We move on to 2 Corinthians now, and things are going to get jumbled. In case you didn’t notice, we aren’t starting “in the beginning” here.
Why? Because Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians isn’t just one letter. In fact, scholars now think it more probable that 2 Corinthians is a composite of four separate letters and parts of letters that Paul wrote in continued with correspondence with the church at Corinth.
In fact, the book we refer to as 1 Corinthians isn’t even Paul’s first correspondence with the church in Corinth; at best, it’s the second letter he wrote them, based on the cues in gives.
So, over the next 5 posts, we’ll be bouncing around the book of 2 Corinthians. The splits we are using are those explained in The Authentic Letters of Paul, from the Westar Institute, as laid out by our fearless leader, Cassandra Farrin, who explains more here.
Ok. 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:18. Let’s dig in.
So, in 1 Corinthians, Paul addressed some specific questions the church had posed to him, and provided some pastoral guidance around the idea of unity. Now, Paul is writing back to them here to defend his ministry and his status as an apostle.
Remember, all the way back in Galatians, when we talked about Paul’s tendency to get defensive very easily? This is one of the best examples of this character trait.
He writes about Moses, and how he brought the law, the first covenant, to the people of Israel. Moses was the original messenger of God, but as the law had shortcomings and was unable to fully justify the people of Israel, they could not be shown the full glory of God revealed through Moses.
Paul contrasts that to his own ministry, and the ministry of his fellow apostles, who bring the full glory of God to the people who have been justified to God by faith in Christ. Paul describes this in striking terms in 2:15-16, saying.
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance death to death, to the other a fragrance of life from life.”
Paul is describing the Christians as a “light to the world,” as the shining example of God’s kingdom on earth. Much as Moses carried the light of God following his personal encounter with God at Sinai, all followers of Christ, all those who emulate his liberating example in the world through their faith, shine with God’s unquenchable light. Paul describes this beautifully in chapter 3. (I’m quoting from Eugene Peterson’s Message translation here):
“Whenever, though, the turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are-face to face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
I love that. Throughout this passage, in the Message translation, Peterson describes the old covenant and the new covenant as the “Government of Death” and the “Government of the Living Spirit,” the “Government of Condemnation” and the “Government of Affirmation.” I think those perfectly reflect the image Paul was trying to convey through all his letters when talking about the Law and Faith.
So what is Paul trying to achieve with this writing? He is pushing back against claims that somehow his ministry is invalid, that he isn’t a legitimate apostle. Instead, he describes how everyone that follows Jesus is commissioned to spread the Gospel, and how he is carrying that out, the proof being the vitality of the church at Corinth. He is reminding them of their own commission, that they shouldn’t be cowed by those who try to hold them back.
Through the grace given by our faith, we are all made like Moses, with the light of God shining from our very faces. Don’t veil it, but let it illuminate all the world, driving out darkness to be replaced with the light of God reflected in each of us.
Next: 2 Corinthians 4-6:13; 7:2-4