Conflict is inevitable. This is true for every man and woman who strives to follow Jesus in a broken world. The fight for righteousness and purity either in the church or the home draws the attention of opposition quickly. The enemies of the Lord quite often focus their attacks on the disciple aiming at his integrity. When the character of the Christian is threatened so is the witness of the gospel. The Apostle Paul faced this reality in his ministry to the church in Corinth. There is great benefit to the pastor and the believer in learning from Paul’s strong response to criticism, slander, and false teaching, which is evident throughout both letters to the church in Corinth. The few suggestions offered here will help the pastor preach 2 Corinthians in such a way that he may draw application from Paul’s response to conflict and slander that is of benefit to his audience today.
Understand the Circumstances that Led to the Letter
It is not necessary, though it may be ideal, to preach through 1 Corinthians before preaching 2 Corinthians. However, it is essential to know the background and occasion for both letters. Paul confronts the church in 1 Corinthians to deal with division and sin among them, and sends Timothy to guide the church through the turmoil (1 Cor. 4:17). Receiving word that the situation in Corinth is getting progressively worse, Paul visits the congregation to face those who are assaulting his character and who are teaching a false gospel. The meeting was sorrowful and leaves Paul with a heavy heart (2 Cor. 2:1). He returns to Ephesus and writes 1 Corinthians addressing the issues he faced during his visit with the hope that those who opposed him would repent. Paul tries to continue his ministry but the burden he carries for the Corinthian church weighs him down. He must learn how they have responded to his letter of correction. He seeks out Titus and discovers that many of the believers in Corinth are repentant of their sin. This news prompts him to write 2 Corinthians. A working knowledge of these circumstances allows the pastor to connect with the tension, hurt, and ultimately the relief that Paul experienced. These should be conveyed and explained as the pastor works through the text.
Stress Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Paul never sought the destruction of his enemies. He wrote “out of much affliction and anguish of heart…with many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4). His desire was for restoration and forgiveness through repentance. He urged the church to “forgive and comfort” and to reaffirm their love for those who expressed sorrow over the division and hurt they caused (2:7-11). The gospel itself is a picture of such forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul reminds the Corinthian church of the new life and reconciliation they have received in Christ:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (5:17-19)
It is important to stress that God has entrusted a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation to the church. Believers must respond to conflict and character attacks with “the testimony of [their] conscience” and with “holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God” (1:12). Paul reminds them that the goal is not the destruction of the individual making the attack. Instead, under such circumstances the believer is to seek to destroy “speculation and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (10:5a). Preservation of character and integrity is ultimately about protecting a gospel witness so that the believer remains an ambassador for Christ, “as though God were making an appeal through us” (5:20).
Repentance is one of the most misunderstood doctrines in the church today. First, the clear proclamation of the gospel demands a right understanding of repentance. Second, the spiritual health of a church and its ability to fulfill the ministry of reconciliation require the right practice of repentance by its members. While it may be evident in other places throughout the letter, 2 Corinthians 7 presents the pastor with a tremendous opportunity to expound on the nature of repentance. The intent of confronting sin is to produce a sorrow that leads to repentance (7:10). Paul elaborates on what such a repentance looks like and what is the desired outcome of such repentance (7:11-12). There is one important element in this process that must not be overlooked…joy:
Great is my confidence in you; great is my boasting on your behalf. I am filled with comfort; I am overflowing with joy in all our afflictions. (7:4)
But God who comforts the depressed comforted us by the coming of Titus; and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you; as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more. (7:6-7)
I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance… (7:9a)
I rejoice that in everything I have confidence in you. (7:16)
Believers must not only learn what repentance looks like in their own lives (7:11) but also how to respond to others who are walking a path of repentance. As ambassadors for Christ we live in the conflict between men and God. Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth teaches us how to navigate such conflict with grace, repentance, and forgiveness all for the sake of reconciliation through the gospel of Jesus Christ.