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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
2 Corinthians 13

 

 

Verses 1-14

Chapter 28

CONCLUSION.

2 Corinthians 13:1-14 (R.V)

THE first part of this chapter is in close connection with what precedes; it is, so to speak, the explanation of St. Paul’s fear [2 Corinthians 12:20] that when he came to Corinth he would be found of the Corinthians "not such as they would." He expresses himself with great severity; and the abruptness of the first three sentences, which are not linked to each other by any conjunctions, contributes to the general sense of rigor. "This is the third time I am coming to you" is a resumption of 2 Corinthians 12:14, "This is the third time I am ready to come to you," and labors under the same ambiguity; it is perhaps more natural to suppose that Paul had actually been twice in Corinth (and there are independent reasons for this opinion), but the words here used are quite consistent with the idea that this was the third time he had definitely purposed and tried to visit them, whether his purpose had been carried out or not. When he arrives, he will proceed at once to hold a judicial investigation into the condition of the Church, and will carry it through with legal stringency. "At the mouth of two and (where available) three witnesses shall every question be brought to decision." This principle of the Jewish law, [Deuteronomy 19:15] to which reference is made in other New Testament passages connected with Church discipline, [Matthew 18:16; 1 Timothy 5:19] is announced as that on which he will act. There will be no informality and no injustice, but neither will there be any more forbearance. All cases requiring disciplinary treatment will be brought to an issue at once, and the decision will be given rigorously as the matter of fact, attested by evidence, requires. He feels justified in proceeding thus after the reiterated warnings he has given them. To these reference is made in the solemn words of 2 Corinthians 13:2. English readers can see, by comparing the Revised Version with the Authorized, the difficulties of translation which still divide scholars. The words which the Authorized Version renders "as if I were present" ( ως παρων) are rendered by the Revisers "as when I was present." All scholars connect this ambiguous clause with τὸ δεύτερον: "the second time." Hence there are two main ways in which the whole passage can be rendered. The one is that which stands in the Revised Version, and which is defended by scholars like Meyer, Lightfoot, and Schmiedel: it is in effect this-"I have already forewarned, and do now forewarn, as I did. on the occasion of my second visit, so also now m my absence, those who have sinned heretofore, and all the rest, that if I come again I will not Spare "this is certainly rather cumbrous; but assuming that 2 Corinthians 2:1 gives strong ground for believing in a second visit already paid to Corinth-a visit in which Paul had been grieved and humbled by disorders in the Church, but had not been in a position to do more than warn against their continuance-it seems the only available interpretation. Those who evade the force of 2 Corinthians 11:1-33. I render here in the line of the Authorized Version: "I have forewarned" (viz., in the first letter, e.g., 1 Corinthians 4:21), "and do now forewarn, as though I were present the second time, although I am now absent, those who have sinned," etc. So Heinrici. This, on grammatical grounds, seems quite legitimate; but the contrast between presence and absence, which is real and effective in the other rendering, is here quite inept. We can understand a man saying, "I tell you in my absence, just as I did when I was with you that second time": but who would ever say, "I tell you as if I were present with you a second time, although in point of fact I am absent?" The absence here comes in with a grotesque effect, and there seems hardly room to doubt that the rendering in our Revised Version is correct. Paul had, when he visited Corinth a second time, warned those who had sinned before that visit, he now warns them again, and all others with them who anticipated his coming with an evil conscience, that the hour of decision is at hand. It is not easy to say what he means by the threat not to spare. Many point to judgments like that on Ananias and Sapphira, or on Elymas the sorcerer; others to the delivering of the incestuous person to Satan, "for the destruction of the flesh"; the supposition being that Paul came to Corinth armed with a supernatural power of inflicting physical sufferings on the disobedient. This uncanny idea has really no support in the New Testament, in spite of the passages quoted; and probably what his words aim at is an exercise of spiritual authority which might go so far as totally to exclude an offender from the Christian community.

The third verse [2 Corinthians 13:3] is to be taken closely with the second [2 Corinthians 13:2]: "I will not spare, since ye seek a proof of Christ that speaketh in me, who to you-ward is not weak, but is powerful in you." The friction between the Corinthians and the Apostle involved a higher interest than his. In putting Paul to the proof, they were really putting to the proof the Christ who spoke in him. In challenging Paul to come and exert his authority, in defying him to come with a rod, in presuming on what they called his weakness, they were really challenging Christ. The description of Christ in the last clause-"who towards you is not weak, but is powerful in you, or among you"-must be interpreted by the context. It can hardly mean that in their conversion, and in their experience as Christian people, they had evidence that Christ was not weak, but strong: such a reference, though supported by Calvin, is surely beside the mark. The meaning must rather be that for the purpose in hand-the restoration of order and discipline in the Corinthian Church-the Christ who spoke in Paul was not weak, but mighty. Certainly any one who looked at Christ in Himself might see proofs, in abundance, of weakness: going directly to the crowning one, "He was crucified," the Apostle says, "in virtue of weakness." Sin was so much stronger than He, in the days of His flesh, that it did what it liked with Him. Sin mocked Him, buffeted Him, scourged Him, spit upon Him, nailed Him to the tree-so utter was His weakness, so complete the triumph of sin over Him. But that is not the whole story: "He liveth in virtue of the power of God." He has been raised from the dead by the glory of the Father; sin cannot touch Him any more: He has all power in heaven and on earth, and all things are under His feet. This double relation of Christ to sin is exemplified in His Apostle. "For we also are weak in Him; but we shall live with Him, in virtue of God’s power, toward you." The sin of the Corinthians had had its victory over Paul on the occasion of his second visit; God had humbled him then, even as Christ was humbled on the cross; he had seen the evil, but it had been too strong for him; in spite of his warnings, it had rolled over his head. That "weakness," as the Corinthians called it, remained; to them he was still as weak as ever-hence the present ασθενουμεν: but to the Apostle it was no discreditable thing; it was a weakness "in Christ," or perhaps, as some authorities read, "with Christ." In being overpowered by sin for the moment, he entered into the fellowship of his Lord’s sufferings; he drank out of the cup his Master drank upon the cross. But the cross does not represent Christ’s whole attitude to sin, nor does that incapacity to deal with the turbulence, disloyalty, and immorality of the Corinthians represent the whole attitude of the Apostle to these disorders. Paul is not only crucified with Christ, he has been made to sit with Him in the heavenly places; and when he comes to Corinth this time, it will not be in the weakness of Christ, but in the victorious strength of His new life. He will come clothed with power from on high to execute the Lord’s sentence on the disobedient.

This passage has great practical interest. There are many whose whole conception of the Christian attitude toward evil is summed up in the words: "He was crucified through weakness." They seem to think that the whole function of love in presence of evil, its whole experience, its whole method and all its resources, are comprehended in bearing what evil chooses, or is able, to inflict. There are even bad people, like the Corinthians, who imagine that this exhausts the Christian ideal, and that they are wronged if they are not allowed by Christians to do what they like to them with impunity. And if it is not so easy to act on this principle in our dealings with one another-though there are people mean enough to try it-there are plenty of hypocrites who presume on it in their dealings with God. "He was crucified through weakness," they say in their hearts; the cross exhausts His relation to sin; that infinite patience can never pass. over to severity. But the assumption is false: the cross does not exhaust Christ’s relation to sin; He passed from the cross to the throne, and when He comes again it is as Judge. It is the sin of sins to presume upon the cross; it is a mistake that cannot be remedied to persist in that presumption to the end. When Christ comes again, He will not spare. The two things go together in Him: the infinite patience of the cross, the inexorable righteousness of the throne. The same two things go together in men: the depth with which they feel evil, the completeness with which they suffer it to work its will against them, and the power with which they vindicate the good. It is the worst blindness, as well as the basest guilt, which, because it has seen the one, refuses to believe in the other.

The Corinthians, by their rebellious spirit, were putting Paul to the proof; in 2 Corinthians 13:5 he re-reminds them sharply that it is their own standing as Christians which is in question, and not his. "Try yourselves," he says, with abrupt emphasis, "not me; try yourselves, if ye are m the faith; put yourselves to the proof; or know ye not as to your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you?-unless, indeed, ye be reprobate." The meaning here is hardly open to doubt: the Apostle urges his readers individually to examine their Christian standing. "Let each," he virtually says, "put himself to the proof, and see whether he is in the faith." There is, indeed, a difficulty in the clause, "Or know ye not as to your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you?-unless, indeed, ye be reprobate." This may be read either as a test, put into their hands to direct them in their self-scrutiny; or as an appeal to them after-or even before-the scrutiny has been made. The manner in which the alternative is introduced-"unless, indeed, ye are reprobates"-a manner plainly suggesting that the alternative in question is not to be assumed, is in favor of taking it in the sense of an appeal. After all, they are a Christian Church with Christ among them, and they cannot but know it. Paul, again, on his side cannot think that they are reprobate, and he hopes they will recognize that he is not, but on the contrary a genuine Apostle, attested by God, and to be acknowledged and obeyed by the Church. Very often that temper which judges others, and calls legitimate spiritual authority in question, is due, as in part it was among the Corinthians, to inward misgivings. It is-when people ought to be putting themselves to the proof, and are with cause afraid to begin, that they are most ready to challenge others. It was a kind of self-defense-the self-defense of a bad conscience-when the Corinthians required Paul to demonstrate his apostolic claims before he meddled with their affairs. It was a plea, the sole purpose of which was to enable them to live on as they were, immoral and impenitent. It is properly retorted when he says, "Try yourselves if ye are in the faith; it is in every sense of the word an impertinence to drag in anybody else."

In both cases Paul hopes the result of the trial will be satisfactory. He would not like to think the Corinthians αδοκιμοι ("reprobate"), and no more would he like them to regard him in that light. Still, the two things are not on exactly the same footing in his mind; their character is much dearer to him than his own reputation; provided they are what they ought to be, he does not care what is thought of himself. This is the general sense of 2 Corinthians 13:7-9, and except in 2 Corinthians 13:8 the details are clear enough.

He prays to God that the Corinthians may do no evil. His object in this is not that he himself may appear reproved; indeed, if his prayer is granted, he will have no opportunity of exercising the disciplinary authority of which he has said so much. It will be open to any one then to say that he is αδοκιμος, reprobate, a person to be rejected because he has not demonstrated his claim to apostolic authority by apostolic action. But as long as they act well, which is the real object of his prayer, he does not care, though he lugs to pass as αδοκιμος. He can bear evil report as well as good report, and rejoice to fulfill his vocation under the one condition as well as the other. This is only one aspect of that sacrifice of self to the interest of the flock which is indispensable in the good shepherd. As compared with any single member of his congregation, a minister may be more in the eye of the world, more still in the eye of the Church; and it is natural for him to think that some self-assertion, some recognition and reputation, are due to his position. It is a mistake: no man who understands the position at all will dream of asserting his own importance against that of the community. The Church, the congregation even, no matter how much it may be indebted to him, no matter if it owes to him, as the Corinthian Church to Paul, its very existence in Christ, is always greater than he; it will outlive him; and however tender he may naturally be of his own position and reputation, if the Church prosper in Christian character, he must be as willing to let these dear possessions go, and to count them worthless, as to part with money or any material thing.

The real difficulty here lies in the eighth verse, where the Apostle explains, apparently, why he acts on the principle just stated. "I pray this prayer for you," he seems to say, "and I am content to pass as a reprobate, while you do that which is honorable; for I can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth." What is the connection of ideas alluded to by this "for?" Some of the commentators give up the question in despair: others only remind one of the French pastor who said to some one who preached on Romans: "Saint Paul est deja fort difficile et vous veniez apres." As far as one can make out, he seems to say: "I act on this principle because it is the one which furthers the truth, and therefore is obligatory upon me; I am not able to act on one which would injure or prejudice the truth." The truth, in this interpretation, would be synonymous, as it often is in the New Testament, with the Gospel Paul is incapable of acting in a way that would check the Gospel, and its influence over men; he has no choice but to act in its interest; and therefore he is content to let the Corinthians think what they please of him, provided his prayer is answered, and they do no evil, but rather that which is good before God. For this is what the Gospel requires. "Content," indeed, is not a Strong enough word. "We rejoice," he says in 2 Corinthians 13:9 "when we are weak, and you are strong: this we also pray for, even your perfecting." "Perfecting" is perhaps as good a word as can be got for καταρτισις: it denotes the putting right of all that is defective or amiss.

It is in favor of this interpretation of the eighth verse that the reason seems at first out of proportion to the conclusion. With an idealist like Paul it is always so. He appeals to the loftiest motives to influence the lowliest actions, -to faith in the Incarnation as a motive to generosity-to faith in the Resurrection Life, as a motive to patient continuance in well-doing - to faith in the heavenly citizenship of believers, as a motive to separation from the licentious. In the same way he appeals here to a Universal moral rule to explain his conduct in a particular case. His principle everywhere is not to act in prejudice of ( κατά) the Gospel, but in furtherance of it ( ὑπέρ); he has strength available for this last purpose, but none at all for the former. It is the rule on which every minister of Christ should always act; and if the line of conduct which it pointed out sometimes led men to disregard their own reputation, provided the Gospel was having free course, the very strangeness of such a result might turn to the furtherance of the truth. It is by-ends that explain nine-tenths of spiritual inefficiency; singleness of mind like this would save us our perplexities and our failures alike.

It is because he has an interest like this in the Corinthians that Paul writes as he has done while absent from Corinth. He does not wish, when he comes among them, to proceed with severity. The power the Lord gave him would entitle him to do so; yet he remembers that this power was given him, as he has remarked already, [2 Corinthians 10:8] for building up, and not for casting down. Even casting down with a view to building up on a better basis was a less natural, if sometimes a necessary, exercise of it; and he hopes that the severity of his words will lead, even before his coming, to such voluntary action on the part of the Church as will spare him severity in deed.

This is practically the end of the letter, and the mind involuntarily goes back to the beginning. We see now the three great divisions of it plainly before our eyes. In the first seven chapters Paul writes under the general impression of the good news Titus has brought from Corinth. It has made him glad, and he writes gladly. The one case that he had been concerned about has been disposed of in a way that he can consider satisfactory; the Church, in the majority of its members, has acted well in the matter. The eighth and ninth chapters are a digression: they are concerned solely with the collection for the poor at Jerusalem, and Paul inserts them where they stand perhaps because the transition was easy from his joy over the change at Corinth to his joy over the liberality of the Macedonians. In 2 Corinthians 10:1-18; 2 Corinthians 11:1-33; 2 Corinthians 12:1-21; 2 Corinthians 13:1-10, he evidently writes in a very different strain. The Church, as a whole, has returned to its allegiance, especially on the moral question at issue; but there are Jewish interlopers in it, subverting the Gospel, and reconverting Paul’s converts to their own illiberal faith; and there are also, as it would appear, numbers of sensual people who have not yet renounced the vilest sins. It is these two sets of persons who are in view in the last four chapters; and it is the utter inconsistency of Judaic nationalism on the one hand, and Corinthian license on the other, with the spiritual Gospel of the Son of God, that explains the severity of his tone. "The truth" is at stake-the truth for which he has suffered all that he recounts in 2 Corinthians 11:1-33 -and no vehemence is too passionate for the occasion. Yet love controls it all, and he speaks severely that he may not have to act severely; he writes these things that, if possible, he may be spared the pain of saying them.

And then the letter, like almost every letter, hastens in disconnected sentences to its close. "Finally, brethren, farewell." He cannot but address them affectionately at parting; when the heart recovers from the heat of indignation, its unchanging love speaks again as before. Some would render χαιρετε "rejoice," instead of "farewell"; to Paul’s readers, no doubt, it had a friendly sound, but "rejoice" is far too strong. In all the imperatives that follow there is a reminiscence of their faults as well as a desire for their good: "be perfected, be comforted, be of the same mind, live in peace." There was much among them to rectify, much that was inevitably disheartening to overcome, much dissension to compose, much friction to allay; but as he prays them to face these duties he can assure them that the God of love and peace will be with them. God can be characterized by love and peace; they are His essential attributes, and He is an inexhaustible source of them, so that all who make peace and love their aim can count confidently to be helped by Him. It is, as it were, the first step of obedience to these precepts-the first condition of obtaining the presence of God which has just been promised-when the Apostle writes, "Greet one another with a holy kiss." The kiss was the symbol of Christian brotherhood; in exchanging it Christians recognized each other as members of one family. To do this even in form, to do it with solemnity in a public assembly of the whole Church, was to commit themselves to the obligations of peace and love which had been so set at naught in their religious contentions. It is a generous encouragement to them to recognize each other as children of God when he adds that all the Christians about him recognize them in that character. "All the saints salute you." They do so because they are Christians and because you are; acknowledge each other, as you are all acknowledged from without.

The letter is closed, like all that the Apostle wrote, with a brief prayer. "The grace of the Lord Jesus [Christ], and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all." Of all such prayers it is the fullest in expression, and this has gained for it preeminently the name of the apostolic benediction. It would be too much to say that the doctrine of the Trinity, as it has been defined in the creeds, is explicitly to be found here; there is no statement at all in this place of the relations of Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit. Still, it is on passages like this that the Trinitarian doctrine of God is based; or rather it is in passages like this that we see it beginning to take shape: it is based on the historical fact of the revelation of God in Christ, and on the experience of the new divine life which the Church possesses through the Spirit. It is extraordinary to find men with the New Testament in their hands giving explanations, speculative or popular, of this doctrine, which stand in no relation either to the historical Christ or to the experience of the Church. But these things hang together; and whatever the worth may be of a Trinitarian doctrine which is not essentially dependent on the Person of Christ and on the life of His Church, it is certainly not Christian. The historical original of the doctrine, and the impulse of experience under which Paul wrote, are suggested even by the order of the words. A speculative theologian may try to deduce the Triune nature of God from the borrowed assumption that God is love, or knowledge, or spirit; but the Apostle has only come to know God as love through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is this which reveals God’s love and assures us of it; it is this by which God commends his own love to us. "No man cometh unto the Father but by Me," Jesus said; and this truth, pre-announced by the Lord, is certified here by the very order in which the Apostle instinctively puts the sacred names. "The communion of the Holy Spirit" stands last; it is in this that "the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God" become the realized possessions of Christian men. The precise force of "the communion" is open to doubt. If we take the genitive in the same sense as it bears in the previous clauses, the word will mean "the fellowship or unity of feeling which is produced by the Spirit." This is a good sense, but not the only one: what Paul wishes may rather be the joint participation of them all in the Spirit, and in the gifts which it confers. But practically the two meanings coincide, and our minds rest on the comprehensiveness of the blessing invoked on a Church so mixed, and in many of its members so unworthy. Surely "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost" were with the man who rises so easily, so unconstrainedly, after all the tempest and passion of this letter, to such a height of love and peace. Heaven is open over his head; he is conscious, as he writes, of the immensities of that love whose breadth and length and depth and height pass knowledge. In the Son who revealed it-in God who is its eternal source-in the Spirit through whom it lives in men-he is conscious of that love and of its workings; and he prays that in all its aspects, and in all its virtues, it may be with them all.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 13:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-corinthians-13.html.

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