We are studying 2 Corinthians 13:1-11 for Sunday, November 3. This is the “conclusion” to what we have in our Bibles as the “second” letter to the new church in Corinth, but which seems likely to be a compilation of several letters following the “first” one, which may itself be a collection of more than one letter. The commentary we have available to us suggests that chapters 10-13 of 2 Corinthians may be all or part of a letter that came earlier than the current chapters 1-7, and which may have come before or after or along with the letters about the collection for Jerusalem, in chapters 8 and 9. On the other hand, The Bible Project has a satisfying synthetic reading of the book that understands chapters 10-13 as a kind of final statement in the context of a larger overall message about transformed living, “cruciform” living. Either way, here are my notes [and here are some questions] on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The letters to the Corinthians are letters from the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, people think written in the early 50s CE.
Corinth was at that time already an ancient city with a long history, a big city, a Roman provincial capital, and a trading center. I think of some place like Chicago, in a way, or Atlanta. Bible Odyssey has several concise background articles on Corinth, along with a map showing its geographical relationship to Ephesus, where people think Paul was when he wrote the letters.
There were clearly wealthy people in Corinth, and there seem to have been at least some wealthy people in the Corinthian church, although many of the Corinthian Christians seem to have been poor or even slaves. So distinctions of class and status evidently play a role in the conflicts that Paul’s letters bear witness to.
[It makes me wonder whether some of what is going on in Corinth is similar to what is going on in the contemporary church, and our disagreements over “health and wealth” preaching. It makes me wonder whether the “super-apostles” Paul was referring to were the ancient world equivalent of preachers like, e.g., Joel Osteen and Paula White. The people who respond most to that kind of message don’t seem to be wealthy people, as much as they are people who are longing to rise in the world. I can see how the Paul who wrote “in Christ” – and by that he seems to have meant Christ on the cross – “God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19) would have a problem with “super-apostles” like that.]
Of course this text isn’t in the lectionary.
CLOSER READING: In v1, Paul says he’s coming a third time to Corinth and then quotes Deuteronomy 19:15 about needing “two or three witnesses”. I think the “witnesses” he’s referring to here are his visits, honestly. I think he’s saying something like “I’m coming over there one more time, and I’m warning you, if I see what I saw the last time, I’m going to be convinced that I’m going to have to do something about it.”
The word translated as “I will not be lenient” in v2 could be translated “I will not spare” [you all, or anyone, or whoever]. In 2 Corinthians 1:23, Paul writes that he didn’t come, at some point, for that very reason, to “spare” the Corinthians. So, we are left to reconstruct the precise sequence of events here. But it definitely sounds like Paul is displeased with how some things are, or were, going in Corinth.
There is a tone of Mom or Dad’s “if I get home and find out you’ve been watching TV all afternoon instead of doing your homework and washing those dishes … NEITHER of us is going to be very happy.”
That would make v3 an ironic threat: “You keep asking for some proof that Christ is speaking in/through me … well, be careful what you ask for, because you’re about to get it.”
The rest of v3 and v4 draw the contrast between weakness and power three times, one after the other. The same contrast between weakness and power will be drawn again in v9, after one more reference to power in v8 – the apostle doesn’t have any power against the truth, but only for the truth.
Having said that, though, what is he saying? Is he saying that Christ, speaking through Paul, will kick butts and take names this time, instead of being “weak”? Is that how Christ’s “power” in “dealing with” the Corinthians will be expressed? Is this how the one who was “crucified in weakness” will “live by the power of God” and “be powerful in you”? What does Paul’s “weakness” “in him” look like, and how does it relate to living with Christ “in the power of God”? What will this look like in a disciplinary context – assuming that church discipline is what we’re talking about here?
I have a stronger and stronger feeling that we are being handed a trick question.
And then sure enough, the next verse is the instruction to “examine yourselves” and “test yourselves” and “recognize yourselves” as living in faith – according to the proper standard of living in Christ in the power of God from 2 Corinthians 12:10, the standard of “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Or do the Corinthians fail the test? [Presumably this would happen if they failed to find Paul’s same willingness to be crucified with Christ and to live by the power of God working in them, but found instead some different principle at work in their individual and common lives.]
What does it mean to be a failure, then, in this context? It seems Paul is challenging the Corinthians to rethink their standards of success and failure, strength and weakness, and, insofar as “good” names “what we aspire to” and “bad” names “what we try to avoid,” then good and bad.
There seems to be a play on words between vv9 and 10; the word the NRSV translates as “perfect” is κατάρτισιν (katartisin), and then in v10 the word translated “tearing down,” which is the opposite of that perfection, but also arguably a means for arriving at it if you have the problem of being built up in the wrong way or the wrong direction, is καθαίρεσιν (kathairesin). Those two words don’t exactly rhyme, but they do echo one another. Plus, there are other, more common, words that express the idea of “perfection,” that wouldn’t rhyme with kathairesin at all, so I am inclined to think the author used that particular word on purpose.
The “perfection” in view is a kind of completion, or maturity, something like “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13)
The first verb in the final instructions in v11, translated “put things in order” is the verbal form of that “perfection,” “be made perfect” or “perfect yourselves,” in addition to being encouraged (or perhaps, being receptive to what’s being advocated), being of the same mind, and being at peace. That is, different key dimensions of the same state, the state of being alive in Christ.
And then the text ends with a familiar word:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. (2 Corinthians 13:13)
The key is having an accurate idea of what that kind of blessing really looks like, in real life – something the whole preceding letter, it seems, aims to provide.