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The triumph of the broken and burdened

This piece is longer than usual but it deals with a pivotal text and topic in Paul's ministry and in our lives.

Paul hadn’t made the trip to Corinth he had written (and apparently talked) about (1 Corinthians 16:5-9; 2:1:15-17). Instead, he ended up making a quick, “painful visit” to them that didn't go well (2:2:1, 7:8ff, 13:1). On top of that. he was receiving a fair amount of criticism for his change in travel plans. One of his first orders of business in 2 Corinthians then is to explain his itinerary and why he didn’t come to Corinth. He starts this discussion in 1:15-17 and develops it more fully in 2:1-4. He also touches upon his travels in v. 12-13. In all of this Paul wants the Corinthians to know that he’s not the type of person to tell them something that he had no intention of following through on (see 1:17). This goes directly to his integrity and credibility (things which were under attack).

But he wants them to see something more—something bigger. Ultimately, he’s not the one in charge of things—it’s God. While Paul makes his plans, they are always subject to God’s will (1 Corinthians 16:7). The fact of the matter is that even when Paul was anxiously looking for Titus first at Troas and then in Macedonia to hear about the Corinthians’ response to his painful letter, God was leading him in triumphal procession through Christ. And with this, Paul pauses his discussion about Titus and the Corinthians (which he won’t pick back up until 7:5ff), to discuss the nature of true apostleship. It is a rich, deep section full of glorious truths. Therefore, 2:14 represents a significant turn in the letter.

" . . . Who always leads us as captives in Christ's triumphal procession." This clearly seems to be an allusion to the Roman Triumph. It was the military version of the parades that cities give today for their team when they win the Super Bowl, the NBA championship, World Cup or some other important athletic event. When a general won a notable military campaign they were rewarded with a Triumph. They would ride in a chariot surrounded by their soldiers who carried plunder and prisoners captured in battle. There were priests waving their censers of incense. It was the aroma of life to the Romans and the aroma of death to the prisoners who were on their way to be executed. It’s a picture that works and the Corinthians would be familiar with it.

Yet as obvious as this all appears to be, I don't think it's the picture Paul wanted them to see. I think there is a procession that better suits his purposes for what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. I think he has in mind the God's triumphal procession in Psalm 68. 

The psalm celebrates Yahweh's victory march from Egypt to Sinai to Jerusalem (v. 6-7, 24-25). He is spoken of as "a father to the fatherless, defender of widows" (v. 5). He sets prisoners free (v. 6). All of this reflects the redemptive nature of Paul's ministry much better than a Roman Triumph could. 

More to the point, God leading Israel out of Egypt fits Paul’s personal situation quite well. His travel may seem as haphazard as Israel’s to the Corinthians, but God is leading him as surely as He led them. Even more, by introducing Israel (and Moses), he sets up a comparison between himself and Moses and the Corinthians and Israel.

There are lots of parallels between Paul and Moses. Here are some (adapted from McGuiggan). Both Moses and Paul were:

  • called by God,
  • had to be overcome by God,
  • questioned their competence,
  • experienced numerous hardships,
  • had their leadership challenged,
  • interceded for their people,
  • saw wondrous things in the presence of God,
  • asked for things that were not granted,
  • both reflected God’s glory and covenant,
  • were great leaders.

Of course, the Corinthians wouldn’t see all of these as readily as we do. And it appears that Paul’s main point here would be to suggest the parallel between Israel’s questioning of Moses’ leadership and the Corinthians’ questioning of his.

Once Paul has introduced God leading Israel (and Moses) through the wilderness, it’s not difficult to see as McGuiggan suggests, the rebellion of Korah and company in the background as well (Numbers 16). Korah and 250 men accused Moses of lording his authority over them (v. 3)—the same thing the Corinthians had accused Paul of (2 Corinthians 1:24). These men are told by Moses to bring censers filled with incense and burning coals the next day to the tent of meeting. They did this and fire came out and consumed them, while their families were swallowed up by the earth. The next day Israel grumbles about what has happened and a plague comes upon them until Aaron takes his censer and goes into the midst of the people and "made atonement for them" (v. 47). Put it all together and you have people who oppose Moses carrying censers with the aroma of death, while that same aroma in Aaron’s censer brings life. Paul is saying that as with Moses, he is led by God to spread the aroma that is life to some and death to others—depending on their response to his message.  It’s as powerful as it is subtle.

It resonates even more when you consider that Paul is competing with self-proclaimed “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 12:11). They knew nothing of weakness, meekness or suffering—they were above all of that. They were the first century version of the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. All they claimed to know was one success after another. In other words, they were very much the Roman Triumph rather than being part of the procession led by God that cared for orphans and widows and involved hardship, suffering and weakness. In this light, the Roman Triumph becomes a parody of the true procession of God.

All of this speaks to our expectations of how God will lead us. In our lesser moments, we would like him to lead us in a way that works out to . . . well, unending health, wealth and prosperity. In our better moments, we know that’s as inauthentic of a gospel now as it was in the first century. Like Israel and Paul, we are part of God's triumphal procession through the wilderness. There will be both wonder and hardship, joy and suffering, and probably more than a few things that won't fit neatly into any category. But there will always also be the presence of God, His power in our weakness and the promise of a future.

It is the triumph of the broken and burdened.

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