The occasion of St. Paul's writing again to the Corinthians, and deferring for the present to come unto them, is here intimated. There was an incestuous person in the church of Corinth, who had married his father's wife; if she were his own natural mother, the sin was most prodigious and unnatural, that the child of her womb should be the husband of her bed; if she were his mother-in-law, it was against the law of reverence, and an heinous sin for the son to uncover the father's nakedness. And it was an aggravation of the sin, that the person committing it was a Christian, a member, and, as some think, a minister of the church of Corinth. St. Paul, in his former epistle, 1 Corinthians 5:1 command them to excommunicate this incestuous person, which accordingly they did; and this spiritual physic, applied to the offender, had a good effect upon him; for being punished by the church, he punisheth himself; and being cast out of the church, he casts away his sin.
Happy is it, when the church's censures are so executed as to bring offenders to a sight and sense of their sins, in order to a deep humiliation and thorough reformation.
Now, says the apostle, I determined not to come to you in heaviness; that is, one great reason why I put off my coming amongst you might neither occasion sorrow, nor create heaviness, either to you or myself; for I delight not in censuring and chiding, when I can otherwise avoid it: For if I make you sorry, and myself with you, who is it that can make me glad, but he that is made sorry by me? that is, nothing can make me glad but the reformation of the fallen person.
Where note, That nothing adds so much to the joy and comfort of the ministers of Christ, as their recovery of revolted souls from under the empire and dominion of sin and Satan. We joy with them, and rejoice in God for them; we live as we see any of you stand fast in the Lord, we die as we see others stick fast in their sins.
As if the apostle had said, I gave you a sharp reproof in my former epistle, but it was in much love, and upon a good design; namely, to procure such a reformation of life and manners among you, as might prevent my sorrow when I came unto you; for as your grief is my grief, so my joy is the joy of you all. As the ministers of Christ and their beloved people are one; they rejoice together, and mourn together; their griefs and sorrows are mutual, and their joys and comforts are reciprocal.
Here our compassionate apostle tells them, That what he had wrote in his former epistle with some severity and sharpness, concerning the incestuous person, was so far from being written with any intention to grieve them, that it was a real affliction to him, a very heavy pressure upon his heart, which fetched abundance of tears from his eyes, and consequently was an effect of the greatest love imaginable.
Hence note, That when the ministers of Christ do execute church-censures, if they do not dispense them with tenderness and compassion, so as to let the offenders see that what is done is out of abundant love unto them, they will never be the better for them, nor be bettered or reclaimed by them. Doth a civil judge weep when he passes sentence upon a malefactor? much more should an ecclesiastical judge mourn, when he pronounceth the censures of the church upon notorious offenders. Behold the apostle here declaring with what anguish of spirit and grief of heart he wrote to have the sentence of excommunication executed and inflicted on the incestuous Corinthian; Out of much affliction and anguish of heart, I wrote unto you with many tears.
As if the apostle had said, This incestuous person, who hath caused so much grief to me by his sin, has caused no little grief to you also, to the sounder part of you, even to all, but those who were partakers with him in his sin: he hath grieved me, but in part only; you, as well as myself, have been grieved by him, and afflicted for him.
Not only the ministers, but members of the church, are affected with, and afflicted for, the scandal of professor's sins. St. Paul grieved but in part for the incestuous person's sin, the sounder part of the church mourned with him.
Or, secondly, He hath grieved me, but in part, that I may not overcharge you. It is as much as if he had said, "The grief and sorrow which I have had for the sin and scandal of this notorious offender, I am far, very far, from charging upon the whole church; I dare not load you all with that imputation, as if you were involved in the guilt of it."
'Tis not only injurious, but very unjust, to cast the dirt of professors' sin upon the face of their profession, or to charge the guilt of a particular person's miscarriages upon the whole church or Christian society to which he doth belong. As religion justifies no man's faults, so no man's faults should condemn religion.
Observe here, 1. The nature of that punishment which the holy apostle thought and adjudged, to be sufficient for the guilty person's sin; and that was excision, not destruction; excommunication, not death. The rejection of such a sinner from the communion of the church, by church-censure and discipline, was the punishment pronounced.
Observe, 2. By whom, and before, this punishment of excommunication was executed and inflicted, namely, by the officers and governors of the church, (who had and have the power of the keys,) in the presence and with the consent of the whole church.
In the primitive church, we have reason to believe, when any offender was to be excommunicated, the people were acquainted with the crime: the guilty person pleaded in their presence, they judged as your jurymen do of the matter of fact, they consented to the condemnation; but the sentence was not pronounced by them, but by the governors and officers of the church, before them and in their presence.
And as the church or body of the people consented to the offenders' rejection, so likewise to his re-admission to the communion of the church; but their actual admission was by the pastor and governor of the church, and not by the people.
Contrary to this primitive practice, is the modern practice of those who have snatched the keys out of the hands of the pastors, (where Christ placed them,) and put them into the hands of the people.
Observe, 1. The great duty which the apostle directs the Corinthians to the performance of, towards this sorrowful offender: to forgive him, to comfort him, to confirm him; that is, to absolve him from the sentence and censure of the church; no longer to continue their aversion to him, but to restore him to the church's communion, to re-admit him to their fellowship and society, to comfort him with the notices of God's pardoning mercy; and to confirm their love to him, by showing that their excommunicating of him was with design to reform, not to ruin him; to recover him by repentence, and not to drive him to despair. This is the importance of the three several words which are used here, Forgive him, comfort him, confirm him.
From whence note, That in notorious crimes which give great cause of scandal to the church, the comfort of the offender depends not only upon his peace and reconciliation with God, but also upon the relaxation of the censures of the church, and his re-admission to the church's fellowship and communion: forgive him, and confirm your love towards him.
Observe, 2. The reason offered by our apostle why this penitent offender should be forgiven and comforted, namely, Lest he should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.
Learn hence, 1. That sorrow even for sin itself may be excessive and overmuch.
2. That excessive and overmuch sorrow swalloweth up a person; it may swallow him up in the gulf of despair, and, as a consequent of it, in the gulf of death.
As worldly sorrow causeth death, so may religious sorrow also, even sorrow for sin. We may dishonour God by an excessive mourning, even for God's dishonour. Sorrow is not of any worth in itself, but only as it serves to a spiritual end and purpose; and when it is excessive, not only the comforts, but the gifts and usefulness, of the person sorrowing, are in danger to be swallowed up by it.
Quest. But when is sorrow for sin excessive and overmuch?
Ans. When it obstructs the exercise of our graces, when it hinders the performance of our duties, when it hurts our health, and overwhelmeth nature, when it perverts reason, swalloweth up faith, hindereth our hope, prejudiceth our joy, and unfits us both for doing and suffering the will of God; in a word, that sorrow for sin which keeps the soul from looking towards the mercy-seat, that keeps Christ and the soul asunder, and renders a person unfit for the service of God and for the communion of saints, is a sinful sorrow.
Observe here, 1. Our apostle declares what was his in writing his former epistle to them, namely, this amongst others, to exercise their obedience, and to make trial what regard they would show to his apostolical authority; whether they would be as obedient to his directions in absolving of penitents, as they were before in inflicting church-censures upon bold offenders. For this end did I write, that I might have a proof of you.
Observe, 2. The apostle declares his own forwardness to forgive penitent offenders himself, as well as makes known his desires that they should do it: Whom ye forgive, I forgive also, in the person of Christ; that is, as you forgive him, so do I: and I absolve him by Christ's authority, as I excommunicated him in Christ's name, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, &c. 1 Corinthians 5:4
As he delivered the incestuous person to Satan in the name of Christ, so in the name and person of Christ he releases him, and relaxes the sentence against him. The power of excommunication and absolution, of binding and loosing, of casting out, and receiving into the church, is by Christ committed to church-governors, who are to execute this power in the person of Christ; that is, in the name and by the authority of Christ.
Observe, 3. The arguments with which, and the motive by which, he presses the church at Corinth to forgive the incestuous person, and to re-admit him into their society: lest Satan get an advantage of us.
Ans. An advantage to lead them into sin thus, by their their abusing that power which God had given them for edification, to the destruction of a person, by making them guilty of spiritual murder by their over rigorous proceeding against him, by driving him to despair, by tempting him to apostasy. Satan sometimes, by too great slackness of discipline, seeks to lull sinners asleep in the bosom of the church; and sometimes, by too great severity, endeavours to drive them to despair.
The force of the apostle's words lies thus: I advise you to continue the severity of discipline no longer towards this penitent offender, but receive him again into your communion with all tenderness and speed, lest Satan should circumvent you, and overeach you, and make use of your rigour to your own ruin, by rendering your doctrine hateful, and your discipline detestable: for we are not ignorant of his devices, his contrivances, plots, and stratagems laid against us.
Learn hence, 1. That Satan is a master in the art of deceiving souls: he is full, very full, of cunning methods and devices to circumvent persons, and catch them in the net of his deceits.
Learn, 2. That it concerns all persons, but especially the ministers of the gospel, to be well acquainted with, and not ignorant of, any devices or plots of Satan. Satan has a multitude of devices, by which he undoes, entangles, and deceives souls; and no Christian ought to be ignorant of them, lest he be circumvented and undone by them. Many are his devices for drawing us into sin, for drawing us off from duty, for drawing us into temptation, for drowning us in despair: our wisdom will be not to dispute, but to resist; for by resisting, our temptations will be fewer, and our strength greater, James 4:7 Resist the devil, and he will fly.
Where note, That the promise of conquest is made to resisting, not disputing with Satan: to parley with him, is the way to be overcome by him.
Observe here, 1. The unwearied diligence of this great apostle in traveling from place to place, and carrying the gospel with him from one city and nation to another: I came to Troas, and from thence to Macedonia.
Observe, 2. The success which the holy apostle had in preaching the gospel with unwearied diligence in those places: A door was opened unto him of the Lord.
This either signifies, 1. The free liberty which he had to preach the gospel in those places; the door of his mouth was not shut by persecutors, the enemies and opposers of the free gospel, but the word of the Lord had a free course in the labours of its ministers.
Or, 2. This opened door may signify and import the great and gracious success which God gave the apostle in his work; as God by his providence opened the apostle's mouth, to preach and publish the glad tidings of the gospel, so by his Holy Spirit he opened the people's hearts to receive and entertain the glad tidings of salvation which the gospel brought. The Lord opened Lydia's heart, that she attended to the words which were spoken of Paul. Acts 16:14
Observe, 3. How careful the apostle is to ascribe the entire praise, and to return the whole thanks, to Almighty God, for all the gracious assistance and success which he had received in his ministerial service: Thanks be to God, which causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place.
As if the apostle had said, "Blessed be God, although our enemies have been man, and our difficulties great, yet God has given me, and my fellow-apostles, such resolution of mind, that we have not only encountered with them, but triumphed over them, in a powerful conversion of so many from heathenism to Christianity; and has enabled us to spread the sweet odour of the gospel far and near, by our laborious preaching of it from place to place."
Then is the word, and God in the word, glorified, when the sword of the Spirit is taken into the hand of the Spirit; when he gird this sword upon his thigh, as most mighty, and rides on triumphantly, conquering and to conquer, in the hearts of his people, till he has consummated his victories in a glorious triumph over all the powers of hell and darkness: Thanks be to God that causeth us to triumph in Christ.
Observe here, 1. The title given to the gospel, and to the preachers and dispensers of it; they are a savour, an illusion, probably, to the ointment of sweet perfume, which the high-priests under the law were anointed with. The breath of the gospel is a sweet odour or smell, and God's faithful ministers are they that carry it, and blow it abroad to perfume sinners that lie stinking in their sins.
Observe,2. The contrary effects which the preaching of the gospel has upon those that sit under it; it is the savour of life unto some, of death unto others. Here it was so: the apostle's ministry was a savour of life to the believing Gentiles, of death to the unbelieving Jews; all men are to be reckoned in a state of life or death, of perishing or being saved, according as they do or do not receive the savour, and relish the doctrine, of the gospel.
But how comes the preaching of the gospel to be the savour of death unto some?
Ans. Partly through pride, in not enduring to be reproved by the gospel; partly through prejudice against the ministers of the gospel; partly through slothfulness, neglecting to come under the sound of the gospel; and partly through cursed infidelity, in not believing the message which the gospel brings. Thus is the gospel, which was ordained for life, the savour of death unto death.
Observe, 3. The sweet support which God gives his faithful ministers in the discharge of their duty, though their doctrine fails of desired success; they are a sweet savour unto God, as well in them that perish, as in them that are saved;
Lord! how would thy ministers be of all men miserable, shouldst thou require the success of their labours at their hands; shouldst thou say, "Either reconcile my people unto me, or I will never be reconciled unto you:" but we shall be rewarded by thee according to our faithfulness, not according to our people's fruitfulness. The faithful ministers of Christ are a sweet-smelling savour in the nostrils of God, as well in them that perish as in them that are saved. Though Israel (their people) be not gathered, yet shall they be glorious: God will reward them, secundum laborem, non fructum; the nurse shall be paid for her care and pains, though the child dies at the breast.
As if the apostle had said, "So great and weighty is the work of preaching the everlasting gospel to a lost world, that neither myself, nor any of my fellow-apostles, are sufficient for it of ourselves. Who is sufficient?
That is, none are sufficient, without proportionable strength and help from God, neither man nor angel; to preach the gospel, as it ought, is a mighty work, a weighty work. If any thing otherwise, it is either their ignorance or inadvertency that makes them think so.
What! is it an easy matter to search into the deep things of God, the great mysteries of the gospel, which have an unfathomable depth! Is it easy to instruct the ignorant, to convince the obstinate, to resolve the doubting, to reduce the wandering, to know the state of our flock, to visit the sick as we ought, to speak to them, and pray for them, as persons upon the confines of eternity! What! is all this, and much more, a trivial work and common performance?
No, verily, as there is no service more honourable than that of the ministry, so there is none more arduous and laborious; and therefore the greatest men that ever God employed in and about this work, have been ready to sink under the apprehension of the insuperable difficulties that do attend it.
If we consider how a gospel minister ought to excel in knowledge, in utterance, in prudence and conduct, in exemplary piety, in patience contending with a people's frowardness and perverseness, we need not wonder at our apostle's exclamation or expostulatory question in the words before us: Who is sufficient for these things?
Observe here, 1. The character which the apostle gives the false apostles who were crept in amongst the Corinthians: they were corrupters of the word of God; they did sophisticate and adulterate the sincere word of God, by intermixing their own pride and passions, their own inventions and imaginations, with the doctrine which they delivered. False teachers deal with the word, as some vintners deal with their wines; they imbase them in their nature, that they may advance them in their price, and thereby increase their own profit; they deliver the word of God in subtilty, but not in sincerity.
Observe, 2. The declaration which the apostle makes of his own uprightness and integrity in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ: As of sincerity, as of God, and in the sight of God speak we in Christ; that is, we act as men of sincerity in what we do, as men taught of God and sent by God, as men acted by the power and guided by the Spirit of Christ, and all this is in the sight of God; we speak as from God, of God, in obedience to his command, and with an eye at his glory. He is a better preacher that speaks with an upright heart, than he that speaks with an eloquent tongue; he that acts from religious principles, for holy ends, as in the presence of the all-seeing God, and with a fixed eye at the glory of God in what he preaches, he is an interpreter one of a thousand.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany