The apostle now explains more fully his motive for not going before to Corinth. They ought, from 1 Corinthians 4, to have gathered plainly enough why it was. But the flesh never appreciates motives of the Spirit; and the enemy takes pleasure in embroiling the saints, if he fail with those that serve them for Jesus' sake. Now, however, that grace had begun to work in the Corinthians, the language is modified accordingly. The apostle had then asked if he was to come with a rod, or in love and a spirit of meekness. Here, as he had already stated that it was to spare them he had not as yet come to Corinth, he follows up with words that show how far from him it was to lord it over their faith, as some might have drawn from his threat of a rod.
"But I judged this for myself not to come again [or back] unto you in grief.* For if I grieve you, who then [is] he that gladdeneth me, if not he that is grieved by me? And I wrote† this very thing, that I might not on coming have grief from those from whom I ought to have joy, having trust in you all that my joy is [that] of you all. For out of much tribulation and distress of heart I wrote to you with many tears, not that ye should be grieved, but that ye may know the love that I have very [lit. more] abundantly unto you." (Vers. 1-4.)
* The true order is πάλιν ἐν λύπῃ πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἐλθεῖν with the
best and most MSS.
† There is no ὑμῖν ιν p.m. A, B, Cp.m. O, P, etc.
It is a mistake that these words imply a former visit in grief, and therefore a second intermediate and unrecorded one, distinct from the first. The work began, as described in Acts 18. The next visit of which scripture speaks was in Act_20:2-3, after both epistles were written - the first from Ephesus (1Co_16:8), the second from Macedonia - but whether from Philippi (as is the traditional idea), or from some other place, as Thessalonica, does not appear. Tradition is certainly wrong in asserting that the first also issued from Philippi, as it may be about the second. 2Co_12:14; 2Co_12:21; 2Co_13:1, in no way indicate the fact, but the intention of a second visit, put off because of their state, and in the hope that the delay might give occasion to the intervention of grace, and thus the need of judicial severity be spared, on the apostle's part, toward many in the assembly. Indeed 2Co_13:2 seems plainly to indicate that he had not really been a second time: "I have declared beforehand, and say beforehand, as present the second time, and now absent," etc.
There is no evidence, in my judgment, that he had gone once to correct abuses, and to exercise discipline. He was anxious to avoid any such necessity, and therefore, instead of going as intended, he went to meet Titus, spite of work most attractive to him, that he might know how his first letter had fared at Corinth.
Actually he had not been; this was the third time he had the purpose of going; and it was the putting off the visit when intended which gave rise to the charge of light-mindedness. The change was due to their failure, and in no sense to his. On the contrary, he preferred in love to them to be grossly misconstrued, and so, instead of explaining to others, he decided this for or with himself, not to come back to them in grief.
At that time his visit would have been sorrow all round - to him certainly - at the sight of the saints, divided by party zeal, entangled by fleshly lusts, dabbling with the world, tampering with idolatry, unworthily communicating, disorderly in the assembly, and denying - implicitly at least - fundamental doctrine, and not less surely to them, if he convicted their consciences, and dealt with their state as it deserved. Graciously, therefore, had he deferred his visit till the issue of his first letter appeared, wherein he had brought the light of God to bear on all these evils and more, of which report mainly, not a fresh visit, had apprised him. The good news he had received of the effect produced by his letters opened his heart, and let out the deep affection he had for them, spite of their grievous faults. For he is convinced that their grief was his, as also that his joy was theirs. What a wondrous power there is in Christ to produce communion in grief over evil, in the joy of grace, above self and its divisive character and consequences! His desire was the happiness of the saints. No wonder, then, he shrank from going where and when his visit must be one of grief. For if I grieve you, who then is it that is to gladden me, if not he that is grieved by me?" That is, none but they could satisfy his heart. What love, and delicacy too! He individualises the saints in this phrase: And I wrote this very thing, that I might not on coming have grief from those from whom I ought to have joy: having trust in you all that my joy is [that] of you all."
It is clear thence that it is not only inflicting, but receiving, grief of which the apostle speaks, as indeed it is always according to God in His church, whatever it be in the world. His motive in writing was the removal of what ought to pain them as it did him, that he and they might at his coming rejoice together, Christ being the spring, who can tolerate nothing offensive to God in His temple, which the saints are. And the circumstances, as well as inward feelings of the apostle, were eminently adapted to bring about the result. "For out of much tribulation and distress of heart I wrote to you with many tears, not that ye should be grieved, but that ye may know the love which I have very abundantly unto you." It was very abundant love, but hardly more than to others, as some conceive.
There is, perhaps, no place where the delicacy, as well as faithfulness, of the apostle appears more than in dealing with the case which had so deeply pained his heart, in view of the dishonour done to the Lord at Corinth. For if it betrayed how low the unjudged flesh of a Christian might carry him, it had also discovered the low state of the assembly, and made it a special trial to him who loved them, and a special danger for those who were otherwise alienated. Nevertheless, the grace and truth which came in Christ wrought so mightily by the Holy Spirit in this blessed servant, that even the light-minded Corinthians were roused to repentance quite as decidedly as to activity in discipline; and so far communion was restored between them and the apostle. It ought to be doubted that, as he commanded them to put away the wicked person from among themselves, they could not but bow, purging out the old leaven, that they might be a new lump, as they were unleavened. The paschal sacrifice of Christ is inseparable from the feast of unleavened bread we have to celebrate here below. We cannot shirk the responsibility, if we enjoy the privilege. Siincerity and truth must characterise the believer.
But if the saints in Corinth were only of late awakened to feel and act with honour and holy resentment at such an outrage in God's temple, there was danger now of a strong reaction. Severity is as little according to Christ as laxity or indifference; and those who needed such a powerful appeal to arouse them to vindicate the injured name of the Lord, were now disposed to an extreme of judicial sternness, as far from the grace of the apostle, as before from his care for holiness. Thus fellowship of heart was imperilled from the opposite side.
The apostle, however, seizes on what was good, through the action of the Spirit in them, to labour for still more and better. Recovery from a low state is rarely immediate. Correction is needed there, as well as here; and the very fact that the call to righteousness is again heard, may, for the time, so pre-occupy the soul, that love cannot yet act freely. So it was at Corinth, till he who so blessedly represented the Master laid his hands again upon their eyes, which as yet saw men like trees walking, that, restored fully, they might look on all clearly. He had written out of much tribulation and distress of heart to them, with many tears, which refuted the charge of either levity or self-exaltation; not that they might be grieved, but that they might know his very abundant love toward them. Now he turns to the one in question, who had grieved him from the first tidings of the sin, since the first epistle had been used to put his and their sin in the light of God before their consciences.
"But if any one hath grieved, he hath grieved not me, but in part (that I may not press heavily) all of you. Sufficient to such an one [is] this rebuke, which [is] by the many; so that, on the contrary, ye should rather forgive and comfort, lest somehow such an one be swallowed up with excessive grief. Wherefore I exhort you to ratify love toward him. For I wrote also for this, and that I might know the proof of you, whether as to all things ye are obedient. But to whom ye forgive anything, I also; for I too, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, [do so] for your sake, in Christ's person, that we might not be overreached by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his devices." (Vers. 5-11.)
The sorrow which had filled the apostle's heart had, more or less, overspread the assembly; and such is the feeling which becomes it. If the godly Israelite so took up and confessed the sins of the people, how much more those in a far nearer relation to the Lord? Yet we see it deeply in Moses and Joshua, in Hezekiah and Josiah, in Daniel and Ezra. So now grace had communicated to the saints, in measure, the apostle's grief at the Corinthian scandal: not that they, if any, felt so deeply as he, but that he could speak of them all as affected similarly with himself. Thus the hearts of all would be conciliated, and even he that had caused the grief would feel that there was in the apostle anything but the wish to overwhelm him. He adds that the rebuke or punishment already inflicted of the many was enough. This would not have been so if the sentence of excision had not been carried out. Not a word intimates that a. mere reproof short of it had arrested the evil, and brought the evil-doer to repentance. The notion, therefore, of the French Reformers (Calvin, Beza, etc.), or others, to this effect is not only unfounded but unworthy also; for as the first epistle had peremptorily insisted on putting away the offender, the second is equally plain that mutual confidence was in measure restored by their decision and self-judgment in this very case. Verse 9, in particular, is inconsistent with anything less, not to speak of verses 7, 8, and indeed others elsewhere. Nor does verse 6 fairly bear the meaning that he is distinguishing another sort of censure which the Corinthians had administered from the excommunication he had himself enjoined; but that what was already done in accordance with inspired injunctions had effected its purpose, and should not last longer. This is entirely confirmed by the call that follows, rather to forgive and comfort, lest perhaps if he continued under so terrible a sentence, broken down as he was, he should be swallowed up with excessive grief. Wherefore he beseeches the saints to ratify love, as they had already testified abhorrence of the sin, by a formal act of the assembly. Thus too would the saints prove their obedience in all respects, in gracious restoration of the penitent, as before in solemn judgment of his heinous sin; and the apostle also had all this in view when he wrote both epistles.
But it is of deep moment to mark and learn that, though he has to awaken the assembly both to judge and to restore, for they had failed in both respects, he will have them to feel and act aright, joining them in their acts, and in no way acting for them. Hence he does not at all speak as a spiritual dictator, however real and great the authority given him of the Lord, as he takes pains to allege in both doctrine and discipline. "But to whom ye forgive anything, I also [forgive]; for also I, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, [do so] for your sake in Christ's person, that we should not be overreached by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his thoughts." It would have been no adequate healing of the assembly to have forgiven the Corinthian offender because the apostle had done so, and commanded it. When the flagrant evil was not judged, he did command excommunication; but when grace had wrought all round in estimating as well as dealing with what was so humbling, he will have them to forgive, and go with them in it. It is not, therefore, "whom I forgive, ye also," but "to whom ye forgive anything, I also." He is most careful to press their own place of ratifying love, even when apostolically laying down their duty, that he might have fellowship with them throughout. In the prerogative of mercy he would follow, and what he had forgiven, if he had forgiven aught, do it on their account in Christ's person. How blessed the seal of authority, and how gracious the sanction! May we cherish such a scene of divine affections in presence of good and of evil. Our weakness is immense, the difficulty as various as humanly insuperable, the danger from Satan's wiles constant; but greater is He that is in the saints than he that is in the world; and we know that the enemy's thoughts and designs are levelled pre-eminently at God's assembly, the only divine society on earth.
The apostle resumes for a moment the account of his course, but the aim is to testify his affectionate concern for the Corinthian saints who misjudged him, and, failing in love themselves, saw not his love which spared them, as much as it sought their blessing to the Lord's glory.
"Now when I came unto the Troad for the gospel of Christ, a door being opened to me in [the] Lord, I had no rest in my spirit at not finding Titus, my brother; but having taken leave of them, I went forth unto Macedonia. But thanks [be] to God that always leadeth us in triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the odour of his knowledge through us in every place. Because we are a sweet odour of Christ to God in those to be saved, and in those that perish: to the one an odour from* death unto death, but to the others an odour from* life unto life; and who [is] sufficient for these things? For we are not as the many, retailing the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as of God, before God, we speak in Christ." (Vers. 12-17.)
* ἐκ twice ( A B C, etc.), with the genitive.
We see two things here: the apostle's deep value for the gospel; his still deeper value for the saints as in danger of compromising Christ. Hence, whatever his purpose in coming into a new region, and in the face of a distinct opening for the work of reaching souls outside, he could not rest without hearing of those souls, so dear to him for the Lord's sake, and so exposed to Satan's wiles. He had hoped to have heard news of Corinth through Titus; but Titus he did not find; and so, turning his back on those on the eastern side where he then was, he repairs to Macedonia. His heart was on the saints. Anxiety for the assembly decided him to abandon for the time even so promising a field for the gospel. The church has the nearest claim, and the apostle acts on it. It was not only that the letter he had written bore witness of his love for them, and grief over the grave circumstances of the Corinthian assembly, but also his relinquishment of the gospel work he so valued, and this spite of the opening of a door in the Lord. His heart was tried greatly, as he thought of the saints and of his own letter. Would they accept it as of God, and judge themselves by the light? Would they resent his plain and searching, however affectionate, appeals? The situation was most critical. Taking leave, then, of the saints in Troas, he goes forth where he hoped to hear the most speedy and authentic tidings of their state, and the effect of his own letter.
But, instead of stopping to describe the intelligence conveyed by Titus, the apostle breaks forth into a burst of praise and thanksgiving. It was, no doubt, characteristic of his deep feeling and immediate appreciation that he should thus turn from the human instrument to His grace who had wrought such a happy result, where things were so painful and perilous; but no means can be conceived more admirably adapted to express at once what grace had effected in the Corinthian saints, nor any more becoming a servant of Christ. There is thus the complete absence of self-vindication, and there is no credit taken for superior wisdom.
The gracious power of God is celebrated immediately as His victory. Not merely is every means attributed to Him, and the blessing, from Him, which piety would always feel and utter gladly, but he speaks in the most forcible way of God always leading us in triumph in the Christ. The best proof of its peculiarity is that so many commentators, Protestant and Catholic alike, pare down and alter the meaning. Among the rest, our own Authorised translation was so affected by this impression, that they rendered θριαμβεύειν "to cause to triumph," instead of lead in triumph, as they should. The other has been attempted to be sustained by the Hellenistic causative usage of μαθητεύειν βασιλεύειν κατηλεύειν and χορεύειν even in classical Greek. But the usage of the apostle in Col_2:5 is adverse, nor am I aware of a single instance in which it can be proved to be ever thus employed. Besides, it really weakens, if it does not destroy, the beauty of the apostle's image, and makes it to be his triumph rather than God's. The one would be a rather unseasonable, and perhaps galling, reminder to the Corinthians that he was as right as they were wrong; the other, a singularly beautiful, though bold, prediction of a divine victory, in which he has part as a willing captive, or part of the train.
There is no over-colouring of the figure, no representation of himself as humbled and conquered, still less any reference to their fighting against God or His servant. But he turns his joy over their being brought to repentance, and a recognition of his apostolic authority, as well as of his loving services, into a thanksgiving to God, who, instead of letting him feel his abandonment of evangelistic work, always loads us in triumph in the Christ, and makes manifest the odour of His knowledge through us in every place. The allusion is to a Roman triumph, where aromatics were burnt profusely; and on this, too, he seizes to illustrate the going forth everywhere around of his testimony to Christ in the gospel. But the sweet perfumes in a triumphal procession were accompanied by life to some of the captives, and by death to others; and this is as naturally as powerfully turned to point the twofold issues of the gospel.
The unbelieving Jew or Gentile saw no more in Jesus crucified than a dead man; how could the message founded on Him be of power to such? They might not deny the gracious words of it, any more than of Christ in the synagogue of Nazareth, where He announced His mission in the wondrous citation from Isaiah 61; yet they saw not, heard not, God in either. But as God delighted in His Son, a Saviour, so He pronounced beautiful the feet of those that announced glad tidings of peace, of those that announce glad tidings of good things; and so, too, He smells a savour of rest sweeter than that of Noah's offering, or any other. "Because," says the apostle, "we are a sweet odour of Christ to God in those to be saved, and in those that perish;" and this he explains carefully: "to the one an odour from death unto death," which we have seen; "but to the other an odour from life unto life." Such is the message where it is mixed with faith; for faith sees and hears Him as the Son of God, yet Son of man, who died for man, for sins, but rose in the power of an endless life, that we might live also, and live of His life, where sin can never enter, nor death have dominion more.
No wonder, as the apostle weighs the responsibility of a service so blessed on the one side, so tremendous on the other, that he exclaims, "And who [is] sufficient for these things?" For if the gospel is a word of delivering grace, it causes the truth to shine out so as to intensify the servant's estimate of responsibility. This is just what should be - full liberty imparted, instead of bondage; but solemn responsibility, realised as it never was before, and could not be in any other way. But here the mass of the Corinthians sadly fell short, not the apostle, whom they had slighted in their self-sufficient folly. "For we are not, as the many, retailing (or, adulterating) the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as of God, before God, we speak in Christ." He did not, like the many, traffic in the word of God; but as of transparency, nor this only, but as of God, and this too with a present sense of having to do with Him, as all must later, "before God," "we speak in Christ," which is far more intimate and forcible than merely of Him. Yet even such solemn words did not hinder men, and even saints, too soon and down to our day, to make the ministry of the gospel a stepping-stone to earthly gain and worldly honour, in manifest discord with the cross of Christ, and to the utter eclipse of His heavenly glory, not to speak of the grievous loss of all concerned.