Paul rebuked, the last thing he wanted was to domineer. In a modern novel, a father says to his son, "I'll beat the fear of the loving God into you." The great danger which the preacher and the teacher ever incur is of coming to think that our duty is to compel others to think exactly as we do and to insist that if they do not see things as we see them, they must be wrong. The duty of the teacher is not to impose beliefs on other people, but to enable and to encourage them to think out their own beliefs. The aim is not to produce a pale copy of oneself, but to create an independent human being. One who was taught by that great teacher, A. B. Bruce, said, "He cut the cables and gave us a glimpse of the blue waters." Paul knew that as a teacher he must never domineer, although he must discipline and guide.

(iv) Finally, for all his reluctance to rebuke, for all his desire to see the best in others, for all the love that was in his heart, Paul nonetheless does rebuke when rebuke becomes necessary. When John Knox rebuked Queen Mary for her proposed marriage to Don Carlos, at first she tried anger and outraged majesty and then she tried "tears in abundance." Knox's answer was, "I never delighted in the weeping of any of God's creatures. I can scarcely well abide the tears of my own boys, whom my own hand correcteth, much less can I rejoice in Your Majesty's weeping. But I must sustain, albeit unwillingly, Your Majesty's tears rather than I dare hurt my conscience, or betray my commonwealth through my silence." Not seldom we refrain from rebuke because of mistaken kindness, or because of the desire to avoid trouble. But there is a time when to avoid trouble is to store up trouble and when to seek for a lazy or cowardly peace is to court a still greater danger. If we are guided by love and by consideration, not for our own pride but for the ultimate good of others, we will know the time to speak and the time to be silent.

PLEADING FOR A SINNER'S PARDON ( 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 )

2:5-11 If anyone has caused grief, it is not I whom he has grieved, but to some extent--not to overstress the situation--all of you. To such a man the punishment that has been imposed by the majority is sufficient, so that, so far from inflicting severer punishment, you must forgive him and comfort him, lest such a one be engulfed by excess of grief. So then, I urge you, let your decision in regard to him be a decision of love. For when I wrote to you my purpose was to test you, to see if you are obedient in all things. Whatever you have forgiven anyone, I, too forgive. For what I have forgiven, if I had anything to forgive, I forgave for your sakes, in the presence of Christ, so that we might not be over-reached by Satan, for we well know his intentions.

Again we have a passage which is an echo of trouble and of unhappiness. When Paul had visited Corinth there had been a ring-leader to the opposition. This man had clearly personally insulted Paul who had insisted that discipline must be exercised upon him. The majority of the Corinthians had come to see that his conduct had not only hurt Paul, but had injured the good name of the whole Corinthian Church. Discipline had been exercised, but there were some who felt that it had not been sufficiently severe and who desired to impose a still greater punishment.

It is now that the supreme greatness of Paul emerges. His plea is that enough has been done; the man is now penitent and to exercise still further discipline would do far more harm than good. It might simply drive the man to despair, and to do that is not to serve Christ and the Church, but to offer an opportunity to Satan to lay hold upon the man. Had Paul been actuated by merely human motives he would have gloated over the hard fate of his former enemy. Nowhere does the majesty of his character better emerge than on this occasion, when, in the graciousness of his heart, he pleads for mercy on the man who had hurt him so much. Here is a supreme example of Christian conduct in face of injury and insult.

(i) Paul did not take the matter personally at all. It was not the injury done to his personal feelings which was important. What he was anxious about was the good discipline and the peace of the Church. There are some people who take everything personally. Criticism, even when it is kindly meant and kindly given, they take as a personal insult. Such people do more than any other kind of people to disturb the peace of a fellowship. It would be well to remember that criticism and advice are usually offered, not to hurt us, but to help us.

(ii) Paul's motive in the exercise of discipline was not vengeance but correction; he did not aim to knock a man down, but to help him to get up. His aim was to judge a man, not by the standards of abstract justice, but of Christian love. The fact is that quite often sins are good qualities gone wrong. The man who can plan a successful burglary has initiative and organizing power; pride is a kind of intensification of the independent spirit; meanness is thrift run to seed. Paul's aim in discipline was, not to eradicate such qualities as a man might have, but rather to harness them to higher purposes. The Christian duty is not to render the sinner harmless by battering him into submission, but to inspire him to goodness.

(iii) Paul's insistence was that punishment must never drive to despair and must never take the heart out of a man. The wrong kind of treatment often gives a man the last push into the arms of Satan. Over-severity may well drive him from the Church and its fellowship, while sympathetic amendment might well bring him in. Mary Lamb, who had terrible periods of insanity, was harshly treated by her mother. She used to sigh, "Why is it that I never seem able to do anything to please my mother?" Luther could scarcely bear to pray the Lord's Prayer because his own father had been so stern that the word father painted a picture of grim terror to him. He used to say, "Spare the rod and spoil the child--yes; but, beside the rod keep an apple, to give the child when he has done well." Punishment should encourage and not discourage. In the last analysis, this can happen only when we make it clear that, even when we are punishing a person, we still believe in him.

IN THE TRIUMPH OF CHRIST ( 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 )

2:12-17 When we had come to Troas to tell the good news of Christ, even when a door of opportunity stood open to us in the Lord, I had no rest for my spirit, because I did not find Titus, my brother, there. But thanks be to God who at all times leads us in the train of his triumph in Christ, and who, through us, displays the perfume of the knowledge of him in every place; for we are the sweet scent of Christ in God to those who are destined for salvation and to those who are destined for destruction. To the one we are a perfume from death, to the other a perfume from life to life. And who is adequate for these tasks? We do not, as so many do, make a traffic of the word of God but, as from utter purity of motives, as from God, in the very presence of God in Christ we speak.

Paul begins by telling how his anxiety to know what was happening in Corinth made him so restless that he could not wait in Troas, although a fruitful field was there, and sent him off to meet Titus who had not yet arrived. Then comes his shout of triumph to God who brought all things to a happy ending.

2 Corinthians 2:14-16 are difficult to understand by themselves, but when set against the background which was in Paul's thoughts they become a vivid picture. Paul speaks of being led in the train of the triumph of Christ; and then he goes on to speak of being the sweet scent of Christ to men, to some the perfume of death and to others the perfume of life.

In his mind is the picture of a Roman Triumph and of Christ as a universal conqueror. The highest honour which could be given to a victorious Roman general was a Triumph. To attain it he must satisfy certain conditions. He must have been the actual commander-in-chief in the field. The campaign must have been completely finished, the region pacified and the victorious troops brought home. Five thousand of the enemy at least must have fallen in one engagement. A positive extension of territory must have been gained, and not merely a disaster retrieved or an attack repelled. And the victory must have been won over a foreign foe and not in a civil war.

In a Triumph the procession of the victorious general marched through the streets of Rome to the Capitol in the following order. First came the state officials and the senate. Then came the trumpeters. Then were carried the spoils taken from the conquered land. For instance, when Titus conquered Jerusalem, the seven-branched candlestick, the golden table of the shew-bread and the golden trumpets were carried through the streets of Rome. Then came pictures of the conquered land and models of conquered citadels and ships. There followed the white bull for the sacrifice which would be made. Then there walked the captive princes, leaders and generals in chains, shortly to be flung into prison and in all probability almost immediately to be executed. Then came the lictors bearing their rods, followed by the musicians with their lyres; then the priests swinging their censers with the sweet-smelling incense burning in them. After that came the general himself. He stood in a chariot drawn by four horses. He was clad in a purple tunic embroidered with golden palm leaves, and over it a purple toga marked out with golden stars. In his hand he held an ivory sceptre with the Roman eagle at its top, and over his head a slave held the crown of Jupiter. After him rode his family; and finally came the army wearing all their decorations and shouting Io triumphs! their cry of triumph. As the procession moved through the streets, all decorated and garlanded, amid the cheering crowds, it made a tremendous day which might happen only once in a lifetime.

That is the picture that is in Paul's mind. He sees Christ marching in triumph throughout the world, and himself in that conquering train. It is a triumph which, Paul is certain, nothing can stop.

We have seen how in that procession there were the priests swinging the incense-filled censers. To the victors the perfume from the censers would be the perfume of joy and triumph and life; but to the wretched captives who walked so short a distance ahead it was the perfume of death, standing for the past defeat and their coming execution. So Paul thinks of himself and his fellow apostles preaching the gospel of the triumphant Christ. To those who will accept it, it is the perfume of life, as it was to the victors; to those who refuse it, it is the perfume of death, as it was to the vanquished.

Of one thing Paul was certain--not all the world could defeat Christ. He lived not in pessimistic fear, but in the glorious optimism which knew the unconquerable majesty of Christ.

Then once more comes the unhappy echo. There were those who said that he was not fit to preach Christ. There were those who said worse, that he was using the gospel as an excuse to line his own pockets. Again Paul uses the word eilikrineia ( G1505) for purity. His motives will stand the penetrating rays of the sun; his message is from God, it will stand the very scrutiny of Christ himself Paul never feared what men might say, because his conscience told him that he had the approval of God and the "Well done!" of Christ.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.