Sketches From The Life of Paul
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 16: Second Epistle to the Corinthians
From Ephesus Paul went to Troas, with the same object which was ever before him, that of making known to the people the way of salvation through Christ. It was while visiting this city upon a former journey that the vision of the man of Macedonia and the imploring cry, "Come over and [p. 173] help us," had decided him to preach the gospel in Europe. His stay in Troas was thus shortened, and he was prevented from laboring there as he had purposed; but he states that a door was now open to him of the Lord, and he laid the foundation of a church, which rapidly increased.
Paul had directed Titus, on his return from Corinth, to rejoin him at Troas, and he awaited the coming of this beloved fellow-laborer, hoping to receive some tidings from the Corinthian church. But week after week passed, and Titus came not. The apostle's solicitude became almost insupportable. He says, "My spirit found no rest, because of Titus, my brother." He left Troas, and went to Philippi, where he met Timothy, his son in the gospel.
Here was a church which had proved its love for the gospel of Christ by its faith and works. The brethren had not swerved from their confidence in the Lord's messenger. Paul, in his epistle to the Philippians, does not censure them, but speaks words of warm approval. The truth of the gospel had thoroughly converted them. This church could not be prevented from making donations to the apostle for his support while preaching the gospel, although he had repeatedly refused to accept their liberality. He was very persistent in his determination to sustain himself, lest occasion might be given his enemies to say that he labored for his personal gain. But the Philippians would not be denied the privilege of aiding the Lord's ambassador by bestowing of their means to meet his necessities. Twice while he was at Thessalonica, immediately after their conversion, they urged their gifts upon him. Again they sent him relief while he was preaching [p. 174] at Corinth, and working for his own support. Also when the apostle was a prisoner at Rome, the faithful love of his Philippian brethren was evinced by their kindly care for his comfort.
The church at Philippi were not wealthy. Paul says of these brethren: "In a great trial of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. For to their power, I bear record, yea, and beyond their power they were willing of themselves; praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God."
It had been one object of the apostle, in this journey, to collect means for the relief of the poor saints at Jerusalem. He had established in the Corinthian church, as also in Galatia, a system of weekly offerings, and had enjoined upon Titus, in his visit to Corinth, to give special attention to forwarding this benevolent enterprise. Not only was the apostle actuated by a desire to relieve the sufferings of his Jewish brethren, but he hoped that this tangible expression of the love and sympathy of the Gentile converts would soften the bitter feelings cherished toward them by many of the believers in Judea. Notwithstanding the poverty of the Philippian church, they joined readily in the apostle's plan, and urged him to accept their bounty for the needy Christians at Jerusalem. They had the utmost confidence in his integrity and judgment, and considered him the proper person to take charge of their gifts. [p. 175]
The Philippians did not hold their small earthly possessions with a tenacious grasp, but considered them as theirs only to use in doing good. They thus experienced the truth of the words of Christ, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." They felt that the cause of Christ was one everywhere. They therefore, in their poverty, felt called out to help other churches more needy than themselves.
This spirit of unsectional liberality should characterize the churches of to-day. They should continually keep the burden on their souls for the advancement of the cause of God in any and every place. Benevolence is the very foundation of the universe. God is a benefactor of the human family. He is a being of inexhaustible goodness and love. The love of the Father for man was expressed in the gift of his beloved Son to save the race from ruin.
Christ gave his life for man. He was a monarch in the courts of Heaven, yet he voluntarily left his riches and honor, and came to earth, becoming poor and lowly that we might be made rich and happy in the kingdom of Heaven. The revelation of the gospel should lead all who accept its sacred truths to imitate the great Exemplar in doing good, in blessing humanity, and in living a life of self-denial and benevolence. The sin of covetousness is specially denounced in the Scriptures. Worldliness is at war with the true principles of Christianity. A life of beneficent labor is the fruit borne by the Christian tree.
A deep sadness still rested upon the mind and heart of Paul because of his apprehensions concerning the Corinthian church. While at Philippi he commenced his second epistle to them; for they hung as a heavy weight upon his soul. The [p. 176] depression of spirits form which the apostle suffered was, however, attributable in a great degree to bodily infirmities, which made him very restless when not engaged in active service. But when working for the salvation of souls, he rose superior to physical debility. He felt that the disease under which he suffered was a terrible impediment to him in his great work, and repeatedly besought the Lord to relieve him. God did not see fit to answer his prayers in this respect, though he gave him assurance that divine grace should be sufficient for him.
Paul's burden because of the Corinthians did not leave him until he reached Macedonia, where he met Titus. He states, "Our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears. Nevertheless, God that comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus." The report of this faithful messenger greatly relieved the mind of Paul. Titus assured him that the greater part of the church at Corinth had submitted to the injunctions of the apostle, and had given proof of the deepest repentance for the sins that had brought a reproach upon Christianity. They had immediately separated from their fellowship the ones who had sinned, and who had sought to justify their corrupt course. They had also nobly responded to the appeal in behalf of the poor saints at Jerusalem.
In this second epistle to the church, the apostle expressed his joy at the good work which had been wrought in them: "Though I made you sorry with a letter, I do not repent, though I did repent"—when tortured with fear that his words would be despised, and half regretting [p. 177] that he had written so decidedly and severely. He continues: "Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance; for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of." That repentance which is produced by the influence of divine grace upon the heart, will lead to the confession and forsaking of sin. Such were the fruits which the apostle declares had been manifested by the Corinthian church: "What carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal."
Still there was a small minority of the Corinthians who stubbornly resisted all efforts of the apostle for the purification of the church; but their course was such that none could be deceived in them. They displayed a most bitter spirit, and were bold in denunciation of Paul, accusing him of mercenary motives, and craft in preaching the gospel and dealing with the churches. They charged him with receiving personal advantage from the means contributed by the brethren for various benevolent purposes. On the other hand, some challenged his claims to apostleship, because he did not demand support from the churches which he had raised up. Thus the accusations of his opposers were conflicting, and without a shadow of foundation.
Just such unreasonable persons are to be met in our times, men who set themselves against the progress of the work of God, while professing to believe the truth. They refuse to come into harmony with the body of the church, the burden of [p. 178] their work being to dissect the characters of their brethren, to raise dark suspicions, and circulate covert insinuations. Many honest persons are deceived by these calumniators, whose purpose are not so readily discerned as they would be if the traducer dealt in bare-faced falsehoods.
Paul, in his second epistle to the Corinthians, expresses his faith and hope in that church, that, as they had suffered reproach for Christ's sake, they would not be left in perplexities and trials without consolation. The majority of the church were true to principle, and of firm integrity; they shared in the sorrows and anxiety of their father in the gospel, and greatly deplored the sins of some who professed the Christian faith.
Paul informed the Corinthians of his trouble in Asia, where, he says, "We were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life." In his first epistle he speaks of fighting with beasts at Ephesus. He thus refers to the fanatical mob that clamored for his life. They were indeed more like furious wild beasts than men. With gratitude to God, Paul reviews his danger and his deliverance. He had thought when at Ephesus, that his life of usefulness was about to close, that the promise made to him that he should at last die for his faith, was about to be fulfilled. But God had preserved him, and his remarkable to deliverance made him hope that his labors were not at an end.
The apostle mentions his distress because of the burden of the churches. The pressure was sometimes so great that he could scarcely endure it. Outward dangers and inward fears had harassed him beyond his own power to bear. False teachers had prejudiced his brethren against him; [p. 179] they had made false charges against him to destroy his influence among the churches which he had raised up. But, amid all his persecutions and discouragements, he could rejoice in the consolation which he found in Christ.
His conscience did not accuse him of dishonesty or unfaithfulness to his trust. It was a cause of joy to him that he had been enabled, through the grace of God, to labor in the ministry, not using his natural eloquence, to receive the praise of men, but with simplicity and pureness, in the Spirit of God, his only aim being the good of souls. The fear of God had been ever before him; the love of Christ had ever sustained him. He had not dissembled, he had not labored to obtain honor, or a reputation for wisdom. The wisdom given him of God he had exercised to rescue souls from the darkness of error and superstition, and to strengthen and build up the churches in the most holy faith.
He had been watchful for souls as one who must give account to God. He had not been turned from his purpose by opposition, falsehoods, the prejudice of his brethren, or the persecution of his enemies. He had given his disinterested love and labors alike to all parts of the world that he had visited. He had preached Christ with sincerity and simplicity, and the church at Corinth could sustain no charges against him.
He refers to the promise which he made them, to the effect that he would visit them before going to Macedonia. He tells them that God had not permitted him to visit them according to his intention; for his presence at that time would have precipitated a crisis which might have endangered souls. Had he visited them immediately [p. 180] after leaving Ephesus, he could not have withheld the reproof that their course deserved. Had they then resisted him, the power of God, through him, would have been visited upon the evil workers. God saw that this course was not proper at that time, and guided his servant in another direction. He had sent his first epistle to present before them the evil of their course, that they might manifest repentance, and take action against those who were disgracing the church by their lascivious conduct.
It was through the counsel of God that he had been turned away from his original purpose of visiting them, so that when he should go to them, it would not be with the rod of correction, but with love, approval, and the spirit of meekness. He had felt that more could be gained by his letter than by his presence at that time. He had admonished them to put away the evils existing among them, before he should visit Corinth in person.
His compassion for them is evinced by his advice that the ones who had been dealt with for their sins, having given proof of their repentance, should be received with love and kindness. They were at liberty to act in his behalf toward the repenting sinner. If they could forgive and accept the penitent, he, acting in Christ's stead, would ratify their action. Thus the apostle shows his confidence in the wisdom of the church, and recognizes their authority to receive again into their fellowship those who had once injured the cause by their wicked course, but had now become truly penitent.
Paul's opposers in the church made use against him of his failure to visit Corinth according to [p. 181] his promise, and argued that he was inconsistent and vacillating, changing his plans according to his convenience or inclination. But the apostle solemnly assures his Corinthian brethren that the reports were untrue, and that their knowledge of him should convince them of their injustice. His change of purpose, viewed from any standpoint, was no evidence that his doctrine was uncertain. As God was true and faithful, Paul's preaching was not in uncertainty or contradiction. After he had once declared the doctrine of Christ, he had said yea in Christ, and had never after said nay; or, in other words, had never retracted a single point which he had established by the word of God. His testimony had been straightforward, uniform, and harmonious, and exemplified by his own life.
He and his fellow-laborers had been, in their teachings and doctrine, unchangeable. Their course had been consistent and unwavering. They had ever assured their hearers that salvation was to be found alone in Christ. In matters of customs and ceremonies, the apostle declared that he had wisely met the people where they were, that none might be turned from the truth by pressing upon them that which was of no vital importance. He had carefully instructed them in the truly essential matters of the faith.
The apostle declares that their belief in the truths of the gospel was not the result of wisdom of words in their teachers. No human power had worked the great change. They had not been converted from heathenism to Paul or to any other man, but to Christianity. God had accepted them and made them his children, stamping his divine image upon their hearts [p. 182] through the transforming power of his Spirit and grace. But it was necessary that those among them who had perverted the gospel of Christ, and corrupted the pure doctrines taught by him, should be rebuked, to prevent them from corrupting others, and that all might be warned by seeing that the frown of God was upon those enemies of the faith.
After informing his brethren of his great anxiety in their behalf, and the relief that he experienced at the coming of Titus, the apostle breaks forth with a voice of praise and triumph: "Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish." The figure in the apostle's mind was that of a general returning from a victorious warfare, followed by a train of captives, according to the custom of the day. On such occasions there were persons appointed as incense-bearers. As the army marched triumphantly home, the fragrant odors, the signal of victory, were to the captives appointed to die a savor of death, in that it showed them they were nearing the time of their execution. But to those of the prisoners who had found favor with their captors, and whose lives were to be spared, it was a savor of life, in that it showed them that their freedom was near.
Paul had been an ardent opposer of the gospel, but he had been conquered by light from Heaven, and had yielded himself a captive of Christ. He had become an incense-bearer, signaling the victory of Christ over his enemies. Paul was now full of hope and faith. He felt that Satan was [p. 183] not to triumph over the work of God. The praise and gratitude of his heart was poured forth as a precious ointment. He determined that the name and salvation of Jesus should be diffused by him as a sweet odor. He and his fellow-laborers would celebrate their victory over the enemies of Christ and the truth. They would go forth to their duties with new zeal and courage to spread the knowledge of Christ, as a stream of fragrant incense, through the world. To those who would accept Christ, the message would be a savor of life unto life; but to those who would persist in unbelief, it would be a savor of death unto death.
Paul, feeling the overwhelming magnitude of the work, exclaims, "And who is sufficient for these things?" Who is competent to preach Christ in such a way that his enemies shall have no just cause to despise him or the message which he bears? Paul would impress upon believers the solemn responsibility of the gospel ministry. Faithfulness in preaching the word, joined to a pure and consistent life, would alone make the efforts of ministers acceptable to God, and profitable to souls. Ministers of our day, burdened with a sense of the greatness of the work, may well exclaim, with the apostle, "Who is sufficient for these things?"Click here to read the next chapter: "Paul Revisits Corinth"