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Many of us might not consider the city of Corinth to be an ideal place in which to start a church. Yet the Lord called the Apostle Paul to preach the gospel there and he obeyed, despite much opposition. Due to his faithful testimony many came to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and we learn from the book of Acts that Paul remained in Corinth for a year and six months, teaching those new believers the Word of God. (Acts 18:11)
Due to the early date of Paul’s visit to Corinth, we know that the truths he taught would have been primarily those revealed in the book of Romans, truths such as salvation by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the righteousness of the believer, and the spirit that is imparted via the new birth. Unlike some churches (for example, the church in Thessalonica), the Corinthians had plenty of time to learn and absorb these truths. Paul was ministering among them and could answer any questions that arose. They could not claim ignorance!
Nevertheless, some time after Paul’s stay in Corinth, it became apparent that the Corinthian Christians were no longer living these truths. Although the doctrine of Romans was still known, and perhaps even still taught, it was no longer being believed. The behavior of the Corinthians was a powerful declaration of the fact that they had reverted to thinking of themselves, and of each other, according to the wisdom of the world, according to the flesh.
In response to this, God had Paul write the epistle of I Corinthians. I Corinthians is a reproof epistle. It addresses many examples of the Corinthians’ carnality, but, as a whole, shows that all of these wrongs had a common root: they had neglected right doctrine.
The epistle of II Corinthians, written a few months later, indicates that many, if not all, of these issues had been corrected. However, a new problem had arisen: false teachers. In Paul’s absence, a “new breed” of leadership had arrived in Corinth. These men were more greatly influenced by the culture of the day than they were by the Word of God. And they judged Paul by the same standards.
In the Greek culture, traveling philosophers and teachers were common. Modeling themselves after such teachers, these men (Paul jokingly calls them “super-apostles”–huperlian apostolon, II Corinthians 12:11) considered themselves to be professionals. Not only did they accept payment, they required it. And, as with performers in our day, those who could command the highest pay were held in the highest esteem. Contrast Paul:
II Corinthians 11: 7, 9
(New International Version, 1984)
Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge?
And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so.
In order to receive higher pay, professional speakers carried with them letters of recommendation from former “satisfied customers.” Where were Paul’s letters?
II Corinthians 3: 1, 2
(New International Version, 1984)
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.
Paul carried no such letters. For what better testimony as to the legitimacy and power of Paul’s ministry could be found than the simple fact that there was a church in Corinth?
Traveling teachers also kept a list of their credentials and achievements. From what we know of Paul’s background, he certainly could have produced a list that excelled them all. What list did he offer the Corinthians?
II Corinthians 11: 23–28
(King James Version)
Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.
Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.
Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;
In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;
In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.
It’s clear that Paul’s definition of success as a minister of Christ was very different than that of the “super-apostles.” And, in light of the teaching they had received, the Corinthians should have recognized this as well. But they had swerved from the truth, and thus failed to recognize both Paul’s manner and his motive.
In the Greek culture, orators were admired for exhibiting boldness, even arrogance. By this standard, Paul was considered to be inconsistent. At times he was bold, at times he was gentle. This was taken as a sign of weakness, or perhaps even mental instability! Paul’s response?
II Corinthians 5: 12, 13
(New English Translation)
We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us, so that you may be able to answer those who take pride in outward appearance and not in what is in the heart.
For if we are out of our minds, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you.
The Corinthians had grown dull, and in doing so had begun giving heed to those who had nothing to offer but the wisdom and power of the world. By these standards, Paul fell far short of these “super-apostles.” But what were the standards of Paul’s ministry?
II Corinthians 10: 3–5
(King James Version)
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh:
(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)
Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.
In a sea of pretenders, Paul brought something unique. His boast was not in the power of his presentation, but in the power of his message. For only the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). And mere men can never even approximate such power.
A large portion of II Corinthians is devoted to Paul’s response to the claims and accusations of the “super-apostles.” Was he merely trying to defend himself, or did he have a higher motive?
II Corinthians 11: 3
(King James Version)
But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
Ultimately, Paul had one concern—the purity of the doctrine. By the standards of the flesh, men and women of the world—and even, at times, deceived fellow-Christians—will find ample reason to deride the ministers of Christ. We do not waste time defending ourselves, for we know that God has already deemed us holy, righteous, and acceptable in His sight.
But, with all that is within us, we continue to fight to guard the marvelous truth of what God has done in Christ. For this truth has made us free. And in a world full of boasting mouths making empty promises, it is only this truth, this teaching, this doctrine that will impart the same freedom to others.