I contributed this week’s edition of the ABTS blog here in Lebanon. It begins: I recently joined the faculty of ABTS and, given ABTS’s new hybrid format, I’ve been asked several times how I feel about beginning to teach from a distance…
(Sermon for a chapel communion service)
It’s an honor to get to stand here and share God’s word with you before moving from Zambia and Justo Mwale University later this month. Our passage is Rev 5:1-14.
I’ve appreciated the sermons I’ve heard this term on inviting God’s kingdom to be present in the church. Our passage today also contributes, where Jesus is told, “You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth”.
I’ve not heard many sermons on the book of Revelation in this chapel. It’s a difficult book to interpret because it’s so different from the rest of the books of the New Testament. We’re not used to interpreting a book like this, a book that is three kinds of literature all at once. John tells us at the beginning of this book that what he’s written is an apocalypse (a revelation, an unveiling), but also a book of prophecy, and also a letter to seven churches, one big letter to seven churches during a period of the Roman Empire when it was very difficult to be Christian. And as a letter, it needs to be interpreted in a way that would have been meaningful to those first people who received it, and then as meaningful to us.
Our passage begins with the words… “I saw”. Our passage has three sections, each beginning with, “I saw…” It’s one of the most common phrases in Revelation. John sees visions. An apocalypse includes symbolic visions which reveal things otherwise hidden and unknown.
In chapters 4-5, John is taken up to see the heavenly throne room. And a big part of what he sees is: Who’s in charge. And it’s not Caesar, it’s not the Roman emperor who’s on the throne. Revelation tells us, despite appearances on earth, who’s really in charge. As an apocalypse, Revelation deals with the question: Who’s really on the throne? Who’s really in charge. And it Affirms: It’s God… No matter how bad things may look right now on earth, God reigns.God’s in charge.
Maybe that’s important for us, right here and right now, at Justo Mwale. No matter what challenges we face, God is sitting on the throne. God is still in charge.
Revelation is about learning to see from the perspective of heaven, and learning to see from the perspective of the final judgment, and the final victory. And learning to see what and who are truly worthy of worship. And by seeing differently, we’re empowered to be faithful, to give all our worship where it truly belongs, and so we’re able to overcome.
In the beginning and end of Revelation, the author John calls it a book of prophecy. It’s true that prophecy has something to say about the future. But prophecy especially invites us to see our current situations in a new light. Revelation as a book of prophecy is about discernment. Prophecy gives discernment; it helps us see better.
And maybe that’s what we need now, at this time in our lives, and in the life of JMU – prophetic discernment. Seeing and discerning from God’s perspective – How should we see our present challenges? How should we see ourselves? And our Christian institutions?
The unexpected, surprising path
Let’s now see what John sees in those first several verses. In the beginning of chapter 5, we find there’s a problem that needs to be resolved. A scroll needs to be opened. But no one is worthy to break its seals, open it, and look inside. The scroll is crucial to open because it will announce God’s response to evil in the world. It will reveal God’s justice and get it started.
And John mourns and weeps because no one is worthy.There’s a buildup of suspense: What can be done? Is no one worthy?
And then, there’s a solution. “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” That’s Jesus the Messiah, through the symbol of a conquering lion.
So as this first section ends, we’re prepared and expecting to see Jesus as the great lion.
The next section (v. 6) begins: And I saw… a lamb. The lion … is a lamb. We were led to expect a conquering lion, and instead we see a lamb which has been slain.
Can you imagine, expecting a lion and seeing instead a lamb?
It’s not your average lamb. It’s got seven horns. And a horn is a symbol of power. But it’s not a lion. It’s a powerful lamb standing yet having been slain.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear, he who has eyes to see let him see… this unexpected picture. This surprising path to victory. Jesus, the Lion of Judah, did not conquer as a lion, but as a lamb.
This surprising pathway goes right to the very center of our Christian faith. An unexpected path, and it cuts right through to the center of this table.
The surprising path is heavenly logic: Power through weakness, victory through humility and self-sacrifice.
And when the lamb takes the scroll from the one who sits on the throne, the four creatures and the twenty-four elders fall down not before a lion. They fall down before the Lamb. Jesus conquered as a lamb.
What’s our image of a winner? What’s our symbol of success? Maybe a lion. Maybe a lion who takes what belongs to him. Probably not a lamb who gets slain.
And our image of success may not be of people who fall down and worship a lamb.
But Jesus conquered as a lamb. And this is more than an accidental image. It’s reality.
Our passage even tells us that Jesus being a lamb is the key to our future, and the key to our long-term calling.
The elders and four living creatures proclaim: “Worthy are you… For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them (US!) a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Jesus the Lion of Judah became a Lamb who was slain… That’s the key not only to his identity but also to our identity and future.
He has made us a kingdom – The kingdom is something he accomplishes, something he has accomplished for us.
Sometimes we get the idea that a life of ministry is about positioning ourselves, building a name for ourselves, building our own kingdom. But the scripture says: Jesus has made us a kingdom.
Notice the order: You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” We shall reign on the earth BECAUSE Jesus made us a kingdom and priests to our God.
Jesus accomplished this, because he was slain, because he ransomed people for God by his own blood – that’s how he bought people for God. By his being humble and obedient to the point of death.
LET’S TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT OUR IDENTITY AND FUTURE
Jesus has made us a kingdom and priests. This image is rooted back in Exodus 19, in God’s plan for the nation Israel. They were to be a kingdom and people special to God, with God as their true king. And in Revelation, the early Christians are a new Israel, a kingdom and priests.
And we, like Israel of old, are a kingdom, people who recognize that no matter how things look on earth, God and the lamb are on the throne as king. We believers are their kingdom.
And: We shall reign on the earth (cf 22:5). Revelation reveals a future when heaven and earth will be joined together, and God’s servants shall reign forever and ever. We will reign, because Jesus has made us a kingdom. We do not position ourselves for this honored position. Jesus has done that for us.
Our passage also calls us “priests to our God”. Priests are special people to God, people who serve in God’s presence, with access to God, and people who stand between God and the rest of the world, serving God and benefitting the world. Let’s notice it does NOT say those who are ordained do this. It’s the whole people of God who have this dignity.
Now, if Jesus is the one who makes us to be a kingdom, if what he has done is to make us to be a kingdom, what’s our response? What’s our role now?
We see our proper response in what the 24 elders do: They fall down before the Lamb.
In light of his worthiness, our response is worship. Our role is to see how worthy Jesus is, and worship accordingly. He has given us our positions as a kingdom and as priests. This life is not about what we make of ourselves. He has made us what we really are.
And so what we see in the last section, vv. 11-15, is worship.
John says, “And I saw, and I heard…” thousands upon thousands saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” We join the elders and the thousands upon thousands of angels. Our role, our response, is seeing the worth of Jesus, falling down before him, and giving him all of our worship and praise.
Our role is to recognize how awesome, how wonderful, how worthy Jesus is, and then we live and speak and work accordingly. We get occupied, not with positioning ourselves, but with rightly positioning Jesus.
We and our churches and institutions are not about us. We make Jesus Christ the center.
Sure, we have an institution here. We have this big chapel building. But the truth is that Jesus is so big, he’s towering above this chapel… He’s towering above Justo Mwale and every one of us.
And we become content not to be lions, not to be kings, but to be lambs like Jesus, obedient unto death.
We become God centered. Jesus centered. As priests we get to serve in the presence of the king. And what we want on this earth is to praise Jesus with our lives and with our words.
I wonder if JMU can help the church see this great Jesus…Jesus who is worthy of all that we are, all our worship… I wonder if we can help preachers, and thereby the church, to recognize the bigger, greater Jesus. We lift Jesus higher. We fulfill our role to help the world to see the greatness of the Lamb.
Our being a kingdom comes from Jesus our king. We recognize the one who reigns. Recognizing more of Jesus here and now, and embodying more of Jesus the lamb. That’s what it looks like for the kingdom to be more present. More centered in Jesus, lifting up Jesus, here and now.
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
“The elders fell down and worshiped.” And our lives begin to look like these elders. They see that their position, their status, is not about them. It’s all about Jesus the Lamb, about God who is on the throne.
From the perspective of heaven, we succeed when we see our lives are not about us. And our institutions succeed when it’s not about the name and greatness of our institution, like JMU.
Our position, our status, is not about us. It’s all about Jesus the Lamb, and about God who is on the throne.
Let’s look and see, and help others see, this truly great Jesus. This big Jesus, towering above us here at JMU, towering above this chapel. JMU is not about JMU; it’s about Jesus. We are not about us; we’re priests of God. Our lives are about Jesus. We recognize how truly great Jesus is, and we live accordingly.
Our work is not about us. Our preparation for ministry is not about us. It’s about the one who sits on the throne. It’s about the Lamb. It’s all about this truly wonderful Jesus Christ.
How wonderful is Jesus Christ. How wonderful is his death for us. Our life, our ministry, our institutions are all about Jesus Christ. Not us. He alone is worthy of all blessing, all honor, all glory. His being who he is and doing what he has done is what elevates us to be a kingdom.
We’re here for him. We live for him. Our whole lives are about falling down to worship him.
And so we, too, become like lambs. Lambs live not themselves. They live for another. For the true Lion. For the true and great King, for Jesus, for God who is on the throne.
May all we do here at Justo Mwale and all we are on this earth be about the great King, the one who reigns forever and ever. “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” Amen.
 See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, pages 1-22. I rely heavily on Bauckham for my approach to Revelation.
A way I sought to serve future scholars for the church in Africa and beyond during my recent study leave was through writing. One project was a paper based on what I’ve learned from the past ten years of teaching the Bible in Zambia. It first describes how, in Africa’s theological schools, there’s a longing for biblical interpretation that’s truly African, that allows the Scripture to mean what it means to African communities. This is important for the post-colonial situation and for developing a theology that speaks to the African setting.
When someone says, “The Bible means what it means to our community,” we do need to proceed with care. Our Justo Mwale University Prof. D.T. Banda has spoken of the problem of “taming” interpretation “within the culture of the interpreter”. Banda claims that one can be a “prisoner” of how one’s own culture sees. He affirms that “culture must itself be converted” as it learns the gospel and appropriates its truth in a particular setting.
Also, if the Bible means whatever it means to our community, Rev. Muwowo of Chasefu Theological College says that “it would lead to the temptation of using scriptures for self-gain and putting the reader to be in control of the meaning of the text.” He has also warned that the experience of poverty can not only inform but also take control of how we understand the Bible, leading people to think the “prosperity gospel” is biblical.
So the question becomes: How do we encourage interpretations which are truly African, truly contextual, while also allowing Scripture to have its own voice and speak words which surprise and challenge us instead of only saying what our communities want to hear? We need interpretation to be truly contextual and truly biblical, so that what is taught and preached is not only relevant but also true to Scripture and transformational.
My recent paper is about a model for approaching the Bible and teaching interpretation that helps students use the literary context of Scripture so we’re not just hearing our own thoughts and desires when we interpret the Bible. The approach helps students take in more evidence from the text of Scripture, seeing relationships between parts and wholes within passages and books of the Bible. It’s also about empowering students to ask open and in-depth questions both of passages from the Bible and of their own ministry contexts, and then holding the text and their contexts in deeper conversation with one another. The result is students identifying more deeply with the Bible, so they see themselves and their community in and through Scripture.
During my sabbatical in Pasadena, when Fuller Seminary’s New Testament faculty learned about my writing projects, they asked me to share this paper with them and have a discussion. In response, they said that, though it’s written for Africa, it deals with analogous issues which they, too, are facing: How can a diverse student body interpret the Bible in a way that’s sensitive to diversity while also wrestling with what’s actually written in Scripture?
In a following discussion with other faculty members, they said the paper describes the sort of experiences students everywhere need: opportunities to see what’s really there in the Bible, to really observe how it witnesses to Jesus Christ and the gospel, and to make space for honest and deep conversation between Scripture and their diverse and particular backgrounds. These experiences help believers to weave an identity that is genuinely Christian while also being true to their specific background and community. The process seems crucial for thinking through what it means to live life with Scripture and preach the gospel faithfully in diverse contexts.
My hope is that the essay can serve future teachers in Africa and beyond who will, in turn, guide how future students handle the Bible. It will appear later this year in a book called Transforming Theology and Religion, as Supplement 32 of Acta Theologica, a journal of the Faculty of Theology of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
2 Corinthians gives insight into keeping vitality and flourishing in times of difficulty, when there’s much that’s not going the way we want. I know many people are going through such difficult times, certainly in Zambia, but also in America and beyond – from the pandemic and the various kinds of fallout from that, including its effects on our families. Many are also deeply concerned about the racial pain and divisiveness in the USA and beyond. Of course, you may have other factors causing concern.
2 Cor 12:7-10. … So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, formy power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10 ESV)
Paul says he experiences a thorn in his flesh. Whatever it was, it was painful, it was humbling, and it was persistent. He says he prayed three times – which could be symbolic for praying a long period of time. And instead of removing the thorn, Christ spoke to Paul with the thorn still there, and said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Christ gave him what he needed not by taking away the festering pain but by strengthening him on the inside through grace. And I think Paul tells about the experience and does not say what the thorn was, because it wasn’t true just for him; it’s one of the ways God tends to work in our lives, no matter what the given thorn may be.
Difficulty, weakness, vulnerability, and wounds drive us to speak to our Father, the one 2 Corinthians calls the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. Wounds and difficulties become signposts pointing us to prayer that takes us to Jesus. And when we come to God, he releases grace to us. And so the weakness and difficulty we go through, and the wounds we receive that we naturally pray for God to remove, these things become open doors to his grace and power.
We Christians are not immune to really difficult things happening to us. Paul’s prayer that the thorn be removed helps us to know it’s okay to pray for a change in circumstances. We pray for change and rescue. And sometimes God’s answer is YES.
Yet Paul is also saying, the answer may be: God’s grace is sufficient for you. And that becomes our chance to we meet Jesus Christ in a deeper way in the midst of hardship, so that his power rests upon us. Because of our deep need, prayer takes us to God with open hands and open hearts, and we find the grace that’s sufficient, the power that becomes true vitality, perfected and completed not in the absence of weakness or problems, but in the midst of them.
It’s interesting to think about Paul’s thorn from God’s perspective: God may be more interested in filling our lives with grace, in having Christ’s power rest upon us, than in taking away our pain and difficulties. At least in the short run, filling us with grace may be more important than removing the obstacles that cause frustration or disappointment. Certainly, people who are filled with grace have deeper, better things to share with others.
I think the reason Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong” is that in situations of weakness and difficulty, he taps into God’s grace that brings true strength, true completeness, true vitality from the presence of Christ himself. And that’s why Paul says he can be content in the midst of really hard things. He can be content because of Jesus Christ. His vitality comes from grace, from Christ’s own presence in his life. Not from having a thorn removed.
So, during this difficult period of life, let’s remember that Jesus gave Paul what he needed for his life of ministry not by taking away the festering pain but by empowering him through grace.
Let’s not give up. Let’s keep going to God with open hands and hearts. Let’s see if we can allow God to give us grace that does its work of renewing us on the inside. Let’s allow the difficulties to take us deeper with Jesus Christ, so his power rests upon us. So we’re able to walk through difficult things, and keep on walking, let’s hear him saying, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
Note: This is a somewhat similar but much shorter post than the audio I shared on April 27, 2020.
Instead of introducing 2 Corinthians before looking at the letter itself, I’d like us to look at Paul’s own introductory words and allow those words to give a doorway into this letter.
2 Cor 1:1-2 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (NRSV)
Here Paul begins 2 Corinthians, this letter in which he gives the most concentrated attention to the life of ministry. Paul, as he introduces himself and the receivers of this letter, does some important defining even in these first two verses as he describes who he is and who the Corinthians are — and I think who we are as well — before God and Jesus Christ.
On one hand, his first words are very similar to first words of some of his other letters. On the other hand, words always take meaning from their placement in a particular document, and we can begin to think about these two verses in light of what we know of the rest of 2 Corinthians.
Probably more than in any of his other letters, Paul in 2 Corinthians is going to take care to explain his way of going about life and ministry. He’s in a situation where his own approach to Christian life and ministry has been questioned, and he’s going to need to define where he stands — especially on the role of weakness and suffering in that life, since the Corinthians have concerns about the presence of weakness and suffering in his life.
And here at the very beginning, Paul speaks of himself and his ministry as of, from, and through God and Jesus Christ.
So much of 2 Corinthians is about Paul defining his identity, his way of life, and his manner of ministry — with the ultimate goal of defining all of these things on behalf of believers and their lives. We will see that he does that while he, at the same time, is describing a standard for Christian leadership by what it means to live a God-centered life in deep unity with Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul wrote in Greek; every Greek noun has case, the trait which makes the biggest difference for how nouns come together with other words to make meaning. “The basic function of the genitive case is to describe or define” (Croy 1999:13). We see the genitive case when Paul says he’s an “apostle of Jesus Christ”. And he calls the church not just the church, but the church “of God”, or “God’s church”. Genitives frequently identify belonging. As an apostle, he belongs to Jesus Christ. And the church belongs to God. Moreover, Paul affirms that grace and peace come “from” God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Genitives can identify the source or origin of something. Paul uses the genitive case over and over in the first two verses – ten nouns in all.
It’s no accident that there are so many genitives in the first two verses, because there’s a lot of defining and identifying happening here, as Paul will do throughout this letter.
Let’s take a closer look at some of Paul’s particular phrases and expressions he uses to identify himself and the believers to whom he’s writing.
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus”
An interesting thing about scholarship on 2 Corinthians is that commentators have often said that 2 Corinthians is about Paul’s apostleship and about Paul defending his apostleship. They see that Paul calls himself an apostle, and they see him being a little defensive in the pages that follow. But in this first big section of the letter, 2 Corinthians 1-9, Paul only mentions that he is an apostle once, here as he introduces himself in 1:1. Paul actually does not act very interested in making himself distinct from other Christians in his position and authority. We’ll notice that Paul will normally speak with the word “we”, not “I”, especially in the first nine chapters. He’ll tend to place himself with fellow Christians, not apart from them or different from them. From Paul’s own words, we will see that Paul seems to focus on life and ministry in union with Jesus Christ, a way of life that’s available to all the saints, not just to an apostle. I don’t think Paul speaks often enough about apostleship to be defending his apostleship; instead, he defends a manner of life and a manner of ministry that arises from deep union with Jesus Christ, a way of life that says yes to all that Jesus Christ is – his weakness, suffering, and death, as well as his power. And this way of life is for all who are in Christ.
Scholars have also said Paul is preoccupied with his authority in 2 Corinthians. Paul does mention his title and role from the very beginning. It states his authority. But only sort of. Paul is calling himself an apostle partly to demonstrate his authority. In this letter Paul is going to describe what Christian leadership looks like. Namely, it is shaped and conditioned by the one who authorizes, the one the apostle represents, Jesus Christ. An apostle is one sent by Christ. That involves authority, but we will also learn that it means service, servanthood, and sacrifice. Paul will tell the Corinthians, “Death is at work in us, but life is at work in you” (4:12). Paul not only proclaims Christ but takes on the traits of Christ – his meekness, his gentleness, and his suffering, as well as his power.
Paul expects Christian leaders to follow a path of ministry that embodies Jesus Christ. Paul lives in a state of fellowship with Christ but also a oneness with Jesus Christ that affects all aspects of life. Paul leads and preaches, Paul influences others, and he believes this cannot be separated from living in the manner of Jesus. For Paul, this is not at all optional. Those who preach Jesus Christ model a deep integration between the message they preach and the way of Jesus Christ. “For we do not preach ourselves but the Lord Jesus Christ, and ourselves as your servants because of Christ” (4:5). It’s a standard of Christian leadership that cannot allow anything but an integration between message (preaching Jesus Christ) and way of life (living out the manner of Jesus).
It is not exactly theology that turns Paul against some Christian teachers who oppose him; it’s the lack of integration between the gospel and the Christian life that Paul will attack in 2 Corinthians. To put it differently, we could say that Paul’s approach to Christian theology does not allow him to separate preaching Jesus Christ from living a life that arises from fellowship with Christ. Paul teaches a deep unity between Christ and Christian leaders, and between Christ and all believers.
This is part of what makes 2 Corinthians so powerful and penetrating as a letter. It has been among the least studied of Paul’s epistles. Yet if it had been kept more closely at hand, it could have helped Christianity to avoid some of its greatest mistakes. One thinks immediately of the fateful combination of political power with the Christian faith after the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century. And the sins committed during the crusades of the medieval period. And the entanglement of Christian mission with colonialism. The deep integration between Christian proclamation and Christian living demonstrated in 2 Corinthians could have helped the church avoid such epoch-making mistakes.
“by (dia) the will of God”
Anyone who reads Paul’s letters or the book of Acts can recognize that Paul was a man with a powerful will. Yet this phrase, “by the will of God“, is one of his favorites when introducing himself and his ministry (Guthrie 2015: 56). Paul’s life was not mainly about his will, but God’s, as part of his overall God-centered approach to life.
“By the will of God” is a good translation, but the word behind “by”, dia in Greek, gives the idea of a means by which something is done over time, a process that may take a long time. The phrase διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ, most literally, “through the will of God”, suggests the “circumstances by which something is accomplished” (Guthrie 56, BDAG 224). Paul uses that same word dia when he says, “we walk by faith (διὰ πίστεως), not by sight (διὰ εἴδους)” (5:7). Paul’s word dia fits walking, a process, a journey. It’s not just that Paul got to be an apostle by the will of God. God did not just get it started, then leave it up to Paul. The long journey of it, from start to finish and everywhere in between, is through the will of God.
For Paul, it’s crucial in his ministry that God’s agency is primary; Paul acts in response to God and in cooperation with God. God makes the first moves and keeps making the first moves. No matter how active we are as Christians, we are people who receive our ministry, who respond to God. We are not firstly people who act, who make decisions, who make things happen. Behind and before any desire or action on our part, there’s God’s will, God’s desiring (see also 1 Cor 9:16; Gal 1:15-16).
The life of ministry is God centered. It’s not mainly about our will, but God’s.
“and Timothy the brother” – 2 Corinthians is a letter in which Paul is going to say a whole lot about himself. And yet he is very collaborative, always involving someone else (Thiselton 2019:20). He names Timothy from the beginning. Paul knows that to get anywhere far or reach any big goals, he needs persons at his side. He acts in light of the reality that the work is far bigger than himself.
Calling Timothy “the brother” at the start of 2 Corinthians, I think Paul sees Timothy as “Exhibit A” for what Paul hopes to see in the Corinthian congregation itself. Paul holds up Timothy as representing what Paul is about as he ministers. He will call the Corinthians “brethren” in 1:8 and occasionally in the letter (8:1; 13:11). Yet he tends to use the term to refer to those who minister with him (9:3, 5). Timothy is the kind of person he hopes the Corinthians themselves will become.
Paul mentioned Timothy twice in 1 Corinthians. Immediately after Paul says the Corinthians are his children in the Lord and invites them imitate himself, he speaks of Timothy as his “beloved son, faithful in the Lord, who will remind you of my ways in Christ” (1 Cor 4:17). Timothy was the kind of trusted friend and assistant who could deliver Paul’s letter and then stand in Paul’s place while visiting a congregation when he couldn’t be there himself. “He does the work of the Lord as I do” (1 Cor 16:10). Timothy was also bi-cultural, half Jew and half Greek, and perhaps naturally able to cross boundaries with the gospel as Paul did.
I find it interesting that the Bible first mentions Timothy in Acts when Paul visits Lystra, Timothy’s hometown (Acts 16:1; see also 2 Tim 3:11), where Paul was dragged and stoned, left lying on the ground, and thought to be dead (Acts 14:19). Timothy either witnessed this event or at least was intimately acquainted with this suffering of Paul in his hometown. Timothy knows Paul’s suffering, and yet stands close to him as a trusted partner and friend.
We’ll see that the Corinthians are in a position where they know Paul’s difficulties, and they’re deciding whether or not to stick with Paul. They’re asking, can an apostle, can a model Christian, be someone who suffers? Can someone whose personal presence is weak, and his speech appalling, be a model of Christian maturity for people in an up-and-coming city like Corinth (2 Cor 10:10)? That’s a big reason why Paul writes this letter. Due mainly to concerns about the presence of weakness and suffering in his life, Paul needs to defend his manner of life and ministry, and build trust. Timothy is there as one who knows Paul’s sufferings, and yet stands with Paul. Can the Corinthians become like Timothy? Will they be able to walk with their teacher who has gone through terrible hardship, and continue receiving his teaching, instead of turning their back on that leader or stigmatizing him? Will they be able to stay close to Paul, and see that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, that he represents Jesus Christ, even amidst the hardship he has faced?
Like Paul, we all need persons at our side, persons we develop and trust, who continue the work of the Lord as we do, who teach the Christian way of life as we do. The Christian life is collaborative. It gets lived out in heartfelt partnership and friendship.
“to the church of God which is in Corinth” – Here Paul first names the Corinthians, whom he calls “God’s church”. They’re a called people, the ἐκκλησίᾳ who’ve been “called out” (the literal meaning of the word) and gathered by God. Here the genitive “of God” seems to indicate ownership. This group of people belongs to God.
I once went to a presbytery gathering, a gathering of ministers and leaders from a number of congregations meeting at one local church. One of the ministers asked, “Who’s the owner of this church?” Then the pastor of that congregation was identified as the owner of that congregation. Maybe I misunderstood something. I hope I did. But what I heard shocked me. Only God owns the church.
And this church, this group of people who’ve been called out by God, reside in Corinth. Place is not the same as belonging. Paul says they belong to God, but they live out this belonging in the city of Corinth.
We could say many things about the city of Corinth. Bustling, prosperous. But what’s especially relevant about Corinth for understanding 2 Corinthians is that the people of this city tended to care deeply about competition, success, appearance, status, and reputation. It was a city of opportunity, a place where people migrated for the chance to pursue an upwardly mobile life.
These realities arose from the city’s location on a little piece of land between the Aegean and Adriatic seas. Shipping brought the city a seemingly endless supply of goods and money and people. Corinth controlled this shipping and profited from it. Rome had destroyed Corinth two hundred years before Paul arrived there, but in 44 BC Rome re-founded and allowed the city to repopulate. But since it had gone so long without a population, it had no established aristocracy. So unlike most ancient cities, people who had never enjoyed high status could enter and gradually move into the elite class, if they competed well. So the people were concerned with having the kind of success and appearance and mannerisms that led to high status.
Though the members of the Corinthian church had become followers of Jesus Christ, “some competitiveness, self-achievement, self-promotion, self-congratulation, and self-sufficiency remained” (Thiselton 2019:7). And the church came to wonder if Paul met their standards of what someone who led them ought to look like and sound like. Some were saying, “his bodily appearance is weak, and his speech despicable” (2 Cor. 10:10).
Yet Paul loved the Corinthians and didn’t give up on them. He had spent some eighteen months in Corinth during his initial visit (Acts 18:11), and as far as we know, he wrote more to this church than to any other. His challenges in Corinth were enormous, but he saw himself as a father; he saw them as his children (1 Cor 4:15). He also must have seen the worth of having a church and center for the gospel at such a crucial crossroads in the Mediterranean world. Such strategic ministry was worth personal sacrifice.
“with all the saints in all Achaia”
Paul calls these believers saints even though he will reveal that, in some ways, the Corinthians themselves have wounded him. What a history they have, in light of 1 Corinthians. Yet he dignifies them with the name “saints”, people set apart by God and for God. Both the term “saints” and the previous term “God’s church” signal that these people belong to God and God’s purposes. Sometimes we’re tempted to give up on God’s people, but Paul did not give up on the Corinthians, and will say to them in 2 Cor 1:6 “Our hope for you is firm.”
The believers who are in Corinth are part of a larger body of Christians in that broad southern region of ancient Greece called Achaia, which also included Athens. It might seem that some of what Paul says is so specific that surely it pertains only to a small group of people in Corinth. So it is interesting that Paul addresses this letter to all the believers throughout Achaia, a broad area, well beyond the city of Corinth (see also 11:10). In ancient times, Chrysostom took this to mean that the believers dispersed in this broad area were all involved with the same problem, and thus needed the same solution. I’m sure there’s truth to that, as the believers from this area must have dealt with similar issues and likely composed a fairly tight network of Christian fellowship with one another.
On the other hand, I think it likely that some of the believers living well beyond the confines of Corinth would hear the reading of this letter, and they would not understand some details of issues mentioned by Paul. For instance, they might not understand why Paul’s reputation seems to be at stake. And yet Paul meant the letter to be shared broadly. This bears early witness to Paul’s confidence that the letter could speak beyond its immediate circumstances. Paul must have seen that his situation with the Corinthians fit a pattern of events that could easily occur elsewhere, or at least that the realities he spoke of in response to the problem fit a pattern that could speak beyond one context. Paul’s reputation has been attacked, but Paul has a message which will benefit not just himself or the congregation in Corinth, but the church as a whole.
So, either the problems spread beyond Corinth throughout Achaia, or Paul implies that the lessons speak beyond the particular context of Corinth – and the latter might even say something about Paul’s confidence that it could speak to us, today, as well. Paul wanted the letter shared. He had confidence that the truth we have and speak in Christ is translatable truth. It needs to go public. It can leap over boundaries, beyond the original circumstances. And God can speak to us today through these words of 2 Corinthians even if we don’t know the whole story of what’s behind Paul’s words or there’s something here or there we don’t fully understand.
We’ve seen that in the first verse, Paul marks his identity as an apostle, one sent by Christ Jesus through the will of God, and he addresses a group of people he calls saints and “God’s church”. Paul recognizes himself first as who he is in relation to Jesus Christ and God. That will always come first. Not that he’s Jewish, not that he’s educated, not that he’s a citizen of Rome, but that he’s sent by Jesus Christ. And he is who he is by the will of God. We are what we are, and we are who we are, through the will of God. We can be tempted to put other identities first, and maybe without realizing it. The verse first verse presents us the opportunity to ask if we are allowing ourselves to be defined by God and Christ.
1:2 “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (NRSV)
On one hand, Paul greets the Corinthians in a way modelled after a traditional Greek letter greeting (Thiselton 2019: 21), including a slight adjustment of the word χαίρειν “greetings” (see James 1:1) to become “grace to you” χάρις ὑμῖν. This is normal for Paul’s letters, along with the word “peace” (εἰρήνη) which indicates holistic well-being, based on the Hebrew concept of shalom.
Even in Paul’s greeting, he expresses deep ministry-shaping convictions: Grace, which as we will see in 2 Corinthians is what enables vitality and ministry during any difficulty, comes from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor 12:8-10). Moreover, peace – wellbeing, flourishing – comes from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (see Guthrie 2015:59).
Paul identifies a key direction of movement that lays the basis of our life as Christians: Grace and peace come “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul will repeatedly identify this pattern throughout the letter. In the Christian life and the life of ministry, we have what we have from God and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the source and sustainer of all grace and every blessing.
We will find a triple use of “father” in verses 2 and 3. For Paul, in this context, God as Father means source, and the language highlights the personal and relational nature of God. Paul uses the personal language available to him, and Paul will help his readers see what kind of Father God is – he is the Father of mercies (2 Cor 1:3). And in Paul’s thinking, gifts come from God in, and by means of, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:5; 8:6). We will also see much more of “Lord” after this first mention by Paul. “We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). The Lord Jesus is the one Paul seeks to honor and please (2 Cor 8:19, 21).
As we have seen through verses 1-2 God and Christ make Paul and the saints who they are. Paul knew who he was. His identity, calling, and way of life are rooted and centered in God and Jesus Christ. Through God and through the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul knew who he was and affirmed who he was with strong conviction, and he was able to affirm certain realities about his audience with the same strong conviction.
Let’s remember that God and Christ make us who we are. We’ll learn in 2 Corinthians that Paul’s circumstances also made him who he was, and that God used circumstances to make him who he was. We’ll explore that later. But behind and in our circumstances, God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ make us who we are as God’s church, as saints, and as those who minister. Paul’s initial words invite us to see ourselves as defined by and belonging to not ourselves or our own will but to God, God’s will, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Each one of us has a life and identity shaped by many factors. But most primary and determinative of all, is that we are of, from, and through God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We receive our identity, our life, and our ministry from God and through Jesus Christ
Questions for reflection, conversation, and prayer
- From what do we take our sense of identity and purpose? What’s primary – our history, our education, privileges we enjoy, our belonging to a particular group of people? Do we define ourselves in and through God and Jesus Christ, or do other voices prevail?
- In light of Paul’s words and your own convictions, what do God and the Lord Jesus Christ enable you to affirm about yourself?
Croy, Clayton. 1999. A Primer of Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Guthrie, George H. 2015. 2 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. 2015. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids.
Thiselton, Anthony C. 2019. 2 Corinthians: A Short Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary. Cascade Books: Eugene, Oregon.
In this first video, I appreciate Walter Moberly’s insights into Genesis 1 and also into how to approach a text of the Old Testament.
And in this next video, Stephen Chapman models an approach to 1 Samuel that can work for many narratives in the Old Testament. Both of these videos could be useful in a course on how to interpret the Bible, especially for their descriptions of what theological interpretation of the Old Testament is about, and the kinds of questions the Bible speaks to.
Some passages and verses of the Bible are so curious and rich that they’re worth us focusing on each word or phrase. What does it really mean when Paul the apostle says our worship is to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God? I first shared this teaching with Lusaka Community Church and then with my Spiritual Companionship Group at Justo Mwale University. I had recently finished a course on Paul and his theology with the same group of JMU students. To listen or download, click here.
In this audio file I explore a passage of scripture where Paul the apostle tells about a difficulty that drove him to plead to God. He calls it a thorn in his flesh, and he prays for its removal. And then Christ responds – but the response is different than what Paul asked for. Sometimes our prayers are for a change in circumstances. We ask for outer change, but God gives us grace for inner change. I shared this originally with Lusaka Community Church and with some of my students at Justo Mwale University. To listen or download, click here.
This is a long post — a whole sermon — which I preached during the last Justo Mwale University (Lusaka, Zambia) chapel service of 2019:
I’m honored to share the word during this final service of the 2019 school year. We as a JMU community have made it to week 10 of Term 3. It’s not been an easy term, but the finish line is near.
In 2019 we’ve been hearing messages focused on “Living a life worthy of the calling”. This morning I would like us to think about the question: What about when living a life worthy of the calling doesn’t seem to be going as well as we thought it would? …When we think we’re living the life God has called us to live, but our circumstances seem difficult, when the life of ministry or life as a student at Justo Mwale does not feel it is going as smoothly as we hoped it would go?
Let’s open our Bibles to 1 Kings, where we learn about the God who wants to hear what we’ve been going through, the God who wishes to hear the difficult stories from our lives, and then hear our stories again.
1 Kings 18:42; but also 1 Kings 19:1-14. As we read, let’s be asking: What is Elijah going through? And, What’s being said through the story about who God is?
Old Testament characters are often thought to be role models. Sometimes they are. But, much more often, their stories are meant to speak to us about God as we take a close look at what they were going through.
When our story begins, there’s just been a mighty spiritual battle, a showdown between on one hand Yahweh and his prophet Elijah, and on the other, Baal and his prophets. Baal was the god of storms, rain, and fertility. On Mt Carmel, God has revealed himself powerfully by sending fire from heaven and burning up a sacrifice. Elijah in his zeal has just slain the prophets of Baal.
And so we come to 18:42… So Ahab (the king of Israel) went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees.
What is happening with Elijah? What’s happening inside Elijah? He’s bent down to the ground; he’s got his face between his knees. He might be talking to God, but the Bible does not normally describe having our face between our knees as a gesture for prayer. With his face between his knees, Elijah looks disturbed. He looks down, afraid, maybe despondent, despairing.
On one hand, a battle has just been won. But on the other hand, maybe Elijah is having second thoughts. Did he go too far killing the prophets of Baal? And he realizes who Ahab the king is going to talk to when he gets home.
Jezebel – patroness of the prophets of Baal. Jezebel. It’s not a name we Christians think much about when it’s time to name our baby daughters.
Elijah is probably realizing that once Jezebel finds out what he’s done… his ministry is over, he’s as good as finished. Because Jezebel is a swift killer.
And sure enough, our story tells us, Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” (1 Ki. 19:1-2)
How does Elijah respond to Jezebel’s message? The Bible says…
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life… he… went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He …sat down under a bush and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.
Elijah fears and runs for his life. He knows God does not always prevent terrible things from happening to his servants. Jezebel has killed other prophets of Yahweh (18:13), and Elijah is Jezebel’s enemy #1.
He’s afraid. He’s also down, blue, and despairing. “I’ve had enough, LORD.” “Take my life. I’m no better now than my dead ancestors.” All he can do is lay down and sleep.
So we see that God does not prevent Elijah from experiencing depression. Elijah recognizes he’s in a bad situation, and he feels it like a huge weight upon his chest and shoulders.
This is what happens sometimes to God’s servants. This is what happens sometimes to men and women of God.
But let’s also notice: instead of blocking out or ignoring God, as some of us might do when we feel despair, Elijah speaks his despair to God: “LORD, I’ve had enough.”
I’m thankful for this honesty between Elijah and God; there’s something here for us. God allows Elijah, God allows us sometimes, to go through difficult, difficult things. But we also get to speak our pain to God. We get to name our pain to our good Father — even to say: “God. have you thought about how this might be a good time to finish me off?”
I love how the the Bible is an honest book about what real believers go through. And God is a God who allows us to be honest.
Let’s not miss who God is shown to be. We read in v 5… All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” (1 Ki. 19:5b-7)
God is sensitive to human needs. God knows we need to eat. An angel of God touches Elijah, repeats encouragement to him, and gives him food (v 5).
Yet Elijah, even after being touched by an angel, is still so tired and blue he can hardly get up.
Then when Elijah rises, eats, and drinks, he begins a journey… all the way to Mt Horeb. That’s Mt Sinai, far to the south, where Moses had met with God. So we see this time of running for his life becomes a pilgrimage, a marathon run to meet with God on the holy mountain.
I wonder if we, like Elijah, can allow our fears and pains from a life of ministry to make us run like Elijah to Mt Horeb, to meet with God.
You see, fear and weakness and pain can be a precious gift. A feeling of inadequacy for ministry can be a friend. Because these feelings can call us to God and pull us to God and drive us to God, even as they took Elijah all the way to God’s presence on Mt Horeb. Negative feelings can prod us to run to God.
And when Elijah gets to Horeb, the LORD speaks to him with a question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s an invitation for Elijah to tell his story.
“I’ve been very zealous for you. I’ve done all these things for you, and look at me now. Look at what your people are going to do to me now. I’m the only faithful one left, and I’m counting down my last hours.”
Reality is that the rest of the story tells us it’s not completely true that Elijah is the only faithful one left. But he feels isolated. And God does not argue. God listens.
And God listens to us.
I like this Elijah story for us at Justo Mwale – for us as a community, and for us as individuals. For most of us, coming to Justo Mwale was a victory, a breakthrough. Perhaps a little like Elijah on Mt Carmel. We saw the Lord’s power for us as he brought us to Justo Mwale.
But as we’ve been here, we’ve also been through some difficult times. This academic term a lot of you have found the basics of life very difficult – difficult to cook, difficult to bathe, difficult to sleep, difficult to use the library, difficult to use a computer to write assignments.
Some of us have also walked through numerous other hard things – some have been stolen from, maybe some of you were expecting money to arrive, and it didn’t come. Maybe there’s someone you thought you could trust as a friend, and now you’re not sure. Some expected to be healthy, but you found yourself sick. Some of us have faced serious difficulties in our families.
Or maybe some of us are still hurting from things that have happened to us in life or in ministry from the past, and we thought the pain would disappear here at Justo Mwale, but we still feel wounded.
Now Elijah, we remember, has journeyed to Mt. Horeb. He’s run because of fear, but he’s also run to meet with God.
Verse 11 — The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:11-13)
God has listened, and God responds to Elijah and proves to be a God who makes himself known. But it’s not in the wind, or the earthquake, or fire but in the “sound of silence”, a faint whisper. God responds to us often not in the ways we might expect, often not on our terms, but on his terms. He responds. But he does it his way.
And notice when God makes himself known, he says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Ki. 19:13 NIV). Haven’t we heard that question before? God again invites Elijah to tell him his story. And Elijah repeats the same story again.
Why would God do that? Why would the Bible describe God as one who invites Elijah to tell his negative story two times in the same chapter?
Because that’s real relationship, that’s real relationship with someone who loves and cares. When we go through something hard, we need to tell someone our story, and we often need to tell it more than once. And we get to do that with God. Because he wants relationship with us. And he knows we need to tell him things. And that we may need to tell him some things again and again.
As with Elijah, God says to us, even today, “What are you doing here?” In light of Elijah’s response, I think God means, “What have you been going through that brings you to this place and time in your life, feeling what you’re feeling now?” And like Elijah, we get to tell God our story. “God, this is what I’ve been through. Coming to Justo Mwale was a great thing that happened to me. Thank you. But it hasn’t been easy. Some things have been difficult.”
We are honored by our call, we’re honored to be here. But that doesn’t make this calling or this time in our life something easy. We get to tell God: This is what it seems you’ve allowed us to go through. And this is how we feel.
Once Elijah has been able to tell his story twice, in God’s presence, and God has listened, it’s now that Elijah is ready for God to give him something else to do. The experience of being in the presence of a listening God, a God who keeps asking questions and keeps listening, prepares Elijah to go forth and keep on being a prophet. He can get back to fulfilling the call.
And after God listens to us, and listens to us again, he says something similar to us: I’ve got something I want you to do. Don’t give up. I’m not finished with you.
When we’ve gone through difficulty, it’s being in the presence of a listening God, the God who wants to hear our story again, that prepares us to get back to living a life worthy of the calling.
Perhaps some of us can relate to Elijah. Maybe we feel we’ve been faithful, even zealous, but some things have not gone the way we thought they would go. The Christian life can be like that. The life of ministry can feel like that.
Elijah goes through fear. He’s troubled. He gets so tired. He feels despondent. He feels isolated. And maybe some of us feel some of the same things.
But through Elijah’s story we see.. Our God is listening to us… giving us what we need along the way. He may not always do things the way we want, but he’s involved, he speaks, and he gives us good work to do.
And what speaks to me is that we can be honest with God. He’s attentive, welcoming our honesty.
If we think about what the Lord’s Supper is, it’s communion with God through Jesus. It’s an invitation to closer relationship. When we take holy communion, we respond to God’s invitation to come into his presence just as we are. No need to pretend.
As God asks us, “What are you doing here?”, what do we need to tell him? What would we say as a JMU community? What would we say as individuals? Maybe like Elijah we need to tell God a difficult story. And then, in God’s presence, we need to tell God the same story again. That’s real relationship.
That’s what happens in a relationship that empowers us to live a life lived worthy of the calling. We cannot live the life worthy of the calling unless we first have that real, honest relationship with the God who wants to listen.
Let’s close our eyes and take moments of silence, and ask ourselves: What do I need to tell God about what I’ve been through? And you’re invited to start telling him now, silently, or think of a time when you’re going to be alone with God and tell him the story that you need to tell. He’ll listen. And when you’re ready to tell it again, he’ll listen again. Let’s pray silently…
We thank you, God, that the Bible is honest about Elijah’s inner suffering and despair. You asked him questions. You listened to him. You were there for him. And we thank you that you are here for us as well, for us as individuals, for us as a community. Help us to tell you the story we need to tell, and then to tell it again. We need that kind of relationship with you to be able to live a life worthy of our calling. Amen.