The Life and Epistles of Paul
|Chapter 18 |
Apostle Paul's Return to Corinth
It was probably already winter when St. Paul once more beheld in the distance the lofty citadel of Corinth towering above the isthmus which it commands. The gloomy season must have harmonized with his feelings as he approached. The clouds which, at the close of autumn, so often hang round the summit of the Acro-Corinthus, and cast their shadow upon the city below, might have seemed to typify the mists of vice and error which darkened the minds even of its Christian citizens. Their father in the faith knew that, for some of them at least, he had labored in vain. He was returning to converts who had cast off the morality of the Gospel; to friends who had forgotten his love; to enemies who disputed his divine commission. It is true, the majority of the Corinthian Church had repented of their worst sins, and submitted to his Apostolic commands. Yet what was forgiven could not entirely be forgotten; even towards the penitent he could not feel all the confidence of earlier affection; and there was still left an obstinate minority, who would not give up their habits of impurity, and who, when he spoke to them of righteousness and judgment to come, replied either by openly defending their sins, or by denying his authority and impugning his orthodoxy.
He now came prepared to put down this opposition by the most decisive measures; resolved to cast out of the Church these antagonists of truth and goodness, by the plenitude of his Apostolic power. Thus he warned them a few months before (as he had threatened when present on an earlier occasion),
"when I come again, I will not spare" (2Corinthians 13:2).
He declared his determination to punish the disobedient (2Corinthians 10:6). He "boasted" of the authority which Christ had given him (2Corinthians 10:8). He besought them not to compel him to use the weapons entrusted to him (2Corinthians 10:2), weapons not of fleshly weakness, but endowed with the might of God (2Corinthians 10:4). He pledged himself to execute by his deeds, when present, all he had threatened by his words when absent (2Corinthians 10:11). As we think of him, with these purposes of severity in his mind, approaching the walls of Corinth, we are irresistibly reminded of the eventful close of a former journey, when Saul, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord," drew nigh to Damascus. How strongly does this accidental resemblance bring out the essential contrast between the weapons and the spirit of Saul and Paul! Then he wielded the sword of the secular power — he traveled as the proud representative of the Sanhedrin — the minister of human cruelty and injustice: he was the Jewish Inquisitor, the exterminator of heretics, seeking for victims to imprison or to stone. Now he is meek and lowly, (See 2Corinthians 10:1.) traveling in the humblest guise of poverty, with no outward marks of pre-eminence or power; he has no jailers at his command to bind his captives, no executioners to carry out his sentence. All he can do is to exclude those who disobey him from a society of poor and ignorant outcasts, who are the objects of contempt to all the mighty, and wise, and noble, among their countrymen. His adversaries despise his apparent insignificance; they know that he has no outward means of enforcing his will; they see that his bodily presence is weak; they think his speech contemptible. Yet he is not so powerless as he seems. Though now he wields no carnal weapons, his arms are not weaker, but stronger, than they were of old. He cannot bind the bodies of men, but he can bind their souls. Truth and love are on his side; the Spirit of God bears witness with the spirits of men on his behalf. His weapons are "mighty to overthrow the strongholds of the adversaries;" "thereby" he could "overthrow the reasonings of the disputer, and pull down the lofty bulwarks which raise themselves against the knowledge of God, and bring every rebellious thought into captivity and subjection to Christ." (2Corinthians 10:4, 5.)
Nor is there less difference in the spirit of his warfare than in the character of his weapons. Then he "breathed out threatenings and slaughter;" he "made havoc of the Church;" he "haled men and women into prison;" he "compelled them to blaspheme." "When their sentence was doubtful, he gave his vote for their destruction; (Acts 26:10.) he was "exceedingly mad against them." Then his heart was filled with pride and hate, un-charitableness and self-will. But now his proud and passionate nature is transformed by the Spirit of God; he is crucified with Christ; the fervid impetuosity of his character is tempered by meekness and gentleness; his very denunciations and threats of punishment are full of love; he grieves over his contumacious opponents; the thought of their pain fills him with sadness. "For if I cause you grief, who is there to cause me joy?" (2Corinthians 2:2.) He implores them, even at the eleventh hour, to save him from the necessity of dealing harshly with them; he had rather leave his authority doubtful, and still remain liable to the sneers of his adversaries, than establish it by their punishment (2Corinthians 13:7-9). He will condescend to the weakest prejudices rather than cast a stumbling-block in a brother’s path; he is ready to become "all things to all men," that he may "by all means save some."
Yet all that was good and noble in the character of Saul remains in Paul, purified from its old alloy. The same zeal for God burns in his heart, though it is no longer misguided by ignorance or warped by party-spirit. The same firm resolve is seen in carrying out his principles to their consequences, though he shows it not in persecuting, but in suffering. The same restless energy, which carried him from Jerusalem to Damascus that he might extirpate heresy, now urges him from one end of the world to the other, (f1677) that he may bear the tidings of salvation.
The painful anticipations which saddened his return to Corinth were not, however, altogether unrelieved by happier thoughts. As he approached the well-known gates, in the midst of that band of faithful friends who accompanied him from Macedonia, his memory could not but revert to the time when first he entered the same city, a friendless and lonely (f1678) stranger. He could not but recall the feelings of extreme depression with which he first began his missionary work at Corinth, after his unsuccessful visit to Athens. The very firmness and bold confidence which now animated him — the assurance which he felt of victory over the opponents of truth — must have reminded him by contrast of the anxiety and self-distrust (See 1Corinthians 2:1-3.) which weighed him down at his first intercourse with the Corinthians, and which needed a miraculous vision (Acts 18:9.) for its removal. How could he allow discouragement to overcome his spirit, when he remembered the fruits borne by labors which had begun in so much sadness and timidity? It was surely something that hundreds of believers now called on the name of the Lord Jesus, who, when he first came among them, had worshipped nothing but the deification of their own lusts. Painful no doubt it was to find that their conversion had been so incomplete; that the pollutions of heathenism still defiled those who had once washed away the stains (1Corinthians 6:11.) of sin: yet the majority of the Church had repented of their offences; the number who obstinately persisted in sin was but small; and if many of the adult converts were so tied and bound by the chains of habit, that their complete deliverance could scarce be hoped for, yet at least their children might be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Moreover, there were some, even in this erring church, on whom St. Paul could think with unmingled satisfaction; some who walked in the Spirit, and did not fulfil the lust of the flesh; who were created anew in Christ Jesus; with whom old things had passed away, and all things had become new; who dwelt in Christ, and Christ in them. Such were Erastus the treasurer, and Stephanas, the first-fruits of Achaia; such were Fortunatus and Achaicus, who had lately traveled to Ephesus on the errand of their brethren; such was Gaius, (f1679) who was even now preparing to welcome beneath his hospitable roof the Apostle who had thrown open to himself the door of entrance into the Church of Christ. When St. Paul thought of "them that were such," and of the many others "who worked with them and labored," (1Corinthians 16:16.) as he threaded the crowded streets on his way to the house of Gaius, doubtless he "thanked God and took courage."
But a painful surprise awaited him on his arrival. He found that intelligence had reached Corinth from Ephesus, by the direct route, of a more recent date than any which he had lately received; and the tidings brought by this channel concerning the state of the Galatian churches excited both his astonishment and his indignation. (f1680) His converts there, whom he seems to have regarded with peculiar affection, and whose love and zeal for himself had formerly been so conspicuous, were rapidly forsaking his teaching, and falling an easy prey to the arts of Judaizing missionaries from Palestine. We have seen the vigor and success with which the Judaizing party at Jerusalem were at this period pursuing their new tactics, by carrying the war into the territory of their great opponent, and endeavoring to counterwork him in the very center of his influence, in the bosom of those Gentile Churches which he had so lately founded. We know how great was the difficulty with which he had defeated (if indeed they were yet defeated) the agents of this restless party at Corinth; and now, on his reaching that city to crush the last remains of their opposition, he heard that they had been working the same mischief in Galatia, where he had least expected it. There, as in most of the early Christian communities, a portion of the Church had been Jews by birth; and this body would afford a natural fulcrum for the efforts of the Judaizing teachers; yet we cannot suppose that the number of Jews resident in this inland district could have been very large. (f1681) And St. Paul in addressing the Galatians, although he assumes that there were some among them familiar with the Mosaic Law, yet evidently implies that the majority were converts from heathenism. (See Galatians 4:8.)
It is remarkable, therefore, that the Judaizing emissaries should so soon have gained so great a hold over a church consisting mainly of Gentile Christians; and the fact that they did so proves not only their indefatigable activity, but also their skill in the arts of conciliation and persuasion. It must be remembered, however, that they were by no means scrupulous as to the means which they employed to effect their objects. At any cost of falsehood and detraction, they resolved to loosen the hold of St. Paul upon the affection and respect of his converts. Thus to the Galatians they accused him of a want of uprightness in observing the Law himself whilst among the Jews, yet persuading the Gentiles to renounce it; (Galatians 5:11.) they argued that his motive was to keep his converts in a subordinate state, excluded from the privileges of a full covenant with God, which was enjoyed by the circumcised alone; (Galatians 4:16, compare with Galatians 2:17.) they declared that he was an interested flatterer, (f1682) "becoming all things to all men," that he might make a party for himself; and above all, they insisted that he falsely represented himself as an apostle of Christ, for that he had not, like the Twelve, been a follower of Jesus when He was on earth, and had not received His commission; that, on the contrary, he was only a teacher sent out by the authority of the Twelve, whose teaching was only to be received so far as it agreed with theirs, and was sanctioned by them; whereas his doctrine (they alleged) was now in opposition to that of Peter and James, and the other "Pillars" of the Church. (f1683) By such representations they succeeded, to a great extent, in alienating the Galatian Christians from their father in the faith; already many of the recent converts submitted to circumcision, (Galatians 6:13.) and embraced the party of their new teachers with the same zeal which they had formerly shown for the Apostle of the Gentiles; (Galatians 4:14, 15.) and the rest of the Church was thrown into a state of agitation and division.
On receiving the first intelligence of these occurrences, St. Paul hastened to check the evil before it should have become irremediable. He wrote to the Galatians an Epistle which begins with an abruptness and severity showing his sense of the urgency of the occasion and the greatness of the danger. It is also frequently characterized by a tone of sadness, such as would naturally be felt by a man of such warm affections when he heard that those whom he loved were forsaking his cause, and believing the calumnies of his enemies. In this letter his principal object is to show that the doctrine of the Judaizers did in fact destroy the very essence of Christianity, and reduced it from an inward and spiritual life to an outward and ceremonial system; but in order to remove the seeds of alienation and distrust which had been designedly planted in the minds of his converts, he begins by fully contradicting the falsehoods which had been propagated against himself by his opponents, and especially by vindicating his title to the Apostolic office as received directly from Christ, and exercised independently of the other Apostles. Such were the circumstances and such the objects which led him to write the following Epistle:—
IDETE PHLIKOIS UMIN GRAMMASIN EGRLYA TH EMH CEIRI (f1684)