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Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary Preacher's Homiletical
2 Corinthians 2
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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ phc/ 2-corinthians-2.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
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(N.B.—The paragraph really begins at 2 Corinthians 1:23.)
2 Corinthians 1:1. Determined.—As in 1 Corinthians 2:2. For myself.—So R.V., meaning, “For my own sake as well as for yours.” Again.—To be linked with “come” only? (q.d. “To come again, and to have a sorrowful visit”); or with “with sorrow”? (q.d. “a second sorrowful visit,” like a former one). Answer variously given, according as an intermediate visit, unmentioned in the Acts, is not, or is, supposed. Agreed that the visit recorded in Acts 18:0 was not specially a sorrowful visit. In heaviness.—“With sorrow” (R.V.). Here also external considerations very much decide whether this shall mean, “with sorrow in my heart” or “to inflict sorrow on you.” [See Introduction, more fully.]
2 Corinthians 1:2. He that is made sorry.—Probably not the particular offender of these verses; but quite general. Paul can grieve them all; each one of them, thus grieved, must make him glad. 2 Corinthians 1:3 confirms this.
2 Corinthians 1:3. This very thing.—Viz. 1 Corinthians 5:1 sqq. (Waite, in Speaker, however, thinks rather the decision announced in 2 Corinthians 1:1.) Paul means, “I wrote, rather than come at once.”
2 Corinthians 1:4.—Another concurrent and quite consistent reason, “I wrote with tears, in order that,” etc.
2 Corinthians 1:5.—Very difficult to translate with any certainty. Ambiguous for two reasons:
(1) What does “in part” belong to? Answer not certainly clear;
(2) What is the grammatical object of “overcharge,” “overweight”? Answer again not certainly clear.
(2) is answered in opposite ways by the and A.V., the two being typical of many more commentators. So is
(1). The A.V. means, “The grief has not fallen entirely and only upon me, but on you also. Not to think so, would on my part be to charge upon you all the heavy sin of indifference to his sin.” means, “But in part (let me say)—not to make too grave a matter of it against him—he has grieved you all.” Four variants are supported:
“He hath not grieved me
“but in part; that I may not overcharge you all.”
“but in part, that I may not overcharge (him), you all.”
“but in part, that I may not overcharge you, all (of you).”
“but in part, that I may not overcharge all, you.”
2 Corinthians 1:6.—Note, “the many” (R.V.). The sentence was the act of a (voting) majority.
2 Corinthians 1:7.—Note “His … sorrow.” accurately.
2 Corinthians 1:9.—How many, perfectly true, concurrent, motives go to one act.
2 Corinthians 1:10.—He concurs in what the majority had, previously to his writing, determined; “concurs” surely is not the spirit of one who “played the Lord” over them (2 Corinthians 1:24). Choose between “presence” and “person,” [The homiletics that follow assume “person,” because of Matthew 18:20.]
2 Corinthians 1:11.—Beet makes more of Satan’s endeavouring to compass some harm, not to the poor penitent offender, but, by means of him, and using him and other evil circumstances of their case, to the Church. Unwise discipline, and tolerated evil within, perhaps equally give an open door to the adversary of souls. [Cf. 1 Corinthians 7:5 for the need of wise watchfulness against a real, evil Personality, full of very wise “devices.”] But preferable to understand as of Satan directly seeking opportunity of harming the penitent man.
HOMILETIC ANALYSIS.—Chap. 2 Corinthians 1:23 to 2 Corinthians 2:11
Paul and the Now Penitent Offender of 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.
I. The penitent man is an instructive study.—
1. The interval had been brief since chap. 5 of the former letter was written, and from that brief interval must be deducted the time from writing until it was read at Corinth, and from the time of the man’s manifest repentance until the news of this reached Paul in Ephesus. But in the brief interval, thus narrowed, had occurred a marvellous, a revolutionary, moral change in the man,—from a form of fornication abhorrent even to Corinthian heathen ideas, to repentance so deep, that he who was to have been “delivered to Satan,” might now safely be restored to the Church and to Christ. And not the least remarkable point in the case is that a man living in such sin, apparently with as little sense as had some of his fellow-members, of the shame it brought upon the Church, should, by the very fact of the Church having laid upon him a “sufficient” “punishment” [though (perhaps) one something short of the full penalty prescribed in the former letter; his alarm and repentance may have been so quick and so genuine that the need for this was averted], have been so filled with “sorrow,” that there was danger of a true penitent being driven to despair, and (we may say?) “delivered to Satan” by the very “overmuch” of his grief.
2. The case is not an uncommon one in mission-fields in heathen countries, or even in “home mission” work amongst the lowest or the degraded population of a nominally Christian land; and, as one of the typical, didactic instances by which, rather than by abstract discussions or elaborate theses upon given topics, God has been pleased to reveal His thought, it has many divinely authoritative suggestions. For example, it reminds us how widely the degrees of moral enlightenment and of moral sensitiveness may differ, whilst yet there is equally a relation to Christ which, though gravely imperilled by the sin, is worth caring for and endeavouring to strengthen. In a Christian land, in circles where Christian standards of morality have largely influenced even “society” ethics, such a sin as this of the Corinthian offender is reprobated with the utmost weight of verbal and practical censure; whilst a persistent refusal to forgive a fellow-Christian for a comparatively small offence, is hardly condemned at all. No doubt a practical difficulty occurs in judging of a sin “of spirit” (2 Corinthians 7:1); it is not easy to verify the facts, as can be done in (say) a palpable lapse into sensuality; it is not easy to pronounce judgment upon the moral worth of often very complex “feelings”[no virtue, and no sin, is single; all is complex]; whereas a plain act, manifestly incompatible with the most elementary law of God, can be both verified and judged. But this should not so affect our estimate of sin, as to make us forget that for a reclaimed drunkard to fall back grossly into his old sin, or for a man saved from profanity to break out, like Peter, in oaths and imprecations, or for a heathen, half in habit and heedlessness, to be led back into some gross but customary sin of his old life, may argue less of downright evil of heart than for a professedly Christian man persistently to cherish envy or pride, or to indulge in evil-speaking, or to become thoroughly of the world, in principle and spirit, in aims and affections. Remembering the men remembering the history of the men, their opportunities, their surroundings, the worldliness of the one may be a more grievous “fall” than the gross sin of the other. [The one is certainly as little compatible with the perfect law of life in Christ as is the other, the open and gross.] Our relative estimate of sin and of sinners needs continually reviewing in the light of that holiness which condemns sins “of the flesh” and “of the spirit” with at least equal censure. Rebellion in Saul may be more than the witchcraft in some wretched hag of Endor; stubbornness in Saul may be a worse sin than that idolatry which he had prosecuted in others with a Puritan rigour (1 Samuel 15:23). Sin may not be extenuated. [Certainly, even consummate genius must not excuse sensualism and impurity, in poetry or art, or laxity in morals.] An Ananias and a Sapphira may so deliberately and distinctly “lie unto the Holy Ghost” (Acts 5:3), that there is for them no forgiveness, and nothing but excision from the body [query Galatians 5:12] is on all accounts possible. Such discipline, sharp and swift, may be the only means of educating a pure public opinion in the Church, and for teaching a man of low type like the fornicator at Corinth to see himself as others see him, and as God sees him and his sin. An objective conscience, thus forcing its decision upon the attention of the wrong-doer, may be the only awakener and educator of his own. But “Father, forgive them, for they know what they do,” is high authority for a tender handling of some whose actual sin is flagrant and open. They needed forgiving, but their ignorance left the door open for forgiveness. Their guilt who actually, and perhaps with some coarse delight in giving pain, drove in the nails, was not so great as that of Caiaphas, who stood by, laying not a finger of his unsoiled hands upon the Sacred Sufferer, yet who in his heart was perhaps more truly than any other one man there present His real murderer. There is more grace in the repentance of a Corinthian fornicator, than in the largely conventional purity of some English or American “Christians.” There is more to love in the repentant prodigal, with all his “riotous living” and the waste of his patrimony, than in the grudging elder brother, whose life is blameless, save for the one lifelong sin of a loveless heart. This Corinthian sinned grossly, but he repented graciously. The sin needed every word of sternest rebuke which Paul had written; the fair name of the Church, and of Christ, must at all costs be kept clear before the world. If there had been no repentance, then the mysterious penalty of “deliverance to Satan” must righteously have been enforced to its uttermost of consequence [though even this contemplated the “saving of the spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:5)]. But gross and unexampled as was this man’s sin, there was much grace in a man, and hope for a man, who so promptly and unreservedly, with tears and broken heart, bowed before the censure of his pastor and his brethren, and in whom conscience was so easily awakened and so entirely obeyed. The “bruised reeds” (in Matthew 12:14-21) were as helpless as they were evil, in the presence of the power of Jesus; the “smoking flax” of the wick of the lamp of their expiring religious life was as offensive as it was easily to be “quenched.” But if the “reed” is humbled at its weakness and sin, if the “smoking flax” will bear to be rekindled, Paul loves to restore such a one. His sin was a grievous offence; yet such a gross, but easily convinced and deeply penitent offender as this man of Corinth, is not the greatest sinner, nor the hardest to win and keep or recover for Christ. And all this not indistinctly outlines the judgment of God in Christ upon some “chief of sinners.”
II. The “tears of” Paul.—
1. In no letter do we get so near to Paul as in this “Second” to Corinth, or see and hear his very self. And, of all the letter, this is truer of no section more than of 2 Corinthians 1:23 to 2 Corinthians 2:11. First and foremost stand his “tears.” The Corinthians had imagined “a man lording it over their faith”; and all the while he was weeping over the loss of their love! They imagined, and maligned or decried, a self-seeking man, not above enriching himself and his companions and emissaries out of funds given to the Jerusalem poor (2 Corinthians 8:16-23); and all the while this “masterful,” “tyrannical,” “self-seeking” man was toiling at his tentmaking in Ephesus, and instead of arranging for an immediate visit was dictating to his amanuensis a letter [assuming with some that 2 Corinthians 1:4 alludes to an intermediate, “lost” letter], because, if he were to come, he must use an Apostolic severity of power such as he was unwilling to inflict upon those whom he had led to Christ, and whom he loved as only a spiritual father loves spiritual children. The unmarried [or widower], childless Paul is as tender as a mother. “I am only happy when I see you happy; I am sure that you are only happy when I am so; I could not bear to think of your making me unhappy by your own sorrow (2 Corinthians 1:3); I must have used the ‘rod’ if 1 had come, and I could not bear your tears.” This man, whose words thunder and flash lightnings, has written “out of much affliction and anguish of heart”; [and according to a strongly favoured interpretate of 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 was quite prostrated, overburdened, broken-hearted, fit for no work, nearly killed, by the tidings of their wrong-doing and of their factious jealousy against himself]. They thought, or said, that they found a man strong, stern, to the point of hardness; we know a man tender, tearful, perhaps even constitutionally timid [so Howson suggests: Character of St. Paul, lecture ii.; and if so, then naturally drawn to Timothy, around whom he so often in these letters throws the arm of his guaranteeing, guarding, strengthening love], doing all he did with a great and often violent strain upon himself, and all simply in the strength of the grace of God. It is imperfect manhood that cannot weep; and if in our undemonstrative, self-repressed days, tearful eyes be out of fashion for men, a perfect man will have a heart that can weep. Strong men are tender; tender men are strong. Their very tenderness is a helpful strength to many who lean upon them.
2. And, once more, as in the case of the Penitent Wrong-doer, there comes back the lesson to be very cautious in judgment. Naturally it is not easy for one who is smarting under the lash, to think very kind things of him who must needs wield it. The child hardly appreciates at the moment the love or wisdom which blames sharply or punishes severely. But the love is there. Do not sit in Corinth and hastily misread as a hard man Paul weeping at Ephesus. Experience shows, as it accumulates with years, how tender a heart may guide a stern tongue or move a strong hand. [See a tender delicate “weed” springing up from between the flagstones of a courtyard. Under those cold, hard stones its roots have found, and now witness to, soft, moist soil, where it may nourish its strength. So, see a strong, rough-spoken man bending over a fallen child to pick it up, perhaps with an awkward kiss before he carries it to a place of safety. That kiss is the “weed” which tells of the tender heart underneath the stone-cold, stone-hard surface of the manner and the life. That man is not wholly bad. These few verses—even these two, 3, 4—with their “tears,” are precious; they reveal the true Paul to us, as we should not have known him from the Acts, nor from the First Epistle to Corinth. How many a worker must be content to go forward year after year misread, misjudged, and feeling in some degree crippled in his usefulness by the wrong estimate formed of him by those to whom he would be useful!
3. May we not rise higher, with the suggestion of Paul’s “tears” whilst he writes words of sharp rebuke, to help us? From Paul’s tears may we not rise to the tears of Christ, and, yet higher, once more to the heart of God? By no forced or chance analogy. Paul, like every Christian man, of necessity reproduces more or less perfectly his Pattern, because the Spirit of Christ is within him the Life of his life, the Former of his character. And “he that hath seen” Christ “hath seen the Father.” We remember how Christ once at least “looked around” on a gathering in a Capernaum synagogue with a holy “anger” in His eyes (Mark 3:5); but the sentence continues, “being grieved with the hardness of their hearts.” The wail of disappointed love cries, “How often would I have gathered.… Ye would not”; but words of stern, irrevocable doom follow: “Your house is left unto you desolate.” As we see them in the “Son who has revealed Him,” anger and grief are never far apart in God. He has no love for inflicting pain. He has no love for the future punishment of creatures whom He has made. If it must be—if they make it a necessity—it must and will be. Holiness must be vindicated; sin is a peril to the good order, and so to the happiness, of the universe. “He must reign,” even if this must mean “enemies put beneath His feet.” But one can believe that there are tears in the heart of the very Judge, as He sets some “on the left hand” for whom He shed His blood. One may almost venture reverently to imagine Him following them as they “depart,” with His word, “Ye would not, ye would not, come to Me that ye might have life!” [Can we not see in His face the sorrow of the love of Christ, as He follows with His eyes the departing young ruler, so lovable, and yet so unready for “eternal life”? (Luke 18:23-24).] Men say of God, “I know Thee, that Thou art hard, … reaping where,” etc. (Matthew 25:34). But they “know” God as little as the Corinthians knew Paul, the man of “many tears.” They do not know Him, as they may see Him, if they will, in Christ.
III. Paul the pastor.—
1. How careful he is that his motives should be understood. “I call God for a record upon my soul,” etc. Quite consistent with all said above (under 2 Corinthians 1:17 sqq.), that his personal character, and what they thought of it and of him, were only matters of concern so far as they might be supposed to affect their estimate of the Gospel he preached, or of the Christ Who is the very heart and burden of it. And quite consistent also with the words of the Divine Legislator for “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:37). Paul is not a “yes and no” man; but his word here is not simply, “Yea, yea; nay, nay.” He strengthens it with an affirmation (cf. Romans 1:9) which one could have supposed too serious for “a mere personal matter” like this, his motive in making a change in his itinerary. The Master had said, “Whatsoever is more than these”—the plain “yes” and “no”—“cometh of evil.” In a world of evil, where men are evil, and where sin has put the relations of social intercourse so much out of joint, a strengthened “Yea” or “Nay” may be inevitable. And in this particular instance it is no “merely personal matter.” It is for the Gospel’s sake still. A pastor’s good understanding with his people is to him a power which he can use for their sakes. If they distrust his character, or lose confidence in his word, he will be of little use to them. A transparent simplicity of act and word and motive will give him a hold upon their hearts, if even they question, or differ from, his judgment. But such a protest as this, such a purgation of himself on oath, is a rare thing; Paul’s normal attitude is in 1 Corinthians 4:3,—“A small thing with me that I,” etc. Since, however, those words were written, new circumstances had arisen, which wrung from him this protest, for his people’s sake even more than for his own. Says the Great Shepherd: “I know My sheep, and am known of Mine!” Paul wants his flock to know him.
2. Not a lord over faith, but a helper of joy.—
(1) They are believers; even these Corinthians are (2 Corinthians 1:24). He is only a believer himself; in Christ, as man and man, every Corinthian and he have the same standing. Their faith is the vital link holding them to Christ; every man believes alone—by and for himself. It is his own unshared act. And the status in Christ is retained by believing; it may be forfeited by sin—sin which is fatal to faith, because grieving to the Spirit by Whose help alone men do, or can, savingly believe. If not, “if we (continue to) walk in the light as He is.… We have fellowship, and the blood … cleanseth,” etc.; with a continuous efficacy it puts a bar between us and our native guilt, and we retain our new status of grace. We are “justified by faith,” and by the same faith “we have our access into grace whereby we stand” (Romans 5:1-2) and “rejoice.” The grafting into Christ, the abiding in Christ, the joy in Christ,—all hinge upon faith. No Paul, nor any other wise pastor, will venture to “lord” it over the life of faith. “One is Master, even Christ; the rest are all brethren” (Matthew 23:8).
(2) But it is brotherly in the highest degree to help the “joy” of another. “To add sunshine to daylight,” as Wordsworth says, is no small honour to a successful pastor. To be able so to bring a living, bright, realised Christ near to them, as that fear gives place to rest, and gloom to joy; so to be used to open up Scripture, with its teachings as to the “style” of life possible to, becoming in, provided for, children of God, as that they rise to the higher level, and with a glad and free heart, which has lost everything of merely obligatory and mechanical, all sense of bondage and constraint, in religion, go forward, “glad in the Lord”; by his own testimony and experience, so to be helpful as to clear away difficulties, and to encourage and embolden fearful hearts to hope for more, and to dare more, in the life of godliness;—it may well be an ambition of a worthy pastor, as, when won, it will be a cause of unspeakable thankfulness.
IV. The pastor exercising discipline.—
1. He does it in the spirit just sketched out,—not as a lord, but as a helper. A pure Church is a glad Church. Offences purged away, Achans sought out and put away, then conquests and work proceed apace, and all share the joy of success. If also discipline be exercised upon the individual, it is not for his destruction, or even for his exclusion, but for his recovery from his fall, and his restoration to his place in Christ; and thus is really working towards the joy of even the offender. It might be difficult, without undue straining, to find any analogical suggestion of God or Christ in Paul’s disclaimer of “lordship” over their faith; though when we remember how sacredly the liberty of the will is guarded in all the relations between God and man, and how that most Godlike characteristic of the human personality is (may we say?) so “respected” by God Himself, that all the loving, mighty constraint used by the Spirit of God, when endeavouring to lead a man to Christ, always stops short of compulsion; and when we remember how, assisted though it be by the grace of God, the act of believing is a man’s own, for which he is responsible; we might almost say that God Himself has chosen to refrain from exercising lordship over men’s faith. There would be no morality, no value to Him, in a compelled believing, or in a compulsory creed—a thing which, if accepted at all, must be accepted by a hypocrite or a machine. He would not care for the offering of such a faith. So far as there is surrender to His yoke, it is the surrender of a convinced understanding or of an instructed heart. But it needs no forcing of analogy to see God as the supreme “helper of” His people’s “joy,” even when exercising the discipline of rebuke and sharp chastening. It is the happy paradox of the Christian life: “Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.” “We ‘exult’ in tribulations also, knowing that,” etc. (James 1:2; Romans 5:3). If the foundation of the Christian character be right, if the heart be sound toward God, then all His providential discipline of habit and character, all the keen pruning away of excrescences and blemishes, everything which smites, and delivers from, sin,—all work together for a holiness which is, in part, joy. “The happy God” [so literally 1 Timothy 1:11; 1 Timothy 6:15] works towards His own happiness in His children. He loves to have them “rejoice evermore”; it is part of His “will in Christ Jesus concerning them” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). “That your joy may be full” is a distinct desire and purpose of that Son, Who in all things has revealed to us the Father, by what Himself is, quite as much as by what He says about the Fattier (John 16:24). Cf. also John 17:13 : “That they might have My joy fulfilled in themselves.” The pastoral office of the Great Shepherd may not infrequently demand words as sharp, and discipline as severe, as those of Paul the pastor towards his Corinthians; but it aims at their joy. Their religious life can never realise fully how the “fruit of the Spirit is … joy,” if there be, in any degree or form, sin. Yet He would have their life not a restraint, or a series of self-denials, or a round of stern obligations, nor even a hoping and striving forward and upward, without ever being quite satisfied; but, rather, a “joyous” life, full of assurance and buoyancy and victory. Indeed, the “joy” is not only a thing desirable in itself; it is a means to something yet more desirable. “The joy of the Lord is strength” to the Lord’s people, as certainly now as in the days of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8:10). It is a view of the Heavenly Father as unworthy and untrue as was the Corinthian view of Paul, to imagine Him without care for His people’s happiness. He is not the God to grudge “joy” to His creatures. They should not think of Him as, if anything, predisposed to take away rather than to give; as likely to meet their devotion to Him of themselves and of all they are and have, by a demand for the surrender of something very dear. He cares for their holiness first; if that can be secured, and yet even their natural “joy” be untouched or enhanced, He will assuredly so order it, in His disposition of their life. Holiness is before all; but joy through holiness is certain; and He will always work towards this, with a minimum of discipline and of pain. Did this passage in the letter so reveal the heart of the real Paul to the Corinthian Church that they doubted, or maligned him, no more? “Do believe it, brethren, that in writing as I did, and in all I have done for you, I desired to be a helper of your joy.” If His people will look into the heart of God, as it has been laid bare to them in the words and work, and in the very self, of His Son, they will see in Him also One Who by all His dealings with them heartily desires their joy. And when at last they “enter into the joy of their Lord” (Matthew 25:21), the “good and faithful servants” will be realising the fulfilment of all their Divine Master’s purposes and leading in their life.
2. He delays, and is reluctant to exercise discipline at all. “To spare you, I came not as yet,” etc.—Here again is a trait of that God in Christ Whom Paul, as it were, reproduces, as a consequence of the union, the unifying, the real fellowship of life, which are his “in Christ.” Anybody can drive away or cut off a sheep from the flock (Ezekiel 34:4, etc.; John 10:12). The “Wolf” can do that admirably; it is his work. “We are not ignorant of his devices.” If he could have picked up this poor Corinthian thrust out of the fold, nothing would have served his turn better than an excessive discipline, carried beyond what the repentance of the offender now had made necessary. Accordingly, Paul would have the Corinthian Church follow the lead of his own action towards them as a whole. “A minimum of discipline, brethren, and that reluctant, and delayed. Take your penitent back again. You have chastened him sufficiently. Your concurrent (2 Corinthians 1:6) censure has had its effect. He is in danger of being swallowed up by the very excess of the sorrow of his repentant shame. You have been yourselves put to the test.” [As every case of wrongdoing in a Church does put the members to the test. What is their attitude towards sin? What towards this particular sin? Can it be said by their Lord, “Ye cannot bear them which are evil”? (Revelation 2:1, of the very Ephesus from which Paul is writing). Is there that sure sign of health in a body, that it is restless, and cannot suffer a wound to heal up, so long as any diseased bone or foreign body lodged in its tissues is unexpelled?] “I wanted [did not their Lord also desire?] to see whether you felt with me about such sin, and whether, indeed, my word would command your obedience.” [Not “lording it over” them, indeed, yet “having rule,” such rule as a shepherd must needs exercise over a flock (Hebrews 13:7; Hebrews 13:17).] “You have stood the test well. Now we must not play the game of Satan, and leave to him a soul for his prey. Restore the man; confirm your love toward him. As little discipline as possible; as little putting away as possible. That was in my heart towards yourselves, when I changed my route, and did not come direct to you. I did not want to be necessitated to visit sharply sin such as I should have found if I had come then, but which you now have put away.” It is wise pastoral policy, it is wise paternal rule in a family, as it is wise political government, to govern as little as possible, to punish as seldom as possible, to aim at recovery and restoration rather than penal infliction or exclusion. It is the wisdom, it is the heart of “a good shepherd;” it is once more the heart of God. Again the analogy needs no forcing, and it is based upon a real unity of purpose and life. As the weeping pastor at Ephesus, so the patient, but often deeply grieved, Father in heaven: “To spare you I came not,” etc. Hear Him speaking of old: “I will not be always wroth, for the spirit should fail before me, and the souls which I have made” (Isaiah 57:16). “The longsuffering of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Remembering the holy intensity of God’s necessary antagonism [“hatred”] to sin; remembering the flagrant, and insolent, offence to His holiness which every day goes up to Him from earth; remembering the fearful propagatory power of evil and of the prolonged life of an evil-doer; do not men naturally wonder that the just Judge “bears so long,” not only with His people, to whom all this sin is an offence, a temptation, a trial, and sometimes an acute and oppressive persecution, but with the evildoers themselves? (Luke 18:7). When men have seen some culminating and outrageous piece of cruelty, or treachery, or fraud committed, have they not primâ facie reason to say, as the wrong-doer seems not only to escape penalty, but even to prosper as the fruit of his sin, “Him doth God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” [Psalms 73:11; but note that the question has in that verse a boldly unbelieving turn and tone given to it]. God can afford to wait, and to be silent, however misunderstood and misjudged. [“Patiens, quia æternus” (Augustine).] And His answer to His Church in the day of His own vindication will be: “To spare the sinners, I came not,” etc. It is the appeal of His forbearance to the individual sinner. Why was he not cut off, cast off, the very first time he deliberately, and with clear understanding of his act, refused to obey the will or call of God? Why did not a stroke of judgment make his first sin his last—at any rate, his last on earth? “To spare thee, I came not,” etc. Judgment must come some day. God’s patience is holy, and therefore cannot be infinite. But holy wrath lingers. “The times of this ignorance God winked at, but now,” etc. (Acts 17:30). How often has Paul’s turning aside from a visitation, which could have had no room in it for anything but punishment, been reproduced on a scale of Divine enlargement of love and patience, in His turning aside from the sinner, desiring that respite and delay might mean a repentance which should make judgment needless, and mercy and restoration possible to the Divine Love?
V. The pastor’s absolution.—Two Gospel passages underlie, or are well illustrated by, 2 Corinthians 1:7; 2 Corinthians 10:1. In Matthew 18:18 a power of “binding” and “loosing” is made one of the prerogatives of the Church of Christ within its own borders. To whom is such a power to sit in judgment upon their fellow-men to be entrusted? To even “two or three,” if they be “met in [unto] the name” of their Lord; in which case He also is with them “in the midst,” and thus, with Him, two or three—with no restriction to apostles or “official” members—are a quorum which may form an assembly of the Church, valid for discipline whether to bind or loose sentence and penalty. Inherent in the whole body,—for the terms are perfectly general,—it may be from time to time, and from case to case, specially localised in the particular Church, or even in the two or three along with whom is the Fourth, the First, the Lord. [So John 20:22-23, spoken, both as to mission and disciplinary power, to a much larger company than “the twelve.”] Accordingly “the many” at Corinth had “inflicted the punishment.” It is “ye forgive”; Paul follows the lead, or adopts the act, of the Church. There is no need to suppose that, even at a date so early, there were not elders, or officers of some sort, at Corinth, who in the disciplinary action would be the mouthpiece of the Church. But convenience and seemly order, not principle, would govern and dictate such a specialisation of function. Their forgiveness would be the forgiveness of the whole Church. The Church has acted, without waiting for Paul, or even for his directions to forgive the man.
2.Matthew 17:19-20; Matthew 17:19-20 is also in his mind. Rather, it is his working theory of discipline in the Church, as was seen in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5. The gathering which he there instructed them to arrange for, in regard to this very offender, was to be composed of the Church, plus Paul’s “spirit,” plus the power of the presence of “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Then their discipline became the discipline of Christ; and now that they have forgiven, Paul concurs and forgives, just as if he had been actually with them. But the forgiveness of the Church, met “in that Name,” and the forgiveness of Paul thus exercised to ratify theirs, are neither ecclesiastical nor sacerdotal, but representative; it is, as it were, “in the person of Christ” [to keep to the translation which falls in so perfectly with the passage in the Gospels and that in the preceding Epistle]. As in the original enactment of this power of “binding” and “loosing,” the act is His Who is “in their midst,” answering by His very presence and direction the prayer for guidance, as touching which the little company have “agreed to ask.” Christ is the supreme and sole fount of forgiveness. All human forgiveness is declaratory only. The priest who “cleansed” the leper [Psalms 51:2, “cleanse me”; the quasitechnical word for the act of the priest in such a case] could only declare him physically clean, and give official recognition to the fact that ipso facto he had become released from all the restrictions binding on a leper. “Loosing” him meant declaring him “loosed.” It is a pastoral absolution; the forgiveness of a shepherd who cares most that a sheep shall not be thrust into the power of Satan, the master of many “devices,” subtle as of old.
2 Corinthians 2:12. Troas.—Acts 20:1-6. Note, “for the Gospel,” literally exact. Door.—Cf. 1 Corinthians 16:9, and material there.
2 Corinthians 2:13.—See Homily, “Conqueror; Captives; Incense.” Assumed in the homiletics, with most, that, although festive processions in honour of Bacchus are closely connected with the earliest root of the word “triumph,” yet the word had been borrowed and was in common use for the triumph of a victorious Roman general; which Roman triumph, moreover, alone supplies the figure with the touch of “incense.” [See these points, and nearly all others, dealt with in the various homilies which follow.] Cf. Luke 20:18. “Men must build with the Stone, or be crushed beneath it.” Also Luke 2:24. “This Child is set … for the fall and for the rising again of many.” Men fall, or rise, whenever they come into contact with Christ in a faithful Gospel. [Happily, all who rise have first “fallen.” The “fall” is the first thing. Men may do both; they must, in order to a full salvation.] The triumph of Memmius, a century earlier, after the sack of Corinth, had been a very remarkable and famous triumph, certain to be in the minds of Paul’s readers.
HOMILETIC ANALYSIS.—2 Corinthians 2:12-17
(Nearly all the details of interpretation of 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 will be found more fully taken up in the detailed Homiletics which follow.)
I. “Paul turning away from ‘an open door’!”—
1. A marvel! This is the man who in his former letter could not leave his work at Ephesus because there was “a great door and effectual” opened to him (1 Corinthians 16:9). In this very Troad and its neighbourhood he had on a former journey tried many “doors,” only to find that they were not “open”; closed against him by the “Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:6-8). Now the door was open, and apparently he did enter and begin his work, and in a brief while with much success; for on the return journey from Corinth he found a little Church in Troas with whom he spent the Sunday (Acts 19:5-12). Yet he put his work down, left the open door, and in “restlessness” of spirit, and in anxiety about Corinth, from which there came no tidings, he crossed over into the Macedonian region to meet Titus, as he hoped, the sooner [as he, in fact, did (2 Corinthians 7:6)].
2. Such a detail, with its self-revelation, has no small value from the point of view of the historical student. Just such touches as these make it impossible, without a scepticism which puts the sceptic altogether out of court, as not deserving to be listened to, to doubt that we are dealing with a document historically veracious to the last degree, the real letter of a real man, of the date which is professed and claimed; with all the evidential consequences which flow from the genuineness and the contemporary testimony of such a letter from such a competent witness. Such details are important credentials of a revelation which is nothing if not historic.
3. But they are parts of the revelation.—God reveals His mind partly in selected histories and biographies, “stories with a purpose,” those points being brought out in the telling which best help the purpose of the Divine Narrator. Plainly, then, the highest type of worker is not above “moods” and almost uncontrollable emotion; such moods and deep emotion as may unsettle him, and even render it impossible for him to continue his work. “The peace of God which is to guard heart and thoughts” (Philippians 4:7), standing sentry, as it were, at the heart’s door and preventing the entrance of distressing or mischievous thought, is no such mechanical defence as to produce mere insensibility. There is in perfect service no such mechanical labour, no such mechanical fulfilment of duty, as might be got from a machine wound up to do a set task, and going rigorously through with it, without interest or without feeling. “But, Paul cannot you trust your work at Corinth in the hands of your Master? After all, is it not more His work than yours? You did your part at Corinth whilst you lived there; you have done your part in this unhappy business about the incestuous man, by writing your letter and by sending Titus. Cannot you now leave the issues, and go quietly on with your work? We know, indeed, that your personal stake in the matter is not small, but we know, too, that your reputation has long ago been put into the hands of your Lord. What the Corinthians will have thought and done, when they got your letter, whether they will obey you, or whether this will have inflamed the factious party into fresh opposition, or even have given them a means of bringing over to their side some who have hitherto been ‘of Paul,’—we know how little you regard this for your own sake. Cannot you ‘rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him’? and meanwhile work on, within this open door in the Troad?” There is nothing in such thoughts which is not truth, and the high privilege of the life consecrated so entirely to Christ that everything in it, like the man himself, is Christ’s, not his own. No life was ever more utterly removed from all self-centering thought or work or care than was Paul’s: “to him to live was ‘Christ.’ ” Yet we love him none the worse, nor is he the less valuable a detail of God’s revealed will on such matters, that his very example here checks all unhealthy and exaggerated application of such truths as were just now suggested. There is not the rigid support of, and compliance with, a relentless code which takes no account of human nature. In the illustrative and didactic instance which Paul supplies there is the perfect naturalness and elasticity of simple, real life. No man more certainly than he would subordinate all personal considerations to the interests of the work of Christ. But neither did His Lord expect him not to feel, to feel acutely, to feel with a depth of emotion which was a real disqualification for going on with his work in Troas. We serve a profoundly reasonable Master, Who knows exactly how much to expect from His servants, of submission in days of sorrow, of acquiescence in days of disappointment, of peace and rest as well as trust in days when, naturally, circumstances would keep brain and heart in a whirl of anxiety, or strained to their utmost tension. After all, the work of Christ at Corinth was the main thing at stake. To this, even in Paul’s mind, everything else stood second. We love Paul none the less, nor did his Lord, we may well believe, condemn him, that his distress turned him away from “an open door.”
II. Paul in the train of Christ’s triumph.—
1. Such details as we have been studying are part of God’s Revelation, taken up into it, made the vehicle of a distinct addition to our knowledge of the mind of God, and of His will on such questions of the practical conduct of Christian men. So, similarly, such changes of plan, hingeing on such trivial occasions, are all parts of the progress of the Gospel. They are all contributory to the great plan of campaign, according to which Christ is subduing the world to Himself. They all fall in with the movement of His march to ultimate victory over “things in earth” (Philippians 2:10). They are small details of a great progress whose goal is the day when it shall be proclaimed that “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of God’s Christ” (Revelation 11:5). It is a progress which seems often retarded. The ground occupied in this very Asia and Troas and Macedonia, is hardly retained for Him to-day. It is often difficult for faith to see any movement at all; more difficult to see any plan at all. The faith which does see the plan, and hold fast to its hope in the triumph, is a grace, the gift of the “Spirit of faith.” It is one subordinate manifestation of the supreme faith, which that Spirit also alone gives, that “Jesus is the Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). If that truth be grasped, all else is held. “We see not yet all things put under Him. Though the name of Christ rises ever more loudly above the tumult, the day of victory seems far off. But by the Holy Ghost we know that ‘nothing which ought not to be need be.’ We look back and see forms of evil dead—it may be dead for ever. Evil itself lives, and may even seem after some triumph of good to close in more pitilessly than before, but to those who take the large outlook it is clear that progress is being made. To say that the fight is hopeless is to deny the Lordship of Christ.… There is danger unfathomable and unending in admitting that any wrong is inevitable, that anything is too hard for the Lord” (Editorial, British Weekly, October 26th, 1893). Every conversion has this significance and this importance to the history of the very world itself, that one more life which lay athwart, or ran counter to, the line of the movement of the will of God, and the progress of King Jesus to His final and universal victory, is brought into parallelism, and moves with the Divine movement. And then, all the details of that life, all its activities and aims, in proportion as they are pervaded with the spirit of consecrated service and are made a perpetually renewed offering to Christ, for His service and glory, become details in the triumph of the Great Conqueror. In the old phrase, all such turnings away from Troas and crossings over into Macedonia, are “overruled” for the advantage of the work of God. At the least, the “knowledge of Christ and its savour” are thus “made manifest” in a greater number of cities and centres. No man is on that account to indulge “moods” and “feelings”; to pick up this work, or lay down the other, according as he may, or may not, “feel in the spirit of it”; to enter one door “because he is happy in the work” there, and turn aside from another, or quit it, when he has entered it, because “he was not happy.” But Paul’s quick faith triumphs over the record and the memory of his keen distress at Troas. “It is all right! Thank God! The triumph moves on nevertheless. And we with it! Glory be to God!”
2. The triumph sweeps everybody into its course.—There are no mere spectators. Paul was an enemy once. He is a trophy of the Great Imperator now. He is indeed (by a quick transformation) a soldier sharing, in some humble part, the triumph. It is Christ’s triumph, indeed. The Lord is the Centre of the spectacle. But every subaltern and private is the object of somebody’s regard; to them, he is triumphing. To himself, at any rate, he is triumphant. Nobody who comes into contact with Christ remains indifferent. Triumphed over, and that only, and dragged onward “to death”; or triumphed over, and led onward, triumphing also, “to life.” If Christ’s triumph “comes our way,” we must, in one way or another, “fall in.” To Paul himself the “savour,” so far as he knew of it, was once “of death, unto death”; now “the savour” of his living Lord—not lying dead or corrupting in Joseph’s new tomb—was “of life,” as, himself “saved by the Lords life” (Romans 5:10) and diffusing a Gospel “of life” wherever he went, he moved onward “to life,” “to lay hold of the life which is Life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:19).
III. Paul a genuine man dispensing a genuine Gospel.—
1. Other men might, and did, use an incense whose “savour” was not simply and only “of Christ.” There was in most cases much of Christ in it, or at least something. [Even the men at Rome who were preaching with “by-motives, not sincerely,” and indeed in a spirit “of contention,” were at least so “preaching Christ” that Paul rejoiced at their work, though only with a modified joy and satisfaction (Philippians 1:18).] Whilst they bade men “Come buy and eat” (Isaiah 55:1), there was adulteration in their bread, there was admixture in their wine. [The “milk” was not “the sincere milk of the Word” (1 Peter 2:2).] Like dishonest hucksters, for their own gain, or at best for some personal satisfaction, they dealt in a “Word of God” which was not “incorrupt” [Titus 2:7; but quite another word and figure from that of the text here]. Jewish admixture everywhere; half-heathen, childish superstition in Colosse; rationalising treatment of fundamental truths at Corinth; “many” dealt deceitfully with the Word they preached. [See Homiletics on “Charity,”1 Corinthians 13:5; 1 Corinthians 13:5, “thinketh no evil.”] By-motives in the preaching, even if the truth preached were tolerably pure. “Many!” What a view of “Primitive Christianity”! [Shall the figure be pushed so far as to suggest that some diffusers of the incense try so to compound it that it shall not be a “savour of death,” even to the “natural” man? Try so to flavour the wine that the “natural” palate likes it, or at least makes no great objection to it?]
2. Not so Paul.—He returns to the protest he made in 2 Corinthians 1:12, that his whole character and conduct had been at the uttermost remove from any of the self-seeking, the vacillation, or tricky change of purpose with which he was charged at Corinth. But he lifts the whole matter of his personal vindication up to a higher level here than there. Then he protested his “sincerity” as between himself and them; here he protests it in respect of his dealing with “the Word.” Yet even on that lower level it was a “sincerity of God,” which he here also claims; his phrases here analysing that of the earlier verse. He speaks in God’s hearing, conscious of a Listener before Whom he stands, seen through and through, heard through and through. No falsehood of heart but will ring in the voice, to that Ear! No unsoundness, no evil admixture, in his teaching can escape the scrutiny of that Eye. The Great Analyst knows that he does not deal falsely with the Gospel, the “Word of God” put into his mouth to speak. He can “call God to witness upon his soul,” he said (2 Corinthians 1:23). He can lay bare his inmost heart and thought, and challenge that scrutiny. He may well do so, for his “sincerity” is a grace, a gift “of God” by His Spirit. Happy that teacher of Divine truth who is sustained under calumny, or in the midst of misunderstanding, by such a confidence! “The Lord God of gods, the Lord God of gods, he knoweth, and Israel he shall know” (Joshua 22:22). Happy if he never be betrayed into conduct in his office, if never a word come from his lips, concerning which he needs to falter as he faces his own conscience, and concerning which also, as far as man may, he may not look up into the face of God, and claim even His witness that he has not knowingly dealt falsely with his trust, “the Word” which has been given to him to administer. What a check upon everything but supreme loyalty to God’s Truth! What a defence against temptation to man-pleasing! And against self-pleasing! And against any dishonest retailing of old formulas which, rightly or wrongly, no longer represent a man’s beliefs! Honesty, honesty, before all things honesty, in the man who deals with the honest, genuine “Word of God”! Is any most unprincipled, adulterating tradesman so base as the man who adulterates the Bread by which men Live, the “Word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God”? Let the world have at least that as genuine as the apostle, the prophet, the teacher, can give it. This sincere man deals out a genuine Gospel.
2 Corinthians 2:14-16. The triumph; the Captives; the Incense.—[Probably, if not certainly, imagery derived from a Roman triumph.] One of the grandest spectacles of ancient world. All Rome kept holiday; everybody in the streets. Sometimes the show for three whole days winding its way along up to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. All ranks and ages watching the long procession hour after hour, with unflagging interest. The Victorious Army, with the spoil heaped up upon long trains of waggons; piles of gold and silver coin; magnificent dresses and ornaments; statues and pictures, such as Memmius had carried off from plundered Corinth; arms and armour from the battle-field. Then the Captives; of strange garb and look and speech. Then the Conqueror, the man of the Day. Not seldom, in golden fetters, bound to, and walking behind, his chariot, the unhappy general, or king, or queen of the conquered foes; often overwhelmed with ridicule, reproach, abuse, by the merciless, civilised brutality of the spectators. The procession moved along amidst clouds of Incense; many in the procession swung censers; burning braziers of charcoal fed with it along the line of route; a fragrance grateful to all! No, not to all. To some of those captives the fate appointed at the end of the day is Death. To the public eye the end of the spectacle will be the conqueror’s sacrifice in the temple of Jupiter. To the victorious troops, dismissal with rewards, each to become a hero in his little home circle. To the mass of captives, slavery, but life. To the condemned ones, death in the rock-hewn dungeons close by the Capitoline Hill. To these the “grateful” incense smells foul as the breath of a charnel-house. To all besides, “a sweet savour,” a “savour of life,” as they move on towards, at least life, if not liberty. To these “a savour of death,” as they move onwards “unto death.” [Most of these points are used in the passage; with some confusion of metaphor, or rather an intentional change in the use of the illustration, characteristic of Paul.]
I. What a Christian’s life is to himself.—
1. He is being led, by God, from place to place, in the triumphal procession of Christ. Paul is writing from Macedonia. At Troas, just before, he had found “an open door,” but had, strangely, turned away from it and had crossed over into Europe. Such a sudden change and movement was a sample of his life. “Found no rest for his spirit” in Troas; found no rest for his body anywhere! His life was an incessant movement. Antioch one day; Ephesus almost the next; Ephesus to Corinth; Corinth to Jerusalem; Jerusalem to Rome—the other end of the world of that day! Traversing the Roman Empire in journeys which were rather flights than journeys. To us it seems a wearing, restless, anxious life. To him God’s hand was in all such changes. Even a trivial change like this in question is part of God’s will and plan for Paul’s life. He accepted all such incessant change with acquiescence; indeed, with thankfulness and rejoicing. “Thanks be to God” who is thus leading him about from place to place in the train of the triumph of Jesus Christ! He only waits to know where God would have him go next. He follows gladly, since he follows Christ!
2. So for every Christian man. In every change of station, of circumstances, of abode, he should seek and follow the leading of God. Then even the most perplexing, harassing diversion from his own plans will be no matter of chafing discontent and fretful irritation, but of glorying acquiescence in the plan of God.
3. How grand this makes even the humblest life! The procession, the train of Christ’s triumph, is moving onward with majestic march, swelling in numbers as it advances. He is sweeping onward in triumph; the humblest of His people is moving on in triumph with Him—onward to the consummate day of His triumph.
4. From place to place he is being exhibited as one of Christ’s trophies. Grammatically, it may be either, “Maketh us to triumph,” or “Triumpheth over us.” Both are true. He is shown in the triumph; he shares in the triumph. The army and the captives are here one and the same company. Christ has been God’s General, sent to reduce rebellious earth to submission. Began the war single-handed. Every slain enemy becomes a living helper and a soldier. Other conquerors begin with an army, and lessen or lose it as the war proceeds. Our Captain began without an army, and wins and makes one as the war goes on. Has no victorious army but of conquered captives. Every enemy who submits, falls into the ranks of those who obey His command. The marvel of the mercy of the Gospel this. Every soldier has been an enemy. Rebels not only forgiven and allowed to live, but enlisted, and richly rewarded for service. Those over whom Christ triumphs, triumph with Him in His march to heaven. By-and-by, when He enters in glory through the “everlasting doors” the “King of Glory,” they shall appear with Him in, and with Him enter into, glory.
5. The victory of a Christian is the victory of one first vanquished. A soul’s victory begins in Christ’s victory over it. “Thanks to God who triumphs over us in Christ, for in Christ He makes us to triumph with Christ too!”
II. What a Christian’s life is to God.—
1. A grand exhibition of His conquering power, but also of His gracious heart in Christ towards all who submit. His method of advertising, of diffusing “in every place, the knowledge of Christ.” Paul a consummate example of this principle. Did his worst in rebellion against God’s Christ. A pre-eminent persecutor; a zealot of the zealots. Then what a change! Preaches the faith he once destroyed; preaches it, as he persecuted it, “unto strange cities” (Acts 26:11). Paul was in himself a fact which was a consummate testimony for Christ. In himself he was text and preacher and sermon. [“A pattern,” 1 Timothy 1:15-16.] To see Paul was to see what Christ could do. Not only his preaching, but his exhibition in this place and that, a captive chained to the chariot of Christ, was diffusing “the knowledge of Christ in every place.” If God be pleased so to use him, so to lead him hither and thither, he acquiesces, he glories. [Same turn of thought in 2 Corinthians 10:5. Read Paul, and see how this Rabbi’s whole system of thought—doctrinal, exegetical, ethical—wears the bonds of Christ. “Every thought led captive.” See Homilies, in loco.]
2. A work for God within the reach of all. Let Christ conquer; put His yoke upon natural pride, anger—“natural” everything; subdue, in business, home, all; then let God exhibit the man, parade him up and down the world, an example of His conquering power, His matchless grace. The great business of life. After some great change in life, involving a new home, perhaps, a new surrounding, a new beginning in everything; thrust, perhaps into an unintended, unexpected, unwelcome destination; after the earliest, inevitable, adjustment to the new conditions in which life to be spent, livelihood to be won, then ask: “Why am I put here? I have been led here in the train of Christ’s triumph, to diffuse here the knowledge of Christ.” A purpose that, to which every other stands second. “To be a savour.” Anybody can swing, can be, a censer! Men see the smoke of the incense. Cannot see the “savour.” Invisible, impalpable, unmistakable! So, how fine to meet these about whose every act, word, movement, hangs something defying analysis, impalpable, intangible, unmistakable, and all Christ! Nothing so much appeals to a non-Christian. [A “sweet savour.” Would that it were always sweet! Religion real, obvious, respected, in some Christians, but not “sweet.”] “Of Christ;” this important. Many lives, lovely, beloved, giving out a sweet savour. What is wanting? The trained “scent” of the spiritual man misses something from the incense! Christ wanting!
III. What a Christian’s life is to others.—
1. Everybody will not like the incense even when its savour is loveliest, perfect. To the captives it made all the difference whether it were the accompaniment of the march “to life,” or the march “to death.”
2. Note the sharp division of mankind into “those that are being saved”; and “those that are [now] perishing.” Here a ready test is provided. When a man comes across the “savour” of the incense, does he like it—or not? To “those who are perishing” the Gospel is loathsome as death. Is full of “death.” A dead (“crucified”) Christ; “dead in sins”; “dead to sin”; “dead with Christ.” A “savour of death” seemed to such to hang about all Paul’s preaching.
3. More than that, the Christian man and his testimony help “to life,” or help “to death.” No man can be neutral in the presence of Christ, or of the Gospel, or of a true Christian. Better—or worse—for knowing even one such. [Like his Lord, every Christian man is “come for judgment” (John 9:39). I.e. inevitably forces every man with whom associated, to take up an attitude, for or against, God and Christ; is inevitably a present test of character; necessarily ranges men as either “unto life” or “unto death.”] Well may Paul add, “Who is sufficient?” The issues, the responsibility, of a life full of the savour of Christ are terrible! How much more of one where the testimony is marred by inconsistency, the “savour” mingled with what is not “of Christ”!
2 Corinthians 2:16. “Who is sufficient?”
I. The minister of the Gospel speaks in these words, as they stand in the Epistle. But they leap to the lips, they are the sigh of the deepest heart, of many another besides a minister.—There are responsibilities for all. There is no worthy life which has none. The self-sufficient heart that never feels them any burden, that in mere shallow light-heartedness, or slight-heartedness, feels itself at a moment’s notice “equal to anything,” that with the mechanical imperturbability of a Nasmyth steam-hammer is as ready without a misgiving “to forge an anchor as to crack a nut,” has no sense of the meaning of “Life.” The sense of insufficiency with which worthier souls must often go forward to meet and assume responsibilities, is one of the keenest and most daunting pains; none causes more exquisite suffering to a soul filled with a tender conscientiousness. Yet no worthy Man would purchase exemption, at the price of less sensitiveness or a duller conscience. But it makes, not dying but, living the awfully solemn thing. It is easier to die once, and “to die well” and to have done with it, than to live, “once” indeed also, but a “once” which is extended over twenty, forty, eighty years, at every point of which may be danger of failure, at every point responsibility, new burdens gathering as we go, old ones persistently pressing upon our heart, till life is often one long-drawn strain upon the brain and heart, themselves already tense with the sense of responsibility and of inadequacy. The solemnity of life is not that with untarrying pace it is leading to death—death which crowns all with a swift and irreversible “judgment”; nor that it is doing so much to determine what that death and its issues shall be. In the true view of life, it is a continuous thing, beginning here, but stretching on unbroken through the veil of “death,” into the unseen aud eternal. It is a continuous existence, in which dying is a momentary, and not the most important, incident, one of which the most that can be said is that it introduces to, and marks the commencement of, a new section of the new life—“new” because transacted in new conditions and surroundings. To a Christian man dying has been almost emptied of meaning, as well as of dread. It is not only that the “sting” is gone; the thing itself is practically “abolished” (2 Timothy 1:10). The eternal life has begun, but its real solemnity arises from the responsibilities of living, responsibilities before men and towards God. There are those, e.g.,
II. Of the individual.—
1. Nous mourrons seuls. One might say with equal truth, “We live alone.” “Thou art the man,” is the word of God, in all rebuke of sin, in all calls to duty, in all believing unto salvation, in the day of Christ’s judgment of men. God’s claims, our duties—with them each man has singly to do; for them each one of us must “give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). As in creation no two atoms really touch each other, so souls are essentially apart. There are collective duties for which there is a collective responsibility, of co-extensive area of incidence. But even then a personal responsibility accrues for the assuming of one’s own share in the collective work and obligation. In the end, everything comes back to the individual. “When I remember, in view of this, with what unmeasured powers our Creator has endowed us, and that I am not only responsible for what is done by them, but for what they might do if I rightly used them; when I remember that God has an unquestionable right to all my activities, all my thoughts, all my love; and when withal I am conscious of Sin and Satan so often engrossing and mastering me, that I am daily ‘robbing God’ (Malachi 3:8) upon His own earth, under His very eye,—in a word, when I think of all that I ought to do, and all that I ought to be, as contrasted with what I really am, I feel that, in the face of every fact concerning my responsibility as an individual merely, I may well exclaim with trembling, ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ ” Then there are responsibilities arising from—
2. His relationships.—“By connection with our fellow-men none of our old obligations to God are abrogated. There is not one code of morals for the man and another for the merchant, not one law for the individual and another for the statesman, warrior, king. All God’s claims are binding on us always—wrong is wrong, right is right, everywhere. By entering on new relationships we can never free ourselves from the moral laws that are authoritative upon us as individuals; on the contrary, new relationships create new responsibilities. Who can measure the responsibilities of a parent? To the father and mother of that infant are committed most of its preparation for the stern and deadly struggle with sin, which is to decide its eternal destiny. The privilege of training a child for a beautiful and true life here, and for a yet more beautiful and true life hereafter, is the most surpassingly glorious a parent’s heart can desire; the responsibility of having by lip or life ruined a child here, leaving it to wander, lost, homeless, for ever, will be the most crushing a parent’s heart can bear.” No father or mother who remembers how pliable and how delicate a thing is the young character, but will cry out, “Who is sufficient?” A single slip of the seal engraver’s tool, or too deep a cutting, may mar the labour of months. Parents are cutting an image in a most precious gem. A weight or a bond too many may give a warp to the young branch, which shall never be straightened out all life through. A wrong word or a wrong act may make its indelible mark upon the fearfully “spoilable” material, and yet so valuable, entrusted to us to work upon. And who can measure the responsibilities of a preacher? Men talk lightly of the preacher’s life, as if he had “light work, good position, good pay”! There is honour, truly. Every man worthy to be in the ranks of the ministry, understands the privilege of being the confidant and comforter of souls, and their helper in sorrow. It is no mean honour to be in an office where he may speak words welcome to weary hearts as water to the thirsty traveller in an Arabian desert, or words which may send on the hearer into the week of worry and toil with new energy and hope. To send away singing some heart that came sad; to say words which in another heart shall ring on many following days like a trumpet-call to duty; or which in a moment of danger shall recur to another, perhaps to a young man in his hour of temptation, like the gentle voice of a warning friend; to be permited to speak words which shall for many a day feed men and women as with supernatural strength, or which may even awaken some soul that is slumbering on, heedless of its high destiny and its awful progress toward eternity, marking the turning-point of a life,—all this is an honour angels might covet; the dignity of being God’s ambassador yields to none other. But the responsibility of it! If the congregation come and go and no soul be cheered, or fed, or warned; if no lesson be taught, and no impetus given to the good in any life; what then? The man’s “service” is a failure, if no heart is lifted to God, if the sheep turn away hungry still; if the children gather round their elder brother, and he give them the stone of mere lecturing, or the husks of mere brilliance. There is a partial failure if the hearer be only instructed, and not persuaded. The heart may be moved, the intellect satisfied; but, if the will be not moved? “Who is sufficient?” Men understand what it is in business to pay high salaries for trustworthiness and responsibility. Money, life, depend upon one man’s skill and judgment and fidelity, and men pay accordingly. But for how much “pay” will a man intelligently undertake to “watch for souls as one that must give account”? Stand at the great “Day” by a preacher confronted with a man once in his congregation who says, and truly, “I came hungry, or perplexed, or indifferent,—or under deep conviction of sin, and you had no word for me. I passed on; my disappointed heart made me sceptical. I doubted God, or hated Him.” Another, “I passed on, hardening under your powerless word, and now am lost.” Another, “I, too, passed on, and my convictions died away.” Certainly the responsibility of the loss of a soul never lies entirely at a preacher’s door. Every man knows that, at the very heart of the matter, the responsibility is his own, however others may have contributed to the conditions of his life. But if in that Day that minister says: “Ah! that was the day when I had made ‘scamped,’ hasty preparation; when in mere spiritual indolence my closet devotion had been slurred over, when my own tone was low, and I went into the pulpit powerless. It was my opportunity with that man; I was not that day the man to seize it. I am saved here; but he—” As those that must give account of the sermons of a year, of a ministry; and of that incessant ministry of pastoral and personal character. For how much “pay” will a man undertake this? Then, further, are to be added the considerations here specially pressing upon Paul. On the most faithful ministry of the most spiritual man hangs not only life, but death. Some hearers he will certainly not save; as certainly will their heart pervert his ministry into the occasion of “death.” “For judgment Christ came into the world,” etc. (John 9:39). “For judgment” is every man come into the world. Every man is a test of character, swift, decisive, inevitable, to every other man with whom he comes into contact. Goodness will reveal and help goodness; but it may awaken and irritate into hatred the evil which it finds. And the minister is a test, and his word is a test, to men and women. The more faithful he is to the ideal and the responsibility of his office, the more surely is he set for “judgment” amongst his fellows. Life and death hang upon mere individual living; who dares live? Life and death depend on parental wisdom and love; who dares train a child? Life and death hang upon the ministry of the Gospel; who dares speak in the name of Christ? “Who is sufficient?” “Brethren, pray for us!”—Slightly suggested by “Homilist,” New Series, iv. 385.
2 Corinthians 2:16. “Who is sufficient?”
I. These words express a sense of the greatness of the work undertaken.—The ministry is a work
1. Great in its nature.—There is the exposition of the Bible. In His word He has given us the highest teaching, the divinest doctrine. He has taught us concerning our own past, and the world’s past, our own and the world’s future. Above all, He has given light on our relationship to Himself;—ourselves, Himself, and the Mediator between us. Hence there is here the greatest truth that can possess man’s mind, truth that the angels desire to look into, and which take us an eternity to understand; truth, too, whose distinguishing glory it is to be remedial in its nature, restorative in its aim. Every man is bound to be a student of the Holy Book and a learner for himself at the feet of the Great Teacher; the minister pre-eminently should acquaint himself with its truths, and aid those around him to understand them and feel their power. And all this statement and enforcing of truth must be in Paul’s spirit,—Christ’s. When the study of the preacher is unfaithful, unfilial, and his preaching unloving, unsympathetic, unchristian; when there is medley doctrine, or a forced, unnatural earnestness in its promulgation, the pulpit is weak. Not only does Christ claim that His spirit shall be present in the work of His servants; the very world of “society” demands it, and triumphs if it be absent, or lost. To misrepresent the truth of God, the life of Christ; to be erroneous in teaching and inconsistent in character,—the possibility makes a man cry: “Who is sufficient?”
2. Great in its influence.—To influence and mould deathless souls! To have to do with the understanding, heart, will, of man, with all their outworkings now and for ever! “The preaching is to bless or curse all who listen. It is to save those who receive it, from sin, self, hell; to save them by means of the truth, through the love of Christ, by the Spirit of God. It is to unshackle every undying power of the enslaved soul. It is to heal the diseased, to raise the dead. But those whom it will not bless it will curse; it will harden them in sin. It will add to their privileges and responsibilities new ones which will utter for ever a condemning cry against them. This continual, inevitable, twofold effect make the work awfully responsible, momentously great.”
II. The insufficiency of man to perform the work.—
1. How inadequate is man to expound the Scripture. “Easy work to preach the Gospel; it is so simple!” So they say; but is it? If an intelligent, harmonious representation of truth be given, there is material for the highest thought, scope for every faculty. Every power is challenged to the work, for also, in a true sense, man’s reason must be satisfied; the truth must be so presented as to do homage to the Book and persuade the man.
2. Is it “easy,” again, for feeble man to cherish the spirit essential to the work, a living sympathy with all that is holy and true, and a righteous hatred to all that is corrupt and false, unswerving loyalty to the claims of God, unchangeable love to the souls of men? It is impossible to interpret the Book without a spirit too real for pietism, too earnest for fearfulness, too holy for dalliance with sin; is it easy to retain such a spirit?
3. Who has ever taught even a Sabbath scholar, and, much more, who has tried to win an adult for Christ by direct, personal effort, but has learned this lesson, most quickly and most surely of all—the pitiable powerlessness of human strength to dislodge Satan from the hearts which we would bless? To attempt to guide the judgment or move the will of some wayward youth, or hardened profligate, or utter, though “blameless,” worldling,—it is a child’s attack upon a garrisoned fortress. It is hard to bless; and if the word do not bless “unto life,” it must hurt “unto death.” “Who is sufficient?”
III. The qualification for the work.—The great, primary qualification is this very spirit of conscious inefficiency. “When I am weak, then am I strong.” The old heathen believed that their heroes were strengthened to dare and to do, by becoming possessed of the skill and might of the gods of their special devotion. Their dream may be our reality. Only with them the gods favoured the cunning, the vaunting, the strong; our God “increaseth strength”—for work, as well as for journeying or endurance—“to them that have no might” (Isaiah 40:29). Depressing want of apparent success may often be needed to crush out egoism, self-sufficiency, pride, until in helplessness the man is at last flung upon God and His might. When men “have toiled all night and have caught nothing,” then are they ready to be helped and guided by their Master to a “catch” whose success is His, not theirs. To succeed, men must work and teach and live in this spirit of conscious insufficiency. “That no flesh should glory in His presence!”—Founded on homily by U. R. Thomas, “Homilist,” New Series, ii. 387 sqq.
2 Corinthians 2:15-16. Manward and Godward Aspects of the Gospel Ministry.
I. Manward.—It may have a vivifying effect. It may have a deadly influence. Because of three unalterable principles:
1. The greater the mercy abused the greater the condemnation.
2. The susceptibility to good impressions decreases in proportion to the resistance against them.
3. Man’s moral suffering will be increased in proportion to his consciousness that he once had the means of being happy. [“Woe unto thee, Chorazin,” etc.]
II. Godward.—A true ministry is unto God “a sweet savour,” whatever be its effects upon humanity. [Query is this the meaning of “unto God”? and not rather, “for God’s purposes (and glory)?”] It is in itself, therefore, for good, for good exclusively. It may be the occasion of evil, but it is the cause of good. [Cf. a similar, though not parallel, thought in Romans 7:10.] Therefore,
1. It saves by design; it destroys, if at all, in spite of its design.
2. It saves by its inherent tendency; it injures, if at all, in spite of that tendency.
3. It saves by Divine agency; it destroys, if at all, in spite of that agency. [“Ye do resist the Holy Ghost.”]—Extracted with modifications from “Homilist,” New Series, ii. 468.
2 Corinthians 2:17. The Word is Corrupted.
I. By introducing error, human philosophy, private opinions, irrelevant matter, by the omission or misrepresentation of important truths, selfish aims.
II. How it ought to be preached—faithfully, sincerely, humbly, earnestly.—[J. L.]
[Or start by inquiring what in common life is “adulteration,” and what are the motives of it.]