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Faith That Is Tested
Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace
Sunday school lesson for the week of November 3, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: II Corinthians 13: 1-11
Key Verse: II Corinthians 13:5
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless of course you fail the test?
To learn that each Christian must test themselves before judging another. To understand our ability to recognize God’s truth is directly related to our own personal healthy relationship with Christ. To understand what the world considers Christian weakness is that which makes us strong.
Geography and other relevant background information for the text
Corinth is a large city in Greece of approximately 90,000 people, the second largest city in Greece. It is located about 50 miles west of Athens. Corinth and Athens are very different from one another. Athens prides itself on its Greek philosophy and education. Corinth is a busy commercial hub for Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Asians. It is not only a melting pot of commercial trade, it is also a city with a synthesis of religions. It was said that scholars were made in Athens, fortunes were made in Corinth. A large temple to Aphrodite stood in Corinth. Again, the religious tone of the city is rather eclectic. Corinth was a perfect city for Paul to evangelize, for the gospel could touch so many from so many parts of the world. Paul adhered to a missionary methodology. He would enter a city and preach in its synagogue where he was welcomed as a Jewish religious leader. He would then work in the tent-making guild in the city as a way of communicating the gospel with the Gentiles as well as the Jews. Eventually a family would take Paul in, and a home church would form. Paul would remain with that church until it was rooted in Christ, and a dependable leadership formed. Then, he would travel to the next city. Paul remained in Corinth for 18 months. These churches were Paul’s children. He worried over them and maintained contact with him as a parent would a child. However, his absence gave rise to false teachers with claims far different from the teaching of Paul. When difficulty arose, if he could not visit, he would send an epistle addressing the issues with which they struggled, along with encouragement. The church he founded in Corinth consisted of both Gentile and Jewish Christians. It is important to remember that though the Jewish Christians possessed a familiarity with the Law and O.T. writings, most Gentiles were very unfamiliar with Jewish law and scripture. Imagine attempting to convert Gentiles to Christ as the fulfillment of the law of grace and love when they possessed no background in Judaism. They were totally dependent upon Paul’s teaching. Thus, Paul had to be sincere and believable. His character had to teach as potently as his words. It is too easy to overlook just how convincing and sincere Paul’s presentation of the gospel had to be in order to win the Gentile converts. His personal faith had to demonstrate that the truth he spoke was valid and consistent with his personal life. Thus, Paul’s personal integrity and the sincerity of the truth he taught at Corinth are important in understanding this text.
This text is not what one might call a “feel good” passage. It is text of warning, of concern, and of chastisement. A false teacher, or teachers, had visited Corinth after Paul’s departure, claiming a superior knowledge of truth because of their Jewish heritage. They could claim superiority in knowledge over their Gentile listeners just for being Jewish. Paul would encounter such teachers throughout his ministry. Again, the Gentiles in particular were susceptible to believing these teachers. In concern, Paul writes a word of warning to them and also visits. Paul made three visits to Corinth and wrote four letters. The first and third letters are believed lost. In the New Testament cannon, we have two of those. We have Paul’s second letter and the fourth. The third letter was a strongly worded, stern letter that later caused Paul to bear some grief after writing it. We can sense Paul’s pain in writing such a stern letter, for he loved the church at Corinth and never delighted in having to rebuke. Though Paul is often presented as an authoritarian apostle, a thorough reading of his epistles reveals a caring father in the faith who is pained when his children suffer. It is more accurate to say Paul was an emotional man. It is undeniable he was a genius with a superior intellect. When he felt anger, he deeply felt it. However, it is equally true that when his heart was broken, he felt the pain as deeply as anyone.
The difficulties Paul faced at Corinth were substantial. Though the Jewish community had the Torah, the Gentiles had little religious teaching akin to Judaism. Many Jews considered themselves superior to the Gentiles for having the Mosaic Law, and were certain to let the Gentile Christians know that Jesus, too, was Jewish. The Gentiles would have resented this. These “super Jewish apostles,” as Paul would refer to them, would have believed a strict moral code of Jewish ethics and claimed a superior cultural superiority as Jews over the Gentiles. The Gentiles possessed a very loose, subjective code of ethics based on former beliefs in Roman gods like Aphrodite. In contrast, there were instances of incest, adultery, and other forms of sinful behavior common in Corinthian culture. The truth of grace was becoming lost in the legalism imposed by those Jews claiming superior authority over Paul. Paul had the task of forming these two into one church through the love of God in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, and he had done just that during his second missionary journey. However, many of the divisive elements reared their head in his absence. Paul’s authority and calling were being called into question, requiring Paul to defend himself. Our letter of study is a statement in which Paul is preparing the way for a third visit to clarify who he is in Christ, and who they are as the church of Jesus. We must remember, such accusations against Paul not only hurt the faith, it hurt Paul personally for the Corinthian converts were his spiritual children, and the church his family. Still, above all, Paul would allow nothing to interfere or impede the true gospel of Jesus Christ entrusted to him. This epistle was written to prepare the church for his third visit to them, to clarify his teaching, and reestablish his ministry and the truth of the gospel.
How do you think you would feel after spending 18 months giving yourself to others in love, only to have them question your motives when you were away?
Historical, theological, and experiential reflection on II Cor. 13:1-11
II Cor. 13:1-2
An ancient Jewish tradition required two witnesses in agreement to accuse a person of wrongdoing. (Deut. 19:15) From a positive perspective, Paul must be certain that it would prove difficult to find two witnesses to truthfully accuse him of being a false teacher. Though arrogant teachers are disrupting his flock, Paul is confident his character and upright living will prevail. From a negative perspective it is sad that Corinth cannot resolve this issue face to face, brother to brother. Using a more “legal proceeding” could mean that the church has reached a level of conflict that requires a legal solution. Exactly what is the source of their desire to discredit Paul? We are not given the specific reasons. However, remember that the Jewish Christians well remember Paul’s persecution of them. It is not unreasonable for false Jewish leaders seeking to discredit Paul to remind the flock of his former destructive persecution. From another perspective, we know power corrupts, and power also can create jealousy. Those opposing Paul might have thought, “Who is he to instruct us?” “Why should we follow his leading?” “Are we not as knowledgeable as him, after all we possess a strong Jewish heritage?” Again, we do not know the answers. Corinth has a history of ungodly behavior and hedonistic practices. Certainly, Paul is concerned that the false teachers are leading his flock back into the very lifestyle from which Jesus delivered them. Still, it is obvious Paul retains much of his spiritual authority and warns those leading others astray, and those participating, that he will take whatever strong action is necessary to rid them of the “sinful yeast” permeating the loaf and restore them to righteous living.
Do you think it is possible to have false teachers today? How would we recognize them? What would be the most Christ-like manner to deal with them? What can we do personally to ensure we are not easily led astray from basic Christian truth?
II Cor. 13:3-4
The false teachers and others at Corinth are claiming Christ does not speak through Paul. This one charge challenges the very credibility of Paul as an apostle. If Christ is not speaking through Paul all he has said and done is in vain. Paul is being asked to “prove” he is a legitimate voice for Christ. One of the great temptations in the Christian life is to attempt to “prove” our spirituality. Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was an attempt to force Jesus to prove himself. Thus, the temptations are prefaced with the phrase, “If you are the son of God.” Satan then follows with a request that Jesus prove it. “Leap from the highest pinnacle of the temple, change the stones into bread . . .” We do not need to prove our faith in Christ. It is a faith lived naturally through our own personality, allowing Christ to work through us in day to day life. The presence of Christ is evident in each of us through our character. Paul must not fall into this trap, and, he doesn’t. Paul is going to allow the brash arrogance of the false leaders to stand in contrast to his natural gentle, compassionate faith. On occasion, Paul can exert strength when necessary. However, Paul can also exert gentleness and love. Paul could not have written such a powerful chapter if he himself did not live in such a manner. Therefore, the brash witness of the false leadership will confront the gentle, loving apostle, and Paul is confident the love of Jesus will prove the greater power. Perhaps, the power-hungry “super teachers” interpret gentleness and kindness as attributes of weakness. Even today, in the competitive corporate world, gentleness, kindness, understanding, and patience are not always understood as the type of attributes that move one ahead in the chain of power. However, Paul does not apologize for his Christ-like behavior. Yes, compassion, love, patience and the refusal to fight violence with violence allowed Jesus to be taken to the cross and killed. Paul is unafraid to identify his own such behaviors as the “weakness of Jesus in him.” However, Paul knew that goodness cannot be conquered. Life cannot conquer death, darkness cannot conquer light, compassion cannot conquer cruelty, and impatient anger cannot conquer patient love. What appear to be weak attributes of Jesus take on tremendous power through the resurrection, for they are proven to be “eternal attributes.”
How can it be destructive or unhealthy to try to “prove one’s Christianity?” What would be our response if someone said to us, “Prove you are a Christian?” How can others see our Christianity without intentionally trying to prove we are Christians?”
II Cor. 13:5-6
Jesus taught that before a person can judge another they must examine their own life. In Luke 6:41 Jesus asks, “Why do you look for the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” The false apostles and Corinthians who have been led astray have been looking at Paul through their own magnifying glass; now Paul turns that glass into a mirror into which they must look at themselves. They need no magnifying glass to look for specks; the plank in their own eye is large and evident and can easily be seen with a look in a mirror.
None of us are perfect. The sin nature lingers and old desires and habits are not yet fully put to death. Still, a far greater power indwells us. The Christian can attest to Jesus living within and through them. Though the presence of Christ can overpower our weak sinful nature, we must allow him to do so. Our hearts must yield to the indwelling Christ in order to overcome the sin within us. Paul is asking the Corinthians, “Is it Christ dwelling in you, and the false teachers, or is the sinful nature?” “Does your behavior reflect Christ or your own pride and sin?” In Romans 7:21 Paul writes, “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul clearly describes the war each of us fight each day between sin and our new life in Christ. However, Paul is clear: Christ is the one who delivers us from the sinful life. Thus, Paul reminds the Corinthians, “You have Christ within you.” If we fail the test, it is because we have not yielded to the power of Christ within. How do we know we have passed or failed? Do our behaviors and attitudes reflect Jesus, or the self? The same test must be put to the false apostles. When faced with this test the false apostles fail, as do the wayward Corinthians rebelling against Paul. Paul is unafraid to test himself in this manner. He clearly passes. He says, “You will discover that I have not failed the test.”
Why do you think Jesus considered it imperative that we examine our own life and faith prior to judging another? What are the negative consequences of judging another without self-examination? Should self-examination be a daily discipline? If so, why?
II Cor. 13:7-9
In paraphrase, Paul is asserting a powerful testament to God’s truth. He is saying, do not depend on others enacting the truth for you, or doing so perfectly. Do not live the truth based on how others live. Live the truth because it is the truth! People can always let us down, or fail on occasion. But truth is eternal and demands our allegiance.
I was once preaching a sermon during a stewardship campaign and noticed the material continued to promise that if people would give, their life would prove more fulfilling, which, by the way, is true. However, it struck me that people should give for no other reason than it is the right thing to do. We tell the truth because it is the right thing to do. We love because it is the right thing do to do. We forgive because it is the right thing to do, even if no other person does so. Perhaps the highest form of Christian morality is when we are determined to do the right thing because God has declared it is the right thing.
Would we do the right thing if there were no reward? Would we do the right thing if no one else followed? What is the danger of determining what is right by following others?
II Cor. 13:10-11
In closing, we hear Paul’s tender gentleness. He does not wish to arrive and be forced to deal harshly with them for abandoning his teaching in Christ. He longs to find a church, not just standing on their own legs, but standing in the power of Christ, unshakable and strong.
Not all biblical texts are pleasant to read, or even uplifting. Many challenge, warn, and chastise. Following Jesus has never been offered as an easy life. Indeed, the way can be narrow. The life Jesus offers is meaningful, beautiful, and rewarding. However, in our humanity we often struggle in our attempt to imitate Christ, and especially in our attempts to live in harmony with others, even other Christians. We need texts like II Cor. 13 to remind us that even Paul struggled against issues like arrogance, falsehood, false accusation, etc. This list could prove long. However, Paul and scripture consistently remind us that we are to take the high road of Christian behavior. Christ is indeed in each of us and the ability to live as he lived is possible; it is not always easy, but is always possible.
Almighty God, we are beset on every side by temptations and trials. Yet, we affirm our faith in the power of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit within us. Teach us to hear the divine voice and courageously follow that voice, even if we do so in solitude. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.