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2 Corinthians 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Fear of the Lord Motivates Ministry

A call to evangelistic ministry is increasingly becoming a rarity. In part this is because many churches no longer highly value or support this type of call. Street-corner preachers are regularly dismissed as crackpots. Revival meetings are becoming a thing of the past or are commonly redefined as occasions to boost the congregation's spirits or to push for recommitment. The developer pastor who seeks to plant a church through new converts is becoming a vanishing breed. Pastors and churches committed to outreach in their communities have become the exception rather than the rule.

This state of affairs was brought home to me recently in a conversation with a newly elected member of an evangelism committee who expressed frustration with the task's being defined primarily in terms of communal nurture rather than community outreach. Paul had no such illusions. He understood quite well what a call to preach the gospel involved. It was a lofty call to be one of "Christ's ambassadors," with God "making his appeal through us" (v. 20). It involved exhorting others to "be reconciled with God" (v. 20). And it arose out of a fear of the Lord (v. 11) and a knowledge of "Christ's love" (v. 14).

Pursuing such a lofty call necessitates having the right motives (vv. 11-15). In chapter 4 it was Paul's conviction that "the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus" that compelled him to preach (4:14). Now he adds too further reasons. The first is found in 5:11. Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, he states, we try to persuade others. What is this fear of which Paul speaks? The Greek term phobos ranges in meaning from panic and fright to awe and reverence. Yet when we are faced with the divine, fright and awe more often than not coalesce. The genitive tou kyriou can be objective ("the fear that we feel toward the Lord") or subjective ("the fear that the Lord inspires"). But in reality, both amount to the same thing. Fear in itself is not necessarily bad. To fear the Lord is what God required of Israel (Deut 10:12). And it is through the fear of the Lord that a person avoids evil (Prov 16:6).

But what is it about the Lord that elicits Paul's fear? The answer is found in the opening oun (therefore), which points the reader back to verse 10 and the future judgment that all those who serve Christ must face. By fear Paul does not mean terror. In certain places on Alpine summits the way is peculiarly dangerous on account of frequent avalanches and the traveler walks in dread of instant destruction. The Christian does not stand in terror of divine judgment as the traveler does of the Alps. On the other hand, we need to have a healthy respect for the One who has the power to destroy both the soul and the body (Mt 10:28).

Fear can often result in paralysis; but not so with Paul. While the prospect of appearing before Christ's judgment seat provokes fear, it also prompts action. For the author of Proverbs 1:7, fear of the Lord meant "the beginning of knowledge." For Paul, it means the attempt to persuade men. The NIV men renders a Greek term that is gender-inclusive (anthropous). Paul attempts to persuade "people" (JB) or "others" (NRSV). The present tense carries a conative nuance--"we try to persuade." The term persuade means "to strive to convince" by means of argumentation (Becker 1975:590).

Of what does Paul seek to persuade? He does not explicitly say; but in light of his preceding reference to the judgment of the Christian worker, it is not too improbable to suppose that the judgment of the non-Christian is in mind. Judgment is an uncomfortable subject in most Christian circles. Yet it was not long ago that "hellfire and brimstone" preaching was a staple of the evangelical diet. Nowadays we tend to shy away from topics of this sort. But a substantial part of Jesus' preaching had to do with warning his audience of impending judgment. Peter pleaded with his audience to save themselves from "this corrupt generation" (Acts 2:40). And mention of "the coming wrath" was a regular component of Paul's evangelistic preaching (see Acts 17:31; 1 Thess 1:9-10).

Paul interjects the comment What we are is plain to God (v. 11). A healthy respect for Christ as judge motivates Paul to discharge his ministry with integrity, a fact that is plain to God and would be apparent to the Corinthians if they stopped and thought about it. Paul uses the perfect tense: "What we are has been and continues to be plain to God." While a person's motives and intentions can be hidden from others, they cannot be hidden from God. Paul, however, makes his ministry available to the scrutiny of all who would care to inspect it, including the Corinthians.

Paul momentarily slips into the first-person singular in an effort to express a deeply felt concern: "I hope it is also plain to your conscience" (v. 11; Furnish 1984:307). What he hopes is that if his apostolic legitimacy is not immediately apparent to the Corinthians, at least his integrity will be evident to their conscience. The conscience is that capacity of a person to determine right from wrong. Stoics saw the conscience as a watchman bestowed by God on individuals to guide them to live according to nature and to direct their moral progress (Hahn 1975:349). In much the same way, Paul appeals to the Corinthians' conscience to judge the sincerity of his motives. This assumes, of course, that their conscience has not been dulled through misuse, ignorance or disregard.

Although this may sound as if Paul is commending himself to them again, all he aims to do is to provide the Corinthians with the ammunition needed to answer his critics (v. 12). This is the second time that Paul has admitted saying something that could be taken as praising himself. In fact, nine out of thirteen Pauline uses of the verb synistemi (to commend) occur in this letter. Its frequent appearance shows that ministerial commendation was a bone of contention with the church. Four times in 2 Corinthians Paul is pushed by the Corinthians' expectations to commend himself. But in distinction from his rivals, he commends himself as a servant of God (4:2-5; 6:4) and on the basis of what God accomplished through him (3:5; 10:13), of which the congregation, it seems, needed to be reminded from time to time (5:12). They should have taken the initiative to defend Paul against his detractors. Perhaps they had become so taken with the current group of visiting preachers that they forgot the many reasons to be proud of their spiritual father.

In the second half of verse 12 Paul puts before the Corinthians the major distinction betoeen himself and these intruders. His rivals take pride in the externals or what is seen. Paul takes pride in the internals or what is in the heart. To take pride in what is seen is literally "to boast in the face." The noun "face" (prosopon) originally meant that which struck the eye. Here it refers to the features or outoard appearance of a thing or person. To boast "in the face," then, is to place great store in outoard appearances, like letters of recommendations, polished oratory and flashy presentations. Perhaps Paul is thinking especially of boasting in ecstatic experiences, since he goes on in verse 13 to say, If we are out of our mind (ekstasis English "ecstasy"), it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you (RSV, NEB). "Out of mind" is the general sense of the intransitive. Literally, it meant to become separated from something or to lose something (ek "away" + histhmi "put, stand") and was used figuratively of losing one's wits (Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979). Part of the difficulty is that Paul employs the verb nowhere else. Mark, however, uses it of Jesus, whose family thought him "mad" (3:21). Most translators follow suit here.

In what sense was Paul "mad"? On the face of it, the comment is obscure. This may well have been a charge leveled by his opponents. That Paul would consider persecution and adversity something to be proud of might well have appeared mad to those who judged by the world's standards (4:8-9). Yet, whatever Paul does, he does not out of self-interest but for God and the Corinthians (for you). This is the essence of verse 13. Thew (for the sake of God) and hymin (for you) are most likely datives of advantage, designating the person whose interest is affected (Blass, Debrunner and Funk 1961:no. 188 [101]). There is a time for conduct which appears mad to the world but is in God's best interest. There is also a time for calm, sensible conduct, which is to the church's advantage. Paul was prepared to follow whichever advanced the cause of the gospel (Barclay 1954:208).

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