There are a lot of things going on in 2 Corinthians and it would be easy when preaching through the book to pick up on each in isolation. These fascinating themes include
– God as the one who encourages us and comforts us so that we can comfort others
– The Gospel as a fragrant aroma both to those who are being saved as life giving and to those who are against Christ as death and judgement
– Paul explaining why he had not visited sooner.
– A fantastic explanation of the Gospel in terms of penal substitution, justification, faith union and imputed righteousness
– Paul’s defence of his apostleship against the so called super apostles
– Exhortations to generous giving
However, if we pick them up in isolation then we will lose something. The letter was written as a whole and was intended to tell a story to make a point. What is the story in 2 Corinthians?
I want to suggest that there are a couple of important clues to this.
1. It is in our troubles, trials and sufferings that we experience God’s comfort. We experience comfort from God in order that we can comfort others (1:3-11). This should also remind us of Paul’s message in Romans 5:3-5 that God works through suffering and persecution to produce patient endurance and hope in us.
2. We belong to the New Covenant with a clear revelation of who God is which means our hearts and minds are unveiled to see the glory of the Gospel (3:7-16)
3. Our outward appearance in this life is one of weakness but the inner reality is of treasure hidden in jars of clay (4:1-18)
4. We have a great hope because whilst there is a weak earthly experience now, we look forward to future resurrection bodies when we go to be with Christ or he comes for us (5: 1-10). This echoes and builds on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 about The Resurrection.
5. Because we have been reconciled to God through Jesus’ death on the Cross when he became sin for us so that we could be his righteousness (penal substitution, justification, imputed righteousness and faith union beautifully packaged up together), this means that we are ambassadors for him bringing his reconciliation to others. This suggests that to be righteous relates to being made (re-made) in the image of God. Image bearers are ambassadors for the one whose image they bear (5:21)
6. Paul has a vision of heaven but does not boast in it, choosing to glory in the Lord. He experiences pain and weakness now in order to learn the truth that “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (12:9)
These clues help us to see a theme and storyline emerging. This relates to 1 Corinthians and the risk that the Corinthians had of worshipping power, of self confidence and an over-realised eschatology looking for glory in this life. In both letters we are clearly reminded that we live in the “Now and Not Yet.” Christ has completely dealt with sin, the past grace of the cross means we live in the present grace of the New Covenant but we are still looking forward to the future day when everything will be made new, when resurrection will come. This means there is a tension now. We live not in power but in weakness. We face difficulties and trials. We will experience suffering and persecution. It is tempting in the light of this to give up and fall into sin, to squabble amongst ourselves, to judge those who are weak as inferior, missing the truth and looking instead to superstition for quick fixes and quick glory (the obvious 21st Century equivalent being prosperity gospels) and/or to be mean spirited clinging onto what we have.
Rather, a proper perspective on the Gospel, knowing that we are living in the Now and the Not Yet, knowing that there is genuine victory in Christ, knowing the hope we have in Christ, changes everything. This trust will be tested and refined in discipline and restoration, in faithful persistent outreach and in generous giving as we share God’s practical grace with each other leading to shared trust joy and praise.