Lesson 35: “Be Ye Reconciled to God”
Purpose: To encourage class members to be true disciples of Jesus Christ through applying Paul’s counsel in 2 Corinthians.
Introduction and Historical Background
What are your favorite books of scripture, and why?
[Call on several class members. Response will have to be adjusted to suit class comments, but it is likely that one characteristic of the favorite books is a strong narrative: We understand what is going on, which frees us to appreciate the counsel, or poetry, or doctrine, or whatever it is about each suggested book. It is unlikely that anyone will suggest any of the New Testament epistles. Ask why, and note that in part that is because it is harder for us to fit the epistles into a story, to know what is happening, to understand the why Paul is telling the people in Corinth or Ephesus or Thessalonica whatever it is that he is saying. As a result, when we read the epistles at all, we tend to select isolated verses that support some doctrine we already understand – we proof text.
Our assigned scripture reading for today, for instance, is 2 Corinthians. If you were to read it all at one sitting – and you certainly could, because it’s only 12 pages long – you might be confused by Paul’s abrupt shifts in mood. As one commenter [Mark Allen Powell] put it, he is by turns hurt, happy, hopeful, and horrified, and there seems to be little explanation for his mood changes or the way he jumps from one subject to another, especially when 1 Corinthians was so well organized and addressed its subjects so methodically and thoroughly.
An epistle like 2 Corinthians makes more sense if we take advantage of the work done by Biblical scholars who have gathered up the clues from various parts of the epistles and pieced together what was going on in Corinth during the time Paul was corresponding with the church there. A little of that can be found in our Bible dictionary; more detailed studies can be found in any good Bible commentary, whether written by an LDS scholar or otherwise – the contextual background I’m talking about here doesn’t have anything to do with doctrinal understanding, just history and geography and word studies.
For example, although we have two epistles to Corinth in our New Testaments – 1 and 2 Corinthians – we know that Paul wrote at least four letters to the church at Corinth. [Begin constructing chart on board, filling in details as discussion proceeds.]
* First visit: Paul organizes the church (Acts 18:1-18; 2 Cor. 1:19)
– Letter 1 (1 Cor. 5:9)
* Paul receives distressing reports from Corinth, by both oral (1 Cor. 1:11) and written (1 Cor. 7:1) report
– Letter 2: 1 Corinthians
* Second visit: painful confrontation (2 Cor. 2:5; 7:12; 13:2)
– Letter 3 (2 Cor. 2:3-4; 7:12)
* Paul receives report through Titus that problems at Corinth have been resolved (2 Cor. 7:6-7)
– Letter 4 2 Corinthians (or at least 2 Cor. 1:1-6; 13; 7:2-16)
Some scholars believe that the abrupt changes in mood and subject of 2 Corinthians suggest that this epistle is not a single letter, but is rather a collection of letters or extracts from letters – the “missing” epistles to Corinth – and perhaps even parts of Letters 5, 6, and 7. Whether that is true or not, this reminds us that we don’t have a complete record of the early Christian church and the teachings of the early apostles.
* What implications does that have for our doctrine? [need for restoration; shouldn’t be surprised if doctrines, even key doctrines, are not present in the New Testament, or are ambiguous]
Understanding the sequences of events in Paul’s ministry to Corinth can also help us understand what Paul is teaching: this chapter scolds the Corinthians who have treated Paul badly on a recent visit; this chapter expresses his joy at learning that problems have been resolved. I can’t stress enough that while we get our doctrine from the scriptures themselves and from inspired teachings of inspired leaders, we may struggle to read and understand the scriptures if we try to do it all on our own just by passing our eyes over the pages – you will get so much more out of the scriptures if you make an effort to take advantage of the study aids that are available, written by Latter-day Saints and by other devoted Christian scholars.
Scripture Discussion and Application
1. Overcoming tribulation.
2. Forgiving others.
3. Feeling godly sorrow for our sins.
4. Becoming reconciled to God.
(1. The “outward man” and the “inward man.”
2. “Ambassadors for Christ.)
With that background on the epistles themselves, let’s summarize Paul’s actions and move on to discussing a few ideas from these scriptures.
We know that Paul visited Corinth and founded a church there; after he had moved on, he wrote a now-lost letter to the Corinthian Saints. Then he received two different reports of problems happening in the Corinthian church, and he wrote the epistle of 1 Corinthians in an effort to help that church work out its problems.
In that letter (1 Cor. 16:5-7) he told the Corinthian Saints that he was going to visit them again after he made a trip to Macedonia. But Paul changed his mind, and stopped at Corinth for an unannounced visit on his way to Macedonia (2 Cor. 1:15-16). That surprise visit did not go well. He had an unpleasant confrontation with some Saints at Corinth who were engaged in some kind of sin (2 Cor. 13:2) – our Bible dictionary calls it a sexual sin, but I can find nothing in the cited scriptures or in other commentaries that supports that specific charge. Rather, it seems to have involved a serious challenge to Paul’s authority by a group of apostates, who ridiculed Paul for not living up in person to the image he had created by his letters.
2 Cor. 10:10
For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.
* Have you ever been disappointed by a Church leader, or by having your expectations for a talk or a meeting or a lesson fall short? How did you handle your disappointment? What kept you from standing up and ridiculing the leader’s appearance, or saying that he gave a really bad talk?
Paul himself tells us that he knows he is not an impressive speaker, but he speaks by authority nevertheless:
2 Cor. 11:5
But though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge …
2 Cor. 12:11:
… I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing.
* How does Paul defend himself? Does that have any bearing on our response to Church leaders, in the event we don’t like some talk that may be given in Conference next week?
Whatever the exact nature of the confrontation, Paul felt personally hurt and humiliated. He left Corinth, but very soon wrote a letter to the Corinthians (his 3rd), a letter that we don’t have today. Later, when he writes the epistle we have as 2 Corinthians, he refers to his feelings at the time he wrote that missing 3rd letter:
2 Cor. 2:4
For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you.
* Does Paul keep a stiff upper lip and pretend that he wasn’t hurt?
* A few lines before this, he reminds the Corinthians that he wrote to them (his 3rd letter) rather than coming in person,
2 Cor. 2:3
… lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice.
* Not every conflict can be resolved with the same set of actions. What might we learn from Paul’s actions here about ways some conflicts, at least, might be handled?
Let’s read one more important point that Paul includes as part of resolving conflicts. Speaking of the man or men at Corinth who had caused the problem, he says:
2 Cor. 2:8-11
8 Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him.
9 For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things.
10 To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ;
11 Lest Satan should get an advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.
* Does Paul demand a personal apology? No, he says “to whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also.”
* What does that suggest about our obligation to forgive others who have been forgiven by the Church through some Church disciplinary procedure? How about those who have “paid their debt to society” through jail time or the payment of fines? Are there limits to forgiveness? What about “forgiving and forgetting”?
* Paul says he forgave “in the person of Christ.” What role does Christ have in our forgiving others of actions against us?
* Paul also says he forgave “lest Satan should get an advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.” What does he mean there? What advantage does Satan have over us if we don’t forgive?
Evidently whatever advice or chastisement or counsel Paul sent in his 3rd letter helped bring the Corinthians around. The problem was corrected and the Church was put in order, and Paul wrote the letter we have as 2 Corinthians in response to hearing that good news. Throughout that epistle, Paul keeps returning to his great joy that things have been put right, and that the Corinthians are once more “reconciled to God,” as he puts it.
2 Cor. 5:17-20
17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.
* The words reconcile and reconciliation appear over and over in these verses. What does “reconcile” mean? [to settle or resolve; to draw close to and be one with]
* Paul not only counsels the Corinthians, and us, to reconcile themselves to God, but says that God “reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ.” What does that tell us about God’s role? (that is, Is drawing near to God entirely our own doing? Could we do it without his help?) What is the role of Jesus Christ?
* The language here might be a little hard to understand, although the concept is very familiar. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” What does Paul mean by “not imputing their trespasses unto them”? [not holding their/our sins against the world, because of the Atonement wrought by Christ]
* Christ’s participation was and is necessary to reconcile us to God – does Christ have a similar role in reconciling us to each other and to others who have hurt or harmed us?
This lesson comes at an opportune time, I think, one week before General Conference, when prophets and apostles will be coming to us very much like Paul went to the Saints at Corinth. In all likelihood, we will receive them as prophets and apostles, and will listen to and seriously consider their counsel – we’ll receive them better, I hope and expect, than the Corinthians received Paul.
But if, by chance, there should be any advice that challenges our own opinions, or if by chance some speaker is like Paul, not very impressive in his speaking style or clumsy or even offensive in how he expresses his ideas, we also have a lesson in the context of these scriptures for dealing with that: Remember that, like Paul, a speaker may “be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge” – be sure you understand what such a speaker is really saying, and what his grounds are for saying it.
And may we always be quick to forgive each other, and be reconciled to God through the Atonement of Christ, and be “ambassadors for Christ” in our words and actions.