(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.
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.
- Read through the entire book of the Bible to see where it mentions the theme. If the book is very long, consider using a concordance instead to see everywhere the book uses the word. Trace the theme’s use and development through the book as a whole. Look for repetition of key nouns, verbs, phrases, images, and ideas. Remember that a theme can be expressed in many different ways. Keep in mind that a key word in Greek might be hidden behind two or three different English words in translation (if you have access to the Greek text and/or Greek concordance, try to use these).
- Notice how this theme intersects and overlaps with other key themes in the book. For instance, if you are studying trials and temptations in James, what other themes in James shed light on these themes? Also, does the book contain contrasting or opposite themes that shed light on the theme you are studying? For example, if you are studying “endurance” in Hebrews or Revelation, how does the book contrast endurance with another theme?
- How does the theme relate to the book’s rhetorical situation and aims, and what role does it play in achieving the author’s aims? For instance, John states his aim in writing his Gospel in 20:30-31, and he mentions “belief” and “life”, and other key themes in John tend to relate to these themes.
- Attempt to arrive at this book’s specific understanding of this theme by making use of all the book says about the theme. Be open to variation and complexity, and to seeing things you didn’t expect. What observations can you make regarding the theme’s role in the overall theology of the book?
- Be careful not to assume that this book of the New Testament (NT) speaks about the theme in precisely the same way that another NT book deals with the theme. Can you pinpoint clarifying comparisons or contrasts between the theme in this book of the NT versus other NT books?
- What does your study of the theme reveal about this book’s perspective on the Christian life? Has your study shed light on how the Christian life works, according to this book?
- During your study of this theme, have there been particular ways that you relate personally to this theme? Are there ways the theme helps you see your life a little differently or more clearly? How does this theme speak to you personally? How might this theme speak to your family? How might it speak to your church?
- After you have followed through on the above steps, consider secondary sources that might help you gain greater insight into your theme (a study Bible, commentary, Bible dictionary, an article, etc.) or correct any misperceptions. If you are writing a paper and take an idea from such a source, you must reference that source and clarify exactly what you took from it.
- If you are writing an essay or preparing a teaching, read and reread your observations until you can develop an outline that organizes your material in a thoughtful and meaningful way.
Is the gospel of prosperity biblical? That is, does it communicate what Scripture itself teaches, and does it express what is true of the Bible as a whole?
Certainly those who preach prosperity present it as a message from Scripture. They point to a wide array of key verses that seem to guarantee financial breakthroughs. For instance, prosperity preachers repeatedly quote 2 Corinthians 8-9, including: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9, NIV). They also repeat, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8, NIV).
However, these verses which prosperity preachers quote tend to be removed from their original context of 2 Corinthians. This is one of the biblical books most quoted by prosperity preachers, but as a whole it teaches something very different than the prosperity gospel. It is the same letter where the Apostle says twice that he has often gone hungry (2 Cor 6:5; 11:27) and where he teaches that the sufferings of Christ are abundant in the lives of believers (2 Cor 1:5). It is also in 2 Corinthians that Paul tells of the thorn in his flesh that would not leave him, despite his repeated pleas to God (2 Cor 12:7-10). In fact, one of the main themes of 2 Corinthians is that the Christian life is not about escaping or moving beyond weakness and suffering; this letter teaches that we experience and administer God’s power and presence in the midst of hardship. For this reason, it is quite strange to use verses from 2 Corinthians to guarantee success to believers.
If 2 Corinthians as a whole does not promise prosperity to believers, then how is it that prosperity preachers keep turning to 2 Corinthians for promises of financial breakthrough? The answer lies in their interpretive method: They tend to rely upon scattered verses in the New Testament that are removed from their original context, and they tend to overlook the main aims, major lines of thought, and key themes of biblical books from where the verses originate. Prosperity preachers’ removal of verses from where they originate leads them to misinterpret the verses they quote. In the case of 2 Corinthians, the result is a contradiction of the overall message of the book. As preachers, we need to be careful about relying upon a few scattered Bible verses pulled out of their historical and literary context. We need to be wary of utilizing these as proof texts that run against the main themes of the books of the Bible where they were originally found. Yet this is precisely the error that many who preach the message of prosperity fall into.
Understanding communication, and interpreting it wisely, always requires context. Imagine trying to view an impressionist painting by looking at only a few of the artist’s dots, while ignoring the whole. Or imagine the proverbial blind person trying to describe an elephant by touching only one part of its body. In both cases, the resulting picture is quite different than reality. The same might be said of prosperity preachers’ approach to quoting the Bible.
* A version of this was published earlier in this blog and also in In Search of Health and Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel in African, Reformed Perspective, ed. Hermen Kroesbergen (Wellington, Republic of South Africa: Christian Literature Publishers, 2013; Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2014).
We used this guide as fifteen students (from Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) and I have studied Hebrews through Jude in six weeks. I led class the first three weeks, and they took turns leading class the last three weeks. It’s been rich.
Read the following guide and then read through the whole biblical book with these questions in the back of your mind, taking notes as you go.
1. What stands out the most to you as you read this book?
2. What clues do you find regarding the audience’s situation to which the author is speaking?
3. What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, what does it seem the author was seeking to accomplish by writing the book? Where and how does the writing express these aims?
4. What strategies does the author use to carry out these aims? (Examples: Can you detect a structure of an argument? Is there repetition of key words and concepts? Do quotations of the OT seem significant? Are certain phrases or ideas important at the beginning and re-appear at the end? Does making an outline of the book help you see the strategies better?)
5. What are the main themes of this document? How are they described?
6. Try to describe, in depth, how this book portrays the Christian life. What contributions do you think this book makes for understanding the Christian life?
7. What situation(s) in your own life, or in the life of your congregation, does this book remind you of? If you wrote your spiritual autobiography with this letter in front of you, how might you use it to tell your story? And are there ways this letter helps you to understand things you have witnessed or experienced in your congregation?
8. How does this book speak to your life? How might it speak to the life of a congregation you are serving or have served? How might it speak to the church as a whole in your home country?
9. If you were to prepare a series of sermons (and/or teachings) based on this book, how would you do that in a way that is true to what the book is saying and also on target for the lives of the people you are ministering to? What passages would you choose? What would the main focus be for each of the messages you would share? Take notes for possible sermon outlines.
I recently spent a morning with young Zambian women who are thinking about attending seminary. Our focus was learning to interpret the Bible, and we studied the whole of Paul’s letter to the Philippians using these questions below.
1. Read through the book in its entirety, seeking to understand it as a whole. Does the reading of the whole enable you to see things you had not noticed before, or which haven’t been emphasized in your prior exposure to the book? Do certain aspects stand out as characteristic of this book?
2. Can you find evidence for the occasion that led the author to write the book, or the situation which the writer is addressing? Do you find information about the original audience and their circumstances? What aims for the book do you find? What does it seem the author was trying to accomplish by writing this book?
3. What primary themes stand out? Look for repetition of key words, images, phrases, and ideas. (As you read this book of the Bible, keep asking what the main themes are and where they change.)
4. In light of your attention to the book as a whole, what have you come to understand about this book’s perspective on God and the Christian life? What clues do you find regarding how the Christian life looks and works? Do you have any new insights into key verses that have been meaningful to you in the past?
5. In light of all that you have discovered above, how does this book speak a living word to you personally, and how might it speak to your church or to others you know? If you were to teach or preach from this book, what would you wish to emphasize?
Greetings from Zambia. I try to keep my eyes and ears open for inspiration, and certain stories, images, and ideas catch my attention from time to time. One image has done this for me lately, and I would like to share it with you. It’s the way that Luke, John, and Paul use the Greek word for “press upon” (epikeimai) in the New Testament, and it’s loaded with meaning for the work of training pastors here at Justo Mwale Theological University College.
I like how some versions of the New Testament translate Luke 5:1 literally and say “the crowd was pressing in on Jesus to hear the word of God”. The verse is found in a passage where Simon Peter hears Jesus give him a small command to move his boat a little, followed by a harder command to go back out into deep water after a whole night of catching nothing. This is followed by a magnificent catch of fish. Then Jesus explains that Simon Peter is now to fish for people, and Peter leaves everything to follow Jesus. It’s a rich passage for learning about discipleship, yet we often tend to miss the first couple verses which set the stage. I am learning not only from Jesus and Peter’s interaction, but also from this crowd at the opening of the story: They press upon Jesus to hear the word of God.
Too often, seminary professors and seminary students spend a great deal of time studying and talking about the Bible and theology, but still miss what this crowd experienced: pressing upon Jesus to hear the word of God. When our students asked me to speak at a recent all-night prayer meeting, I shared that I hope this crowd can be a model for how we approach education at Justo Mwale. Learning to study and think about Scripture is so much more than an academic exercise. We need to meet and keep meeting Jesus, we need to lean upon him, and we need to hear a living word spoken to us and to those we minister to.
The way John 21:9 uses the same Greek word for “press upon” also piqued my curiosity. Interestingly, John uses this word to describe fish and bread that are lying upon, or pressing upon, a charcoal fire. That made me think about what happens when fish and bread lie or press upon a fire. The heat seeps into, and spreads throughout, the fish and the dough. The fish change, and the dough is transformed to bread.
Which brings me back to seeing the crowd as a model for how we approach Scripture: we can press upon Jesus to hear the word of God. And the voice of Christ through the scriptures is like a hot charcoal fire. Just as fish and dough upon the fire are changed by the heat, when we press upon Jesus and his word, something happens to us. The heat, light, and energy of the word press back upon us. The heat enters us. It fills us. And we change. We’re transformed into disciples who are on our way to joining the work of our master.
The apostle Paul, too, uses this word for “press upon” in an intriguing way. In 1 Cor 9:16 he says, “A necessity (or urge) presses upon me.” And the verse goes on to say that the necessity/urge that presses upon him is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The result is that he has a message he simply must share with others.
We believers can go through a similar “press upon” experience. By pressing upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit with our attitude and heart when we open Scripture (whether it be alone in our homes, in a small study group or Sunday School class, or during a sermon), we can allow the word to speak to us afresh. And as we press on Jesus, his word begins to press upon us. That changes us, and the result is that we have something to share. We have something we feel we must share with others. But it all starts with us being like the crowd of Luke 5:1 — pressing upon Jesus to hear the word of God.
My students have experienced all of this for themselves, and that’s why they’ve been chosen to come to our theological college. It’s a place where students can learn a lifelong habit of opening Scripture to lean on Jesus and hear his word. They have the opportunity to interact deeply with books, with each other, and with the faculty – all for the sake of learning to hear the transforming word of Christ, spoken to them and their African context.
As you think of us, please pray that we’ll receive the crowd’s signal from Luke 5:1. Pray that each bit of our academic work at Justo Mwale will help us to lean upon Jesus to hear his word. May we never settle for information alone. Pray that our faculty and students won’t miss the heat, energy, and light of the word of God, so there won’t be a gap between our study of theology and our practice of the Christian life. Your prayers can help our students get this foundation they need for future ministry in Africa.
I also pray that God will give you all that you need to be able to open Scripture, press upon Jesus, and hear the particular word he wishes to speak into your life.
I just realized I never shared my seminary’s 2011 issue of our journal, Word and Context. I’ll paste the beginning of my article here, and then those who wish can link to the rest of it on our seminary website. I also commend the other articles, written by my colleagues.
Introduction: Christian Freedom Then and Now
The Bible, as a book written in ancient times, does not mention certain aspects of life today. For instance, the Bible does not speak explicitly about the use of technology and media like televisions, cell phones, and computers. But does this mean that the Bible does not speak at all about these tools of communication and forms of entertainment that play such enormous roles in our lives? Sometimes Scripture does not speak about a topic on the surface level but speaks wisely about it once we take a deeper look. If we look closely at Scripture, we may be surprised to see how much it can address even these areas of life today.
To continue, click below and go to page 47 of the 2011 issue.