The Covenantal Structure of 2 Corinthians


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Many books of the Bible are written to conform to the five-point biblical covenant model. Ray Sutton has shown that 1 Corinthians conforms to the pattern (“Covenant Renewal,” Volume II, numbers 10 and 11). Now, I’ll extend his work and show that Paul’s follow-up letter does, too.

The covenant is how God interracts with his creation. It is also how he interacts with people and their primary institutions: family, church, and civil government. Paul wrote several of his letters (if not all of them) to reflect this important relationship pattern.

FORNICATION IN CORINTH

The Corinthian church was a debauched place. Planting a church there was tough business. The church members struggled. Sexual immorality was rampant in the culture, and it infected the church. We see this in Paul’s first letter:

It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Cor. 5:1-5)

To ensure its success against worldly influence, Paul applied the covenant to it. He wrote, thought, and acted covenantally. This meant the church was infused with grace but also cleansed. The dross was purged and the precious metal purified. In his second epistle, we see that the situation has generally improved, though not as much as perhaps he would have hoped. He continues to treat the church covenantally in his second letter.

1 – Transcendance (2 Cor. 1:1:-2)

Paul opens his letter by identifying God as the sovereign authority. Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ, he tells us, by the will of God. It is God who, as creator, is in ultimate control of history.

2. Hierarcy and Representation (2 Cor. 1:3-3:13)

Paul next offers a prayer that identifies Jesus Christ as the mediator of the covenant. He gives a brief history of his journeys as a minister of the New Covenant, explaining that he has not been able to visit as quickly as he had hoped.

Paul defends his actions from critics who attack the consistency between his word (“I promise to visit”) and deed (he had not yet visited, 2 Cor. 1:17). This is really an attack on his authority. As a self-proclaimed representative of Christ Jesus, an attack against Paul’s authority can have two effects: undermine his claims to true authority as a legitimate representative (an apostle); or attack the authority of Christ indirectly by attacking the authority of his representatives.

3. Ethics/Law (2 Cor. 3:14-7:1)

Paul transitions from hierarchy to law in the third chapter, using a metaphor that invokes the ten commandments. The stone tablets are not the law itself, but represent the law; the very letters written on the tablets are symbols, and symbols represent information. Paul compares the New Covenant ministry and the Christians produced by the power of the Gospel as being letters of Christ, written not in ink on stone tablets, but in Spirit on human hearts (2 Cor. 3:3). They have changed the way they lead their lives, and this difference is striking. The fact that their behavior has been so changed is proof of Christ’s ministry. Members of the Corinthian church have become venerable representatives of Christ because they have conformed themselves to his covenantal ethic. At least, Paul is bold enough, bolstered by the Spirit in faith, to state as much (verses 4-6).

This is the perfect transition between a discussion of hierarchy and representation to law and ethics. Paul explains that, when we repent, then by the Spirit of God we are progressively transformed into the image of our Lord (3:17-18).

He lists several bad behaviors that we should not exhibit: “But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).

He explains that we ought to change the way we live our lives because Christ has purchased us to be his own possession. As Calvin put it, to die to ourselves is to live to Christ. Jesus died in order to have us under his own authority, so we renounce ourselves and acknowledge that we are no longer our own masters (5: 14-15).

He exhorts us to cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, for what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness (6:14)?

4. Judgement/Oath/Sanctions (2 Cor. 7:2-12:18)

The fourth point of the covenant is judgment and sanctions. In Chapter 7, Paul moves onto a discussion about the fruits of repentance, which is salvation. Calling someone to repent is an act of judgement. In this case, in his first letter he called members of the Corinthian church into judgement because they were violating Christian ethics. He said in his second letter that the grief the Corinthians suffered because of his judgment cast by his first letter caused them to repent (7:8-9). He then discusses great blessings that several of the poorest churches poured out on the kingdom by their generous giving. Blessing is a positive covenantal sanction. He then casts judgment upon false apostles as he defends his ministry by showing the great worldly suffering he has endured in Christ’s name.

5. Inheritance (2 Cor. 12:19-13:14)

Paul concludes his letter on the issue of inheritance. Specifically, he speaks of exercising church discipline and excommunicating unrepentant sinners. He has written his letter in an attempt to build up the church, but he essentially makes the point that Jesus’ patience is tried by repeat offenders. “I warned those who sinned before and all the others,” he wrote, “and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them.” (13:2)

This is clearly in reference to exercising Church discipline by excommunicating unrepentant church members. The context is that of a trial. He makes this clear by his words at the beginning of chapter 13: “This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” This is an aspect of the fourth point of the covenant, judgement.

It is a judicial foundation of biblical justice that facts be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses: “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established” (Deut. 19:15).

This is a principle Jesus affirmed when he gave his disciples the procedure for prosecuting church rebels, a graduated process which ultimately ends in excommunication:

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. (Matthew 18:15-17)

After testimony comes judgement, and after judgement, sentencing. Excommunication is an act of disinheritance: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mat. 18:18). Paul was prosecuting a covenant lawsuit. He was issuing his final warning: his third visit would serve as a third witness against the rebels. If they did not repent, they would be delivered to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5). Someone who has been lawfully excommunicated from the church is liable to hell. An unrepentant, excommunicant church member is marked as going to hell. He has been kicked out of the church.

His chances of repentance become so low that his best hope is to be cast to the devil, where he may suffer terrible earthly torments in a last ditch effort to save his eternal soul. It is also a means of preserving the church, to remove the stain of sin from her washed, white linens.

By issuing these harsh warnings in his letter, he was hoping, as he openly admitted to them, that “when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down” (13:10, ESV).

CONCLUSION

This is only a brief introduction to the structure of 2 Corinthians, but an overview reveals that Paul structured it according to the five-point covenant model. To keep the Corinthian church alive, he had to apply the covenant to it.

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