Second Corinthians, chapter 10, part 1
May 31, 2018
Having concluded his lengthy instruction about the donation to the Jerusalem church, Paul then returns to his defense against the faction in Corinth that opposed Paul and denied his apostolic authority.
2 Corinthians 10:1, 2 begins,
1 Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! 2 I ask that when I am present I may not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh.
What was Paul urging them to do? He never finishes his sentence, but the rest of the chapter and beyond shows that Paul was urging them to accept his instruction and authority. Paul interrupts himself when reminded how his detractors were saying, “Paul doesn’t want to face us directly; he is meek and mild in our presence, but bold and confident when he is absent.” In other words, they mistook Paul’s gentleness for cowardice.
It is indeed easier to write a letter opposing someone than it is to say the same things face to face. But Paul disputes those charges. In verse 1 he was using irony when saying, “I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent!” He was setting forth the opinion of his detractors, not confessing his own way of handling the dispute.
In verse 2 Paul’s language is difficult to understand. He is praying to refrain from being too bold (or harsh). In other words, Paul was deliberately meek and gentle when confronting those who opposed him. His gentleness, then, appeared to be inconsistent with the tone of his bolder letters, and thus some accused Paul of walking according to the flesh. This false perception had caused them to reject Paul’s instructions as coming from his fleshly soul, rather than as a word from God coming through his spirit.
The Nature of the Warfare
Paul contradicts that view in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, saying,
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, 4 for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 5 We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, 6 and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.
Paul understood that this was a spiritual battle that could not be won by the power of the flesh. Such war, if waged by the power of flesh, would have Paul taking a much bolder approach, using threats and fear tactics to assert his authority and to force his enemies to confess openly what they did not believe privately. Such tactics were indeed used by the organized church in later centuries, even resorting to torture to enforce submission to the will of the hierarchy.
But Paul did not provide the example of such carnal warfare. While he was indeed bold in his insistence that the elders of the Corinthian church deal with the problem of incest in the church, he was gentler when dealing with those who had rejected his apostolic authority. He preferred to set forth his credentials rather than to force them to submit to his authority.
The manner of warfare set forth in verses 3-6 is a general outline of all spiritual warfare, but yet it certainly applied specifically to the situation at hand. In presenting a description of spiritual warfare in contrast to fleshly warfare, Paul was laying down the ground rules for his own actions in dealing with his detractors.
Paul thus paints a picture, where he leads a small army of truth seekers against a fortress of fleshly thinking. The towers on the walls were “lofty” (or prideful) views “raised up against the knowledge of God.” Paul’s intent was to take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Once this fortress had been overcome and overrun, Paul proposed to punish (ekdikeo, “avenge, do justice”) all disobedience.
It is important to note that Paul was not fighting the people who were opposed to him. He was fighting their speculations, opinions, and carnal views that were in opposition to him. Paul did not propose to punish the disobedient, as fleshly warfare might do, but to punish disobedience itself.
The ruthlessness of war under Old Covenant rules, as seen in the battles of Israel in taking the land of Canaan, are here reapplied in a New Covenant setting. The enemy is not flesh and blood—that is, people—but lawlessness, rebellious attitudes toward the will of God, and ignorance of the mind of God. Such things must be taken captive and destroyed utterly in order to set the people free to fulfill the purpose for their creation.
Having said that, we should also recognize that there is a time and place for everything. We ought not to take the responsibility upon ourselves to change the world and set it free from all heart idolatry. That job is too big for any of us. We ought to choose our battles carefully, being led by the Spirit. Some are too zealous and end up being led by the flesh.
Old and New Covenant Warfare
So we read in Deuteronomy 13:14-16,
14 Then you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly. And if it is true and the matter established that this abomination has been done among you, 15 you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword. 16 Then you shall gather all its booty into the middle of its open square and burn the city and all its booty with fire as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God; and it shall be a ruin forever. It shall never be rebuilt.
It is likely that Paul had this passage in mind when he spoke of spiritual warfare. Certainly, he did not call for the destruction of the Corinthian church, nor did he advocate any war against those who held views that were an “abomination” to God. He sought utter destruction of heart idolatry itself, and he fought it with the sword of truth.
Once every unlawful thought had been captured and identified, they were to be burned in the town square “as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God.” The fire of God is the “fiery law” (Deuteronomy 33:2 KJV), by which the Holy Spirit cleanses and purifies our hearts. It is that baptism of fire that John the Baptist foresaw (Matthew 3:11, 12). The purpose of this fire is not to destroy people but to destroy the heart idolatry and false opinions that prevent them from truly knowing the mind and nature of God.
When we find ourselves in conflict with others, we too must always bear in mind that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood. It is very easy to fight people rather than the idols of men’s hearts. We must develop the ability to see beyond the flesh-and-blood person, so that our warfare serves to set men free, rather than to destroy them.
Further, as Deuteronomy 13:14 says, “you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly” before assuming that an opposing view is incorrect. The law commands warfare to eradicate idolatry and rebellion against God—but only after a thorough investigation. We are commanded to do the same. We all have had to deal with heart idols. When such idols are overthrown, we see things differently.
Hence, we should not be quick to engage in spiritual warfare, nor should we assume to be correct or on the side of truth. There is always a possibility that the opposing side is right and that we have been blinded by a heart idol. A little humility can prevent a multitude of conflicts.
Warring with Humility
Paul recognized the value of humility in any case of spiritual warfare. 2 Corinthians 10:7, 8 says,
7 You are looking at things as they are outwardly. If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ’s, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. 8 For even if I should boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I shall not be put to shame.
The Emphatic Diaglott renders the first sentence of verse 7 as a question: “Do you look on things according to appearance?” Was Paul so bold as to accuse them of looking at the situation with carnal eyes? The problem is that the Greek language at that time had no punctuation and certainly no question marks. So at times the meaning is uncertain. To me, it seems more likely that Paul softened his approach by phrasing it as a question rather than as a bold accusation.
Paul suggests that both sides of the present conflict believed that they were on Christ’s side. Both sides believed themselves to be correct. Paul recognized this and reminded his detractors that we are all on Christ’s side. We are not supposed to fight each other as in a carnal war. We are supposed to work toward discovering the truth so that we may overthrow illusions and idols of the heart that lead us astray.
He also reminds everyone that the nature of his apostolic authority was not destructive but constructive. Authority is not to be used in a carnal way to eliminate all opposition but rather to bring everyone to the knowledge of God.
Unfortunately, many church leaders have used their authority in carnal ways that Paul would have abhorred. In later years many church leaders sought to destroy the reputations of those who were said to be heretics and even sentenced many to torture and death for not submitting to their presumed authority. Authority is abused when men do not understand its purpose as Paul did. Such people seem to think that humility is a duty for the people, and that their own position of authority gives them the right to conduct warfare without humility.
This is part 22 of a series titled "Studies in Second Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.