Acts of the Apostles is an adventure, of the first Pope, the greatest apostle, and the Holy Spirit.
The Letter to the Romans is a brilliant summary of Christian theology.
But by the time we get to the second letter of the Corinthians…
Paul’s goal is to create a worldwide church, which would replace the now-meaningless sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem with the re-presentation of the one sacrifice, of the LORD on the cross. Paul’s goal was to redefine civilization in Christian terms, opposing the most perfect Empire and most perfect Monotheism yet created to do so.
But to get there, he needed to work with people like the Corinthians.
And others, perhaps even including the original apostles, willing to give up and hide from the world.
The Hebrew Bible has two great writings of despair: the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes. And the Gospels has one great work of epistemological doubt: the Gospel of John. Here, in this letter, Paul brings both themes together, and it all revolves around the Corinthians, those dunderheads who got drunk off communion wine.
Ecclesiastes threw the Pharisaical enterprise into doubt. Paul’s great defense was hope…
When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”
But is that just a hope? What can we say about the Law or about life everlasting, when the Law informs us of our weakness and about life everlasting we know… little
I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
Paul echoes both of these. The Law of Moses brings death, it brings dullness, tells us of our weakness but not our freedom
We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.
2 Corinthians 13-15
But Paul echoes the other part of Ecclesiastes’ writing too: what do we know, and how can we brag? If we receive a revelation or a prophecy, what would that even mean? How would others know? How could we truly tell?
I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.
2 Corinthians 12:1-4
It’s vanity to mention it, but only God knows if that soul rose, or fell, or was in a temporary earthly slumber.
Likewise, in the Book of Job, the grief comes from earthly tragedy, but the cosmic horror that the Redeemer would intervene to save Isaac, to save Miriam, but not the ones you love.
“Oh, that my words were recorded,
that they were written on a scroll,
that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead,
or engraved in rock forever!
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
Paul’s tone is different from Job’s, but the theology is the same: The persecution is inexplicable.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
2 Corinthian 4:7-9
Though even in that there is hope
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
2 Corinthians 5:1-5
And Paul touches on the epistemological doubt on theology – not just on resurrection but in the nature of the Divine itself — he makes a fool of himself by mentioning signs, wonders, and miracles
If I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles. How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!
2 Corintians 12:11-13
And this is a foolish claim because Christ himself refuted it
Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?”
Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”
And it is that tension — a foolish claim — a foolish claim that works — the promise of greater things to come — is what Paul is wrestling with, in the context of the dunderheads of Corinth.
But the Corinthians are not done with Paul yet. Paul is organizing a church that will be world wide. He is using the energy of one community to help convert another. He needs money. And he will flatter — flatter with a hint of sarcasm — to get it
But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
2 Corinthians 8:7
Paul must have thought of Ecclesiastes as crafting this message
Words spoken by the wise bring them favor,
but the lips of fools consume them.
The habit of the Corinthians to get drunk on communion wine, to feast on Communion bread, and now the need for money from them, must have made Paul think of another line in Ecclesiastes, too…
A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything.
Under the surface of the Second Letter to the Corinthians is the Didache. The Didache, also called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” or the “Judgement of Peter,” is a two-thousand-year-old, Messianic Jewish text about Christian belief and Christian life. An example passage, showing both its resolute Christian character and its different tone than Paul’s churches, is as follows:
Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:
We We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..
And concerning the broken bread:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.
But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”
Didache 9, The Eucharist
Whether or not the Didache really came from Peter, or Andrew, or another apostles, it also contained lines that Paul found himself battling with
But concerning the apostles and prophets, act according to the decree of the Gospel. Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet.
Didache 11, Concerning Teachers, Prophets, and Apostles
The Didache instructed communities to be cautious of outsiders. But Paul’s objective was building a Church Militant, of replacing the Temple in Jerusalem with a new global religious life centered around the LORD, Jesus Christ.
And for that, he needs money
And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.
2 Corinthians 8:10-12
Aaron needed priests. Joshua needed men at arms. Paul needs money.
This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
2 Corinthians 9:12-14
In order to defend against those who might cite the Didache, as a “false prophet” who seeks money and does not work locally in a community, Paul himself needs to accuse others of being false apostles
And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.
2 Corinthians 11:12-15
In the end, Paul rises from the muck of this world, encouraging the early church and thinking beyond money for a moment
Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss. All God’s people here send their greetings.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
2 Corinthians 13:11-14
A worthy successor to Aaron and Joshua, Paul leads a generation after the great covenant between God and Israel. But it is someone else who performed the miracles, presented the covenant, and climbed the mountain. Instead, Paul needs to keep Israel together.
The Bull El, the Lamb Jesus, has been given up.
The sacrifice has been made.
Now only to distribute the blood.
God so loved the world that He sent His Son into it. And as Paul discovered, even His followers must live in it, too.