Do you find some people difficult to follow in conversation because they chase every mental rabbit that crosses their brain? Before one thought can be finished, another is triggered by the first conversation, and then another, and so the pile begins to grow. Getting back to the original thought is like untangling that extension cord that has been pushed around on the garage floor for the past couple years.
The Apostle Paul was a writer who was like this. It is evident in his style, especially in the book we survey today – that of the second letter to the Corinthians. It is believed to have been written on his third journey, composed in Macedonia (the northern portion of modern day Greece). After his extended time in Ephesus, we turn to chapter 20 …
Acts 20:1 – When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia. 2 He traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people, and finally arrived in Greece, 3 where he stayed three months.
The various letters of Paul to the Corinthians involve one of the more complicated studies in New Testament literature. Not only do we have the two letters in the inspired Scriptures, there were at least two other letters that Paul references having written to them. Here is a best shot at a chronology of visits and letters …
- First visit of Paul to Corinth
- A letter written to them (lost to us) that they misunderstood (see 1 Cor. 5:9-11)
- A second letter – known to us as 1 Corinthians – to address a list of problems
- Second visit of Paul to Corinth – described in 2 Cor. 2:1 as a “painful” visit
- A third letter – lost to us – it was disciplinary in nature (2 Cor. 7:8-9) and grieved Paul to have to write it (2 Cor. 2:3-4)
- A fourth letter – the text of 2 Corinthians.
- Third visit – mentioned above in Acts 20:2
Much of this letter of 2 Corinthians involves Paul dealing with the issue of false teachers who had come into the church family and created many problems. Beyond that, these self-appointed authorities sought to personally discredit Paul and the content of his teaching. Their exact doctrine is unknown, but it likely contained elements of legalistic Judaism and a rising error called Gnosticism – this latter heresy involving teaching that took away from the person of Christ and his perfect humanity.
It would have been understandable if Paul were to have essentially given up on the Corinthians and allowed them to go their own way. Sometimes we have to do that with people who have simply sold out completely to errant beliefs and values. But Paul was unwilling to do this with the Corinthians, having a pastoral heart of compassion for them, even while confronting them in love. There is a balance in that.
We have had a slogan in TSF leadership circles that dates back over 20 years. Our history as a church in the early years was to work with people who had life crises, even of their own creation. We have sought to be a place of both mercy and compassion along with bold confrontation. The slogan goes something like this: We will exhibit grace and compassion to very imperfect people who are walking toward God and growing in faith, while also loving people enough to get into their face when they are walking away from God.
Ministering to broken people is a messy business. When you do it, there are going to be times where it does not succeed. Difficult people have a pattern of turning issues around and making their problem be your problem. While trying to help, you may well be accused of “handling the situation wrongly.” Whereas they spilled the milk all over the kitchen floor, you are accused of not cleaning it up the right way.
In such situations – actually in all situations – we need to hang on to truth and hang on to the Lord. This idea is seen in this representative passage from 2 Corinthians … seeing here also Paul’s irritation, yet also his persistence to hang in there with these wayward people and get them connected rightly to God.
2 Corinthians 10:1 – By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! 2 I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. 3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
There is simply no way around the truth that ministry is difficult, and those who do it are going to have detractors and critics. I hate that, and it is difficult for me as a person who wants to please everyone. But that is never going to happen on this side of eternity.