2 Corinthians: Grace through weakness

Over the next two months, our sermon series will be in 2 Corinthians. This seems very much like a letter that is written for us. Corinth is a city like ours, Paul writes into a situation like ours, and their need for God’s grace is like ours.

Corinth was the Hong Kong of the ancient Mediterranean world. It was a bustling centre of trade, finance, and business. People from all over the Roman world moved to Corinth to make money. It was culturally Greek but administered by the Romans. Corinth was a melting pot of nationalities and ethnic groups, which included a large minority group of Jews. It was pluralistic: a broad marketplace of pagan deities was available for worship in the city. Corinth was also a meritocracy. The pressure was on to succeed. You had to work hard to climb the social and economic ladder. People wanted to impress and expected to be impressed.

Almost as soon as Paul planted the church in Corinth (see Acts 18:1-18), his relationship with the church became complicated. The Corinthian church was factionalised, deeply influenced by the ungodly values of its city, and often afflicted by immorality. Paul wrote a series of letters addressing the theological and pastoral problems in the church. Second Corinthians (the fourth of his letters to them, two of which have been lost) was written about two years after the church was planted and a year after 1 Corinthians. The issues concerning this church take up more room in the New Testament than Paul’s dealings with any other church.

a gospel shaped approach to life and ministry looks like: utter dependence on Jesus

One of the main issues was that the Corinthian’s didn’t think that Paul was an impressive guy. In a culture that placed a lot of value on personal promotion, rhetoric, celebrity teachers, and wonderful credentials, Paul looked like a failure. He was constantly suffering, poor, and getting in trouble for preaching the gospel. His letters were powerful, but his personal presence and speaking didn’t amount to much (2 Cor 10:10). To put it bluntly, in a culture that prized success, status, and wealth (sound familiar?), Paul looked very weak.

At stake was not just the Corinthian’s relationship with Paul, but more importantly, the gospel that he preached. Paul looked weak and his gospel seemed weak. The Corinthians wanted to turn away from both.

That’s why this letter is Paul at his most vulnerable, passionate, and heartfelt. He defends his weak ministry because it shows the power of Christ. This letter shows most clearly what a gospel shaped approach to life and ministry looks like: utter dependence on Jesus. Speaking about his suffering, Paul repeats Jesus’ words to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

This is a letter for us. We can be like the Corinthians. We’re besotted with success and giftedness. We’re prone to spiritual pride and self-sufficiency. We can quickly forget that spiritual strength is found only when we acknowledge our weakness and are utterly dependent on Jesus.