One of the basic lessons of Scripture is the lesson of gospel inversion. Humility exalts. Servanthood rules. Death lives. The underdog triumphs. The back of the line is the front of the line. And it does not matter how many times we are taught this principle, we always have to learn it afresh every morning.
“But if any have caused grief, he hath not grieved me, but in part: that I may not overcharge you all. Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow . . .” (2 Cor. 2:5–17).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
To stay oriented, in the scenario that we are assuming here, the man that Paul is urging forgiveness for here in these verses is the man who led the rebellion against Paul in the congregation at Corinth. It is not the incestuous man who took his stepmother in 1 Corinthians.
So Paul begins by saying that if someone has caused grief, it was mostly to the church, and not to him personally (v. 5). There had apparently been a vote in which the majority came back to Paul, and inflicted punishment on this ringleader and troublemaker. Paul says that this action was sufficient (v. 6). He then urges the church to forgive and comfort this man, lest he be overwhelmed (v. 7). The rebels against Moses had been swallowed up (Num. 16:31-34), but the rebel against Paul was not to suffer that fate. Reaffirm your love for him, Paul says (v. 8). Paul wrote them in order to test them. Now that they had passed the test, it was time for forgiveness (vv. 9-10)—and the requirement to forgive was yet another test. Paul agrees to forgive anything that they forgive, in the presence of Christ, lest Satan take advantage and stir up even more acrimony (v. 11). You all must forgive (Col. 3:12-13). Satan’s wiles in this are many—he throws fiery darts and he hands out candies.
After Titus had been sent off to Corinth with the hot letter, Paul went to Troas (north of Ephesus, toward Macedonia), and the door for ministry there was wide open (v. 12). But because Titus was not there with any news, Paul went on to Macedonia (v. 13). And after an agonizing wait there (2 Cor. 7:5-7), he eventually got the good news back from Corinth, and so he breaks into a very different kind of exultation—and it is quite a strange one. God leads Paul in triumph in Christ, and diffuses knowledge of Himself like a fragrance (v. 14). Paul’s band was the fragrance of Christ, to both the saved and the perishing (v. 15). One of them reacts to it like it was the smell of death upon death, and the other as though it were life upon life (v. 16). Who is sufficient for these things (v. 16)? The answer is no one. This is the measurement of authentic ministry—our theme, remember (v. 17)? Paul does not hawk or peddle the gospel of God, like others do, but rather speaks sincerely in the sight of God in Christ (v. 17).
Paul takes a custom of the Romans, the triumphal procession, and works it into a striking metaphor. When a victorious general was given a triumph, he led the parade in a chariot drawn by horses, and sometimes by elephants. He was clothed in purple, and held an eagle-crowned scepter. His face was colored red, to evoke the name and power of Jupiter. There were musicians, and pagan priests burning fragrant incense that wafted over the crowd, and mountains of treasure, and prows of ships, and a horde of prisoners in native costume bringing up the rear—who were all then executed at the conclusion of the parade. This is what God did to the principalities and powers (Col. 2:15).
But in his use of the metaphor, Paul occupies an unexpected spot. He is at the end of the procession. He is one of the prisoners, one led by God in triumphal procession. He is not the conquering general, but rather God is that general, and Paul is the captive. One of the themes of this epistle is that authentic ministry is characterized by suffering. “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). “As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed” (2 Cor. 6:9). Paul knew what it was to die daily in ministry (1 Cor. 15:31).
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When Paul says here that he does not “peddle” the Word of God (v. 17), the original word has the connotation of hucksterism—a merchant with his thumb on the scale, a wine merchant who cuts his product with a little water. The sinner is not shopping for an attractive salvation, one that is arranged nicely in the shop window, and reasonably priced. No, the thing is free, and to many of the passers-by, it stinks. Nevertheless, this is the message that will conquer the world. Who is sufficient for these things? And nevertheless this message preached by impotent and suffering messengers is profoundly potent. For the carnally minded, the real mystery is why this itinerant minister, pelted with rocks everywhere he went, was going to have cathedrals named after him.
THE AUTHORITY OF FORGIVENESS
So the apostolic band takes a pounding, and is dragged along behind the procession, in the sight of a gawking crowd. Paul takes the lead in dealing with this dishonor, and it is one of the great mysteries of the gospel as to why this is so inexorably attractive. It exudes an aroma—to the elect the aroma of life, and to the godless the aroma of death. In search of the answer to that question, we come back to the beginning of this passage, where Paul is requiring the Corinthians to forgive the man who had led the revolt against him. Forgiveness—everyone in this messed up world needs it. Forgiveness—apart from grace, everyone in this messed up world hates it. This is the radicalism of the cross. This is the salvation of Christ, and the way of Christ.