2 Corinthians: A Lesson in Humility

Before the SBS year begins, our school leader, Tamara, asks the rest of the staff what books we’d like to teach. 2 Corinthians was not on my list. It’s not that I didn’t want to teach this book, it simply wasn’t on my radar. When I think about which books I’d like to teach, I usually list the books I loved studying on my SBS (like 1 Thessalonians, which I got to teach last year), or the books that challenged me in SBS (like James, which I also taught last year). 2 Corinthians really wasn’t on either of these lists. It didn’t stand out to me a great deal. That being said, I am so incredibly glad I had the opportunity to teach this book this year. I would say that of all the books I’ve taught, 2 Corinthians has impacted me the most personally.

Paul wrote 2 Corinthians largely as a defence of his ministry. Paul had had a long and somewhat difficult relationship with the Corinthians. Although we only have 1 & 2 Corinthians in our Bibles, it is likely that Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians, one prior to 1 Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 5:9), 1 Corinthians, one after 1 Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 7:5-13), and then 2 Corinthians. By the time he penned 2 Corinthians, I think it’s safe to say that he may have been slightly on the exasperated side. He had spent eighteen months with the Corinthians (Acts 18) when he first preached the Gospel in the city of Corinth, had visited them since then (see 2 Corinthians 2:1; 12:14 and 13:1), and had written them three letters, yet problems were continually arising. The latest problem was the presence of the “super-apostles” in the church. These “super-apostles,” so-called by Paul because of their love for eloquent speech and boastfulness, were not true apostles, and were challenging Paul’s apostleship.

What stands out to me is that Paul defends his apostleship not out of a desire to defend himself, or to compare himself with the super-apostles; he defends his apostleship because it is the ministry he has been given by God. To defend his ministry is to defend the Gospel that God has equipped him to preach. While Paul could have boasted in the churches he had planted, the hardships he had endured, or the revelations he received for his own sake, he writes of these things to point to the way in which God has empowered him to walk through things. While the super-apostles point to themselves, calling the Corinthians to admire and applaud them, Paul points to Jesus, calling the Corinthians to see that the surpassing power belongs to Christ, and not to him (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Paul likens himself and his co-workers to jars of clay. Jars of clay are temporary, easily broken, fragile vessels. There is nothing strong about them. Despite this, and even, perhaps, because of this, God has chosen to shine “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6) through the cracks in these jars. The strength is His, and He works through Paul’s weakness, through the weakness of His co-workers, and through those who worship Him and live for Him today.

2 Corinthians has affected me more deeply than any of the other books I have taught. The reason for this is that unlike Paul, I cannot always say that my actions have the sole intention of bringing glory and honour to the Lord. Paul always boasted in his God, never in himself. This causes me to ask major questions of myself, especially in the context of the ministry I have been given by God – teaching the Bible. When I teach, is it my sole desire that God would be glorified? While of course I do want Him to be exalted, to be honest, I want to be exalted also. I want our students to think I’m a great teacher. I want my lectures to be memorable. I want to impress my fellow staff. While I hope that God will be glorified in my teaching, too often this is something on the sidelines of wanting myself to be glorified. As I read 2 Corinthians and consider how Paul is always pointing to his own weaknesses, and to God’s amazing strength and His ability to work in Paul despite his identity as a “jar of clay,” I am tremendously convicted.

As we read the Bible and as God works on our hearts, it is not enough just to “think” about what God has shown us. We must act on it. How do I act on the recognition of my pride in the ministry that God has given me? Of course, I repent, I ask God to help me to change, and I ask that my desire would truly be for His name to be glorified, no matter what that looks like for my reputation. But where do I go from here? I can’t say I have the answer. All I can do is trust in the God who chooses to shine through me, though at times I feel that I am not just a chipped, but shattered jar of clay.

1 Corinthians & Being a Life-Long Learner

I taught 1 Corinthians last year, so the process of studying the book this year should have been: reread the book, see if I still agree with my notes, and present something similar to what I taught previously. With only a little over two weeks since teaching Psalms, there wasn’t really room for starting from scratch. The Holy Spirit had other ideas.

Last year when I taught 1 Corinthians, I found myself unsettled around a couple of things. One was the structure of the letter. It is so different from other letters Paul writes. Usually Paul splits his structure between teaching Theology and Application/Ethics. He typically moves from one to the other. With 1 Corinthians, he seems to mix the two together. The standard opinion in SBS is this is because Paul is addressing concerns from the church that have come to him by report and by letter, respectively. This never fit for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe Paul had received a letter full of questions from the church in Corinth, and that he heard a report of what was going on there (1 Cor. 1:11; 7:1); I just don’t think this is the source of the structure of the book. Now to the non-SBSer, this might seem a bit dull, but stay with me. The other thing that didn’t sit well with me was the opening of the letter where Paul addresses the recipient. It says: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).

What raised questions for me was the language of “all those who in every place”. It seems like Paul has an audience in mind that goes beyond the church in Corinth. Now enter into my lecture preparation story a commentary by Kenneth Bailey called Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. In this book I found someone who could give direction to my unsettledness. Bailey believes Paul was doing something beautifully different with this letter. Paul is leaning into his past as a Hebrew, and writing this letter in the form of Hebrew Parallelism. This is a style of often poetic literature that is common in the Psalms and the Prophets. In using this repetitive style, Paul is linking his message to the imagery of his past, particularly with regards to the importance of the prophetic in guiding the people of God in the right way to walk before God. In the poetry of the Psalms, parallelisms are often clear, but in this letter (as also in the prophets) the parallelisms are found in the rhythm of ideas more than in the rhythm of verses and stanzas.

Why write in this style? Paul sees the “occasional” (or specific) issues of Corinth as common to all the churches in the Roman Empire that find themselves immersed in a pagan world. 1 Corinthians was meant to go beyond the issues of a few house churches in Corinth to be an encouragement to believers throughout the Empire. Corinth was a port of great importance in the time of the writing of this letter, and as such, it would have been easy to circulate the letter from there.

Paul expresses several ideas that are necessary for the believer living in the Roman Empire through a chiastic structure of parallelism. We can think of this structure as having an A-B-C-B-A pattern. The As are about “The Cross and The Resurrection.” The Bs are about “Sex and Worship.” The C is about “Life in a Pagan World.” Each of these main headings come with a sub-heading. (A) The Cross: The Unifying Power of God (1:10-4:13). (B) Sex: Men and Women Relating in the Human Family (4:14-7:40). (C) Life in a Pagan World: How Christians are to be in the World But not Part of It (8:1-11:1). (B) Worship: Men and Women Relating in the Church (11:2-14:40). The Resurrection: Hope in the Victory of Christ (15:1-58). Of course, these titles are interpretive, but it does become clear these are foundational issues that not only faced Christians thousands of years ago around the Mediterranean, but continue to face the church today. Paul uses a style of writing that creates an artistic beauty in the way that the ideas are placed alongside each other. This book is written to call its readers to walk in a way worthy of the life that has been given to them through Christ, just as the prophets of old called Israel to walk worthy of the covenant God had given them.

The introduction of this new approach to 1 Corinthians has shown me that there is always more to be discovered in my study of the Bible. There is so much beauty found within the pages of this Book. I need to see myself as a life-long learner and not assume that because I have taught something once, I am an expert. I hope that maybe what I have discussed here will help you to see this also. I hope that you might be encouraged to study a passage or book you thought you understood fully, and see if there is something new that God would have for you. All of this, whether assisted by academic wisdom or not, is done under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit, guide those who would seek to have fresh revelation from the Scriptures You inspired to have written.

Book Review: Buy This Land, by Chi-Dooh Li

Picture the following scene: Jerusalem is under siege, and she will be destroyed. The prophet Jeremiah is “shut up in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah” (Jeremiah 32:2) because he has told Zedekiah that Jerusalem will be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and Zedekiah will be taken into Babylon. Jeremiah is essentially imprisoned, and is in the middle of a siege. The people around him would be starving, desperate. In the midst of this, Jeremiah hears the word of the Lord: “Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle will come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours'” (32:7). Essentially, God tells Jeremiah that his cousin is going to ask him to buy his field, a field in a land that is about to be handed over to the Babylonians! Jeremiah knew full well the impossibility of this situation – he knew he would never walk on this land, cultivate it, make a living from it. But in the midst of this situation, he knew that this crazy-sounding instruction from the Lord was a promise: a promise that though God’s people were about to be exiled, they would one day return to their land. God would restore them.

While Jeremiah’s story might sound like a strange introduction to a book review, it is the foundation for the title of Buy This Land, by Chi-Dooh Li. Chi-Dooh Li is a Spanish-speaking Chinese lawyer based in Seattle, and he is the founder of Agros International, an organization that seeks to empower communities to rise out of poverty through private land reform. Practically, this means that Agros International purchases large parcels of land (in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Chiapas region of Mexico), places local families on that land, and gives these families the opportunity to work the land, using the earnings from cash crops to effectively purchase the land from Agros. Through hard work and commitment, families who have never owned their own land are able to become land-owners, an incredible and liberating feat in the countries in which Agros works. In addition to land-loans, Agros helps families with basic housing, clean water, and opportunities to learn about good nutrition, hygiene and health care.

Buy This Land is just as much a biography of Li’s life as it is the story of the founding of Agros International, as the two stories are inseparable. Li’s life is fascinating, and it is clear that God brought Li through years of international experience, education, and unique (and hard-won) opportunities for the purpose of serving the poor through the Agros organization. His Agros dream began in 1982 at a missions conference, when the keynote speaker made an offhanded comment about purchasing land for the poor. Though the speaker referred to this comment as a “parenthesis,” this parenthesis awakened a passion in Li, a passion that led to multiple trips to Guatemala starting that same year.

The story of how Agros came to be, and came to grow to to affect thousands of lives is a story of ups and downs. One of the most significant “downs” came when Li was in Guatemala shortly after a coup which made work in this country much more dangerous and difficult. As Li sat discouraged and on edge in his hotel room, he opened his Bible to Jeremiah 32. A verse about Jeremiah buying a field caught his eye, leading him to read Jeremiah 32 and 33, where he learned about the Old Testament prophet who bought a field during the siege of Jerusalem. The implications of this passage for Li were obvious. By instructing Jeremiah to buy this land, God was challenging the prophet to trust him. To purchase land in such a tumultuous time would seem crazy, but God was calling Jeremiah to trust that one day, his people would return to their land. As Li read Jeremiah 32 and 33 in his hotel room in Guatemala, he came to realize that

“All our dreams to help the poor buy their own farmland may indeed be preposterous, and we may never accomplish what we hope, and we may fail miserably, and we may lose all the money invested in the effort. It may make absolutely no sense to think of buying land in the Ixil Triangle of Guatemala. It may seem like utter foolishness. Jeremiah’s purchase of Hanamel’s land made even less sense. But good sense was of no relevance. This simple real estate transaction had everything to do with God’s redemptive plan for the people of Judah. And just as God had used Jeremiah’s purchase as a sign of future restoration and blessing, so I came to see that night that God could use our imperfect efforts as a sign of His present and future justice and righteousness in a country bound tightly by 400 years of injustice and oppression. We might not change the course of history. But He could” (p. 156).

Buy This Land is the incredible story of the foundation of an organization that seeks to love the poor through private land reform, and through relationships. Beautifully written and tremendously inspiring, I highly recommend this book. Li’s life-story, and the life-story of Agros International, are stories of trusting in the God of the impossible, as He enables His people to help the poor build better lives and experience restoration of their nations’ land, one community at a time.

* Disclosure: I was provided with a free copy of Buy This Land for the purpose of reviewing it, but I was not compensated for this review.