Confronting Sin in the Power of Christ
2 Cor. 13.1-4
Text and Exposition
“This is the third time I am coming to you. Every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses. 2 I have previously said when present the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again I will not spare anyone, 3 since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you. 4 For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.”
Τρίτον τοῦτο ἔρχομαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς· ἐπὶ στόματος δύο μαρτύρων καὶ τριῶν σταθήσεται πᾶν ῥῆμα. 2 προείρηκα καὶ προλέγω, ὡς παρὼν τὸ δεύτερον καὶ ἀπὼν νῦν, τοῖς προημαρτηκόσιν καὶ τοῖς λοιποῖς πᾶσιν, ὅτι ἐὰν ἔλθω εἰς τὸ πάλιν οὐ φείσομαι, 3 ἐπεὶ δοκιμὴν ζητεῖτε τοῦ ἐν ἐμοὶ λαλοῦντος Χριστοῦ, ὃς εἰς ὑμᾶς οὐκ ἀσθενεῖ ἀλλὰ δυνατεῖ ἐν ὑμῖν. 4 καὶ γὰρ ἐσταυρώθη ἐξ ἀσθενείας, ἀλλὰ ζῇ ἐκ δυνάμεως θεοῦ. καὶ γὰρ ἡμεῖς ἀσθενοῦμεν ἐν αὐτῷ, ἀλλὰ ζήσομεν σὺν αὐτῷ ἐκ δυνάμεως θεοῦ εἰς ὑμᾶς.
“With Paul’s third visit drawing near Paul warns the church that his visit will serve as not only a third visit but if necessary also a third testimony as to their spiritual condition. If they remain in impenitence Paul is ready to prosecute them and bring discipline to anyone regardless of who it may include. Paul’s discipline was cautious and consistent. Paul would not show any sinful parties partiality in the matter. Paul’s discipline would serve a further purpose as well. Ironically it would be the convincing proof the Corinthians have been demanding of him proving that he was indeed an apostle with Christ’s authority. They had known Christ’s power among them in the blessings of His power, Paul now issues a warning that it would be this same mighty power of Christ that would be present with him to correct them as well. Paul’s careful confrontation of sin was also rooted in His union with Christ. He would confront the church carefully but he would also confront sin with Christ i.e. in His name by His authority and with His power. For Paul, union with Christ meant identifying with Christ in His two states, both humility and exaltation. This powerful union was not only a wonderful promise to believers of overcoming but also a warning of the accountability it brings.”
CONFRONTING SIN IN THE POWER OF CHRIST
1.) CONFRONTING SIN WITH CAUTION
“This is the third time I am coming to you. Every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses. 2 I have previously said when present the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again I will not spare anyone, 3 since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you.”
Again the apostle Paul makes reference to his “third” (τρίτος) visit. The first visit was a glorious evangelistic endeavor where Paul preached Christ crucified an moved in the power of God (1 Cor. 2.1-5), the second visit turned out to be a painful visit full of problems, trouble, sin and disappointment (2 Cor. 2.1), and now here Paul says, “this is the third time I am coming to you” (Τρίτον τοῦτο ἔρχομαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς). Just as an observation, there is no telling what the passage of time may bring. No doubt, Paul would have expected and even expects here for the church to redeem the time and repent of their sin and strive towards the perfection of holiness in the fear of God (cf. 2 Cor. 7.1). But our time can also be spent in spiritual lethargy. This is why Scripture tells us to live with a sense of spiritual urgency:
Ephesians 5:15–16 15 “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of your time, because the days are evil.”
Colossians 4:5 5 “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity.”
Perhaps not one better admonished the church for its use of time and its urgent need of sanctification than Peter:
1 Peter 4:3 3 “For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.”
During Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, time had past and opportunity after opportunity had past them by to awake and repent of their undisciplined and unruly lives (cf. Rom. 13.11; Eph. 5.14).
Sadly, much of the sin in our lives lingers because of our unwillingness to awaken to who we are in Christ (Rom. 13.13-14). This is why Paul told the Romans like the Ephesians to be spiritually fortified:
Romans 13:11–12 11 “Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
No doubt this is the type of spiritual self-consciousness Paul is hoping will apprehend his readers— awakening to the inappropriateness of sin and the eschatological tension of an impending salvation. The passage is thus an insightful look at Paul’s pastoral dealings with the church. There were three clear and guiding principles of confronting sin with an emerging doctrine union with Christ and its implications for sin.
1.1, Careful investigation
As with all biblical confrontation of sin, it must begin with a careful investigation of the facts. This is why Paul evokes the Old Testament principle of deciding a judicial case on “the testimony of two or three witnesses” (ἐπὶ στόματος δύο μαρτύρων καὶ τριῶν σταθήσεται πᾶν ῥῆμα). The quotation comes from Deut. 17.6 and 19.15 (LXX) where the children of Israel were to deal judiciously about any accusation of guilt. In the New Covenant, church discipline has replaced capital punishment.
The interesting thing here is that Paul applies this principle to himself and his “third” visit as the witnesses that will make his case for him. Part of the reason Paul may have chosen to argue in this way may be due to the fact that there sins were manifested outwardly anyways. The church would be self-evidently condemned so that they would even know their own guilt (cf. 12.20). Also Paul’s use of irony throughout the letter makes this form of argumentation somewhat normal. However, even more than speaking with irony or sarcasm, Paul’s visits to Corinth were truly judicious in confronting sin. Because Paul does not know what he will find, he appeals to them like a ready prosecuting attorney who will mount a convincing case against anyone who is unwilling to repent of their immoral ways. Paul laments this possibility, “I am afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they have practiced” (12.21).
1.2, Consistent discipline
Another reason why Paul’s discipline, if necessary would be totally just is because of his impartiality. Paul would discipline without regard for human standards. Paul’s reasons for being consistent here is because he knew the sanctifying effects of church discipline not only on the guilty parties but also on the whole church (cf. 1 Cor. 5.6-8). This is why he warns the impenitent as well as those who may be tempted to compromise in like manner, “I have previously said when present the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again I will not spare anyone,”
Paul remains consistent in his intentions, his confrontation of sin whether he is absent through his letters or present physically, and his application of discipline to “anyone” who would stand in the way of the church’s growth and purity. This is why Paul warns them that upon his return he would “not spare anyone” (οὐ φείσομαι). The life of the church depends on its rejection and separation from sin (cf. 1 Cor. 5.6-13; Mt. 18.17). The Greek text leaves the verb ambiguous with no direct object. The English translations try to supply the object of the verb thereby making sense of Paul’s declaration, literally, “I will not spare” with no explicit referent. The implication of course is the two groups already mentioned, “those who have sinned in the past” (τοῖς προημαρτηκόσιν) and “all the rest as well” (τοῖς λοιποῖς πᾶσιν) i.e. the rest of the congregation. If need be, Paul is ready to clean spiritual house in a church that has often gone way off track.
1.3, Convincing authority
For Paul, the consistent and careful execution of church discipline was the convincing evidence the church has been seeking. If there is one thing the Corinthian letters have demonstrated it is a continual undermining of Paul’s apostolic authority and thus, as Paul put it, “proof” (δοκιμή)“of the Christ who speaks in me” (τοῦ ἐν ἐμοὶ λαλοῦντος Χριστοῦ). God works in mysterious ways, for, the very ones in the church who were “seeking” (ζητέω) to put Paul to the test and were undermining his authority were now on the brink of validating his authority in the worst way i.e. through their own spiritual demise and discipline. The church had already seen Paul’s discipline in action as it were. When the church had put up with sexual immorality before, Paul executed the strictest church discipline even though he himself was not physically present. This may be even more a reason they still sought a visible manifestation of his authority. But we see this authority in action in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 5:3–5 3 “For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
But Paul’s discipline was never anything but tough love, love in action, love that loved in truth and in deed:
2 Thessalonians 3:14–15 14 “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
However the Corinthians may have perceived the disciplinary actions of Paul, they nevertheless were testing him as to the authenticity of his apostleship, “since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me” (ἐπεὶ δοκιμὴν ζητεῖτε τοῦ ἐν ἐμοὶ λαλοῦντος Χριστοῦ). They were questioning whether or not Paul was what he had claimed at the opening of both letters, i.e. an apostle of Christ “by the will of God” (cf. 1 Cor. 1.1; 2 Cor. 1.1). They questioned whether or not he was a true ambassador of Christ (5.20) who spoke on His authority (12.19b) and through whom Christ himself was speaking to the churches (13.3a; cf. 1 Cor. 14.37).
The Corinthians had been accustomed to seeing Christ working in power among them, especially through Charismatic activity (1 Cor. 12-14). Here however, the powerful ability of Christ is more of a threat than a comfort. Paul knew the Corinthians had experienced the power of God in Christ who is “not weak” (οὐκ ἀσθενεῖ) but “mighty” (δυνατεῖ) among them (ἐν ὑμῖν). Only here the power of Christ was in connection with Paul’s impending visit, which would serve to vindicate Paul’s authority:
2 Corinthians 13:10 10 “For this reason I am writing these things while absent, so that when present I need not use severity, in accordance with the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down.”
It is true that God’s people often have to have a “taste of their own medicine” before they will come to know, fear and love God as they call others to (cf. 12.7-10).
2.) CONFRONTING SIN WITH CHRIST
4“For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.”
It is not surprising to find Paul shifting his thoughts towards a contemplation of Christ himself since they are looking for proof of Christ working in him. This is yet another reference to union with Christ and another analogous relationship between Christ and His people. Here Christ serves as the template for Paul’s own ministry and in principle for us who are in Christ, who “will live with Him” (ζήσομεν σὺν αὐτῷ). Paul’s aim therefore is to establish a case for his own “weakness” (ἀσθενείας) by calling into mind the two states of Christ— Christ humiliated and Christ exalted.
Paul’s weakness is a theme they are well acquainted with by now. Paul is battered by trials (1.8), filled with sorrow (2.3-4) and anxiety (2.13), he was fully aware of his inadequacies (3.4-5), fully aware of his own frailty (4.7), afflicted in every way (4.8), aware that his outer man was perishing (4.16), he knew what it was to groan in this earthly tent (5.4), he knew what it was to endure under much affliction as a servant of God (6.4), he was attacked on every side (7.5), wrongly accused (8.20), he knew what it was to have enemies (10.10), he knew what it meant to have to sacrifice for the sake of the church (11.9), his sufferings comprised a litany of afflictions (11.22ff.), and Paul had matured to understand that God was sovereign over all of his afflictions and that at times, it was better for the glory of God that his afflictions not find any relief or any recourse (12.7-9a). Paul was able to be content with his weakness because of his eternal perspective and the promise that Christ’s own power was at work in him despite his weaknesses (12.9b-10; cf. Phil. 3.10-11).
The same dynamic is at work here. Paul is looking to the power of God in his present weakness— the same power that caused the crucified Christ to live again, “For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God” (καὶ γὰρ ἐσταυρώθη ἐξ ἀσθενείας, ἀλλὰ ζῇ ἐκ δυνάμεως θεοῦ). Just as we are “weak in Him” (ἀσθενοῦμεν ἐν αὐτῷ) through our union with Christ and our identification with His death, so too, as we are identified with His resurrection, “we will live with him because of the power of God” (ζήσομεν σὺν αὐτῷ ἐκ δυνάμεως θεοῦ) (cf. Rom. 6.4-11).
Paul’s final prepositional phrase, “directed toward you” (εἰς ὑμᾶς) is crucial for the exegesis of the text. The context has been Paul’s corrective discipline of the church. Here, God’s power “directed” to the church is a fact that Paul stands by. God’s power will be at work in Corinth and in his third visit one way of another. Whether they will see God’s power at work to chastise them and discipline them, or whether through repentance, they would see God’s power to vivify them and renew them; God’s power is at work one way or another. Despite the context of Paul’s weakness, because of God’s power, Paul expected that his ministry would be effective despite the outcome and despite his weakness. This is another way of saying, “power is perfected in weakness” (12.9).
Do you feel weak? I know that you do. You are sick, suffering, discouraged, attacked, often oppressed, persecuted, tried and tempted by the world, the flesh and the devil. Yet, when we are tempted to focus on the weakness of our flesh, we ought to instead focus on our indissoluble union with Christ and the power or, as Paul put it, the glory that will be revealed in us (4.17). Just as we identify with Christ’s weakness and state of humiliation, so too, we can readily identify with His power and life in His state of exaltation.
William True Sleeper was the pastor of Summer Street Congregational Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he ministered for over 30 years. He was also a prolific hymn writer. His hymn, Jesus I Come, captures the essence of what I am getting at here. Here are the first two verses:
"Out of my bondage, sorrow and night,
Jesus, I come; Jesus I come.
Into Thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of my sickness into Thy health,
Out of my wanting and into Thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into Thyself, Jesus, I come to Thee."
"Out of my shameful failure and loss,
Jesus, I come; Jesus, I come.
Into the glorious gain of Thy cross, Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of earth’s sorrows into Thy balm,
Out of life’s storms and into Thy calm,
Out of distress into jubilant psalm, Jesus, I come to Thee."