Pain, love, forgiveness and pleasing aromas

If you are a parent you will know the agony of not knowing what to do for the best. You love your child, you would do anything for them, but they are neither listening to your good advice nor receptive to your concern. What to do?

Paul had made his first visit to Corinth during his second missionary journey. He arrived following a grueling schedule that took him from one end of Turkey to the other, across the Aegean Sea, through Macedonia and then South to Greece.  He arrived in Corinth following his visit to Athens in which he debated and preached with the intelligentsia of the Roman and Greek world. He had been through a lot: imprisonment, beaten up, persecuted and ridiculed. And now Corinth: a city of commerce, culture and corruption.

In that city Paul met up with a Jewish couple, Priscilla and Aquila, they were fellow tentmakers. Paul preached in the synagogue: Jesus is the Messiah! Because the Jews opposed him and became abusive he turned instead to the Gentiles, with some success. The synagogue ruler, Sosthenese became a Christian. But in spite of his apparently fearless proclamation of Jesus, Paul was no superman, he must have been worn out and was clearly fearful of the Jews. Sosthenese himself was beaten up by the Jews and was offered absolutely no protection from the local authorities. Perhaps it is just at these moments of lowest strength and despair that God’s presence is most acutely felt, God spoke to Paul in a vision and reassured him that he would be safe, ‘because he had many people in that city’. Paul subsequently stayed for a total of 18 months in Corinth. He got to know those members of the church well during that time, he knew their strengths as well as their faults.

  1. I’m not coming to visit because I love you!

Given the prolonged time he spent in Corinth, it’s not surprising that Paul was intensely interested in hearing how the church was doing.  By the time he penned 2 Corinthians, Paul had already written three letters that we know of. Things were bad in the church. We know from 1 Corinthians that there was division – people were divided over leaders, there was gross immorality, there was a selfishness and lack of concern for others and there was a misuse of spiritual gifts. Paul followed up 1 Corinthians with what he described as a ‘painful’ visit and a ‘severe’ letter. What now? It clearly distressed Paul greatly to be in this situation, these were people he had spent a lot of time with and sadly he had been forced to point out in no uncertain terms their failings and faults both in person during his painful visit and afterwards in his severe latter. Another visit? No. The Corinthians actually had all that they needed to sort them selves out – they had been anointed by God and sealed with the Holy Spirit as well as having received the Holy Spirit as a deposit and guarantee of future deliverance. It was time to give the Corinthians some space to work things out for themselves, God had provided them with the ability and conditions to do what is right. Paul explains: So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you.

Paul next explained that his severe letter was written with a purpose in mind: so that the Corinthians could make him rejoice rather than grieve. In spite of all that Paul had previously written and said, he wrote with some confidence that there would be a good response. It’s of note that Paul really did care about the Corinthians, he described how his letter was ‘written out of great distress, anguish of heart and with many tears’. It’s easy to criticise leaders for being heartless and uncaring but the apostle was concerned not with making a point but with making his love and concern known. I remember hearing a preacher once say that he smacked his son and as he did so he explained to his incredulous son that he was doing this because he loved him! How things have moved on! Today may people consider smacking a form of physical abuse and want parents prosecuted for such acts. The exercise of discipline is an act of love, as it is a form of training with purpose:brining about improvement in the child. Paul wrote tough words because he cared deeply for the Corinthians – what a great example.

  • Restoration

There seem to be loads of TV programmes these days about restoring old dilapidated buildings. It’s always good to see the before and after shots – an old and clapped out building is fully restored and becomes a wonderful family home.

Paul was in the restoration business too; the restoration of broken lives. One of the members of the church in Corinth had been involved in some significant offence that necessitated discipline. It’s possible that this is the person who is described in 1 Corinthians as having been involved in a serious immoral situation: It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? (1 Corinthians 5). It seems that the Corinthians had indeed punished this person but the purpose was less about retribution and more about restoration. Sin always destroys things, but after the punishment is given, there comes a time to forgive, comfort and restore. Paul understands how the perpetrator feels. He recognises the time to express love to the individual and to recognise his sorrow. Any discipline thus needs to recognise the need for repentance and reconciliation. 

Having given this advice to the Corinthians Paul says a rather odd thing. He said that he had forgiven.”in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.” We are involved in a spiritual conflict. Satan opposes all that is good – Paul says in Ephesians 6:12 the following: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.I don’t know about you, but I’m not terribly excited about engaging with an enemy in this way, but we do not stand alone, we are to ‘be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power’ we are on the best resourced side – there is a real battle but we have God’s almighty power with us. That does not mean we can sit back – we must put on God’s armour so that we can take our stand. It seems that this immoral situation could have been used by the enemy to send the church backwards – it called for discipline of the perpetrator but there was a time for forgiveness too.

  • A pleasing aroma

In verses 12 – 14 we see something of Paul’s movements and thinking. Paul was desperate for news of how things were going in Corinth. Titus had made a visit to Corinth and it seemed that Paul had hoped to meet up with him in Troas (north of Ephesus) but not finding Titus in Troas, Paul crossed the Aegean Sea to Macedonia, where at last it seems he found Titus and heard the latest news from Corinth. The news was pleasing to Paul – not everything was perfect in Corinth that was for sure, but there was real progress and it was greatly encouraging to Paul.

This good news brought a very Roman image to Paul’s mind, the image of ‘a Triumph’. When a Roman general had achieved great success in war he was awarded a Triumph which was a formal procession through the streets of Rome in his honour – it was the highest honour Rome could give. The procession included the state officials, trumpeters, the spoils of the victory, musicians, a bull for a sacrifice and the defeated foe who were in chains as they headed for imprisonment and likely death. Also included in the procession were priests with incense censers. Finally came the general’s chariot.

What was on Paul’s mind as he thought about this triumph? I have met some Christians who are quite convinced that the church will triumph over the affairs of men and that it is just a matter of time before the kingdom will dominate this world. Others believe that Jesus will never reign over this world because his kingdom is restricted to a spiritual realm. It seems to me that Jesus has triumphed over sin and death on the cross and that his final triumph awaits his return to this earth. For now we participate in a triumph because we are in Christ. We were naturally born to be in Adam and we inherited all of the problems of Adam’s original sin, but when we are in Christ we inherit all that he has – we become participants in his triumph. When do we go from being merely in Adam to being ‘in Christ’? When we heard and believed (see Ephesians 1:13). As we believe in Jesus we participate in his triumph. This triumph does not yet change the world. It would be wonderful if it did, imagine if we could change the world for the better, solve the inequalities, pain and injustices we see. Those things must await the coming of the king, but our triumph does get noticed by the world – it’s a somewhat subtle influence but powerful nonetheless.

I remember once working in a biological laboratory. We had some biological samples that had been left out on the bench for a few days and they needed to be disposed of. I had the job of flushing them down the laboratory sink. The stink was beyond description! I remember my Irish colleague ‘Bernie’ coming into the laboratory and promptly throwing up into the sink! As we participate in Christ’s triumph we leave in our wake a smell. For some who are rejecting God the smell is repugnant – it is the small of death, but for others who are open to the gospel it is a beautiful fragrance. If you are reading this having believed in Jesus I suspect that you will know this fragrance, but if you have not and are rejecting Jesus everything about Christianity will be distasteful – its message is that you are condemned to die unless you believe in Jesus. The wonderful thing is that it is up to you – John the apostle says ‘whoever’ believes in Jesus will have eternal life: that whoever is just that – whoever! You are part of the whoever.

It’s quite a responsibility to carry around yourself the smell of death or the fragrance of eternal life. Paul knew this and he was very careful not to be misunderstood as someone who would profit from the message he held with such high importance. For that reasons he did not ask anyone for money – the possibility of misunderstanding was too great. Representing God to this world calls for integrity and absolute sincerity.