As the Apostle Paul approached the city he 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 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.
Paul knew that, for some of them at Corinth, 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 those in the church at Corinth had repented of their worst sins, and submitted to his Apostolic commands (both 1 and 2 Corinthians had been written and received by the church before his arrival).
Yet, what was forgiven could not entirely be forgotten by Paul, even towards the penitent he could not feel all the confidence of earlier affection. 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.
Paul now came prepared to put down this opposition in Corinth by the most decisive measures. He resolved to cast out of the Church these antagonists of truth and goodness, by the plenitude of his Apostolic power. Thus he warned them, just a few months before his arrival (as he had threatened when present on an earlier occasion), "if I come again, I will not spare" (2Corinthians 13:2).
Paul declared his determination to punish the disobedient in Corinth (2Corinthians 10:6). He "boasted" of the authority which Christ had given him (verse 8). He besought them not to compel him to use the weapons entrusted to him (10:2), weapons not of fleshly weakness, but endowed with the might of God (verse 4). He pledged himself to execute by his deeds, when present, all he had threatened by his words when absent (verse 11).
All Paul 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 in Corinth despise his apparent insignificance. They know that he has no outward means of enforcing his will and they see that his bodily presence is weak. They think his speech contemptible. Yet he is not so powerless as he seems.
Though Paul wields no carnal weapons against the disobedient in Corinth, 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 through God to the overthrowing of strongholds" and thereby, "casting down vain imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought into the obedience of Christ" (2Corinthians 10:4 - 5, HBFV).
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, 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 stranger.
The Apostle Paul 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 (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 at Corinth had repented of their offences.
There were some, even in this erring church at Corinth, on whom Apostle Paul could think with unmingled satisfaction. They were those who walked in the Spirit, and did not fulfil the lust of the flesh, and who were created anew in Christ Jesus. Such were Erastus the treasurer, and Stephanas, the firstfruits of Achaia, and Fortunatus and Achaicus, who had lately traveled to Ephesus on the errand of their brethren.
Paul could take joy in Gaius, 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 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 of Corinth on his way to the house of Gaius, doubtless he "thanked God and took courage."
A time for judgment
But now the time was come when the peace and purity of the Corinthian Church was to be no longer destroyed (at least openly). Apostle Paul's first duty was to silence and shame his leading opponents by proving the reality of his Apostleship, which they denied. This he could only do by exhibiting "the signs of an Apostle," which consisted, as he himself informs us, mainly in the display of miraculous powers (2Corinthians 12:12).
The present was a crisis which required such an appeal to the direct judgment of God, who could alone decide between conflicting claimants to a Divine commission. It was a contest like that between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Apostle Paul had already in his absence professed his readiness to stake the truth of his claims on this issue (2Corinthians 10:8, 13:3 - 6). We may be sure that now, when he was present, he did not shrink from the trial. And, doubtless, God, who had sent him forth, wrought such miracles by his agency as sufficed to convince or to silence the gainsayers.
Now, therefore, that "their obedience was complete," the painful task remained of "punishing all the disobedient" at Corinth (2Corinthians 10:6). It was not enough that those who had so often offended and so often been pardoned before should now merely profess once more a repentance which was only the offspring of fear or of hypocrisy, unless they were willing to give proof of their sincerity by renouncing their guilty indulgences. They had long infected the church by their immorality. They were not merely evil themselves, but they were doing harm to others, and causing the name of Christ to be blasphemed among the heathen. It was necessary that the salt which had lost its savor should be cast out, lest its should spread to that which still retained its purity (12:21).
We know, from his own description (1Corinthians 5:3 - 5), the very form and manner of the punishment inflicted by Paul at Corinth. A solemn assembly of the Church was convened where the presence and power of the Lord Jesus Christ was especially invoked. The cases of the worst offenders were separately considered, and those whose sins required so heavy a punishment were publicly cast out of the church, and (in the phraseology of Scripture) delivered over to Satan.
We must, however, not suppose that even in such extreme cases the object of the sentence was to consign the criminal to final reprobation. On the contrary, the purpose of this excommunication, especially at Corinth, was so to work on the offender's mind as to bring him to sincere repentance (1Corinthians 5:5). If it had this happy effect, and if he manifested true contrition, he was restored (2Corinthians 2:6 - 8) to the love of the brethren and the communion of the church.
We should naturally be glad to know whether the pacification and purification of the Corinthian Church thus effected was permanent, or whether the evils which were so deeply rooted sprang up again after Apostle Paul's departure. On this point Scripture gives us no further information, nor can we find any mention of this Church after the date of the present chapter, either in the Acts or the Epistles.
Apostle Paul visits Macedonia and Corinth over a three month period (Acts 20:3). Probably he made excursions thence to Athens and other neighboring churches, which he had established at his first visit throughout all the region of Achaia, and which, perhaps, needed his presence, his exhortations, and his correction, no less than the metropolitan Church.
While the Apostle was preparing to leave the area of Corinth, one of his converts was also departing from the city, in an opposite direction, charged with a commission which has immortalized her name. This was Phoebe, a Christian matron resident at Cenchrea, the eastern port of Corinth (Romans 16:1 - 2). She was a widow of consideration and wealth, who acted as one of the deaconesses of the Church, and was now about to sail to Rome, upon some private business, apparently connected with a lawsuit in which she was engaged. Apostle Paul availed himself of this opportunity to send a letter by her hands to the Roman Church.
Paul likely journeyed through and visited churches in Greece (Macedonia and the area of Corinth) for the three month period running from roughly early December 57 A.D. to early March in 58 (Acts 20:3). He then, for reasons made clear in our next chapter, left Corinth and traveled north to revisit the Macedonian churches (Berea, Thessalonica, Philippi) and Troas on the Asia mainland.