In my last post I attempted to show that the heart of Paul’s gospel is human participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. United with Christ, the believer plunges into the grave and is raised up into new life. The old passes away and there is new creation. The sin-enslaved body which gives death as its wage is crucified and the spiritual body is raised to life. Sin lies defeated, no longer able to work death in the believer.
In each movement, the believer is with Christ and is in Christ. Christ undoes death by death. In summary, “One has died for all; therefore all died”(2 Cor 5:15).
We can lay out Paul’s thought in four basic propositions. 1-Christ took on our vulnerable flesh. 2-Christ destroyed our flesh on the cross. 3-God faithfully raised Christ to new, bodily life. 4-Christ’s new body, though similar to ours, can never again be touched by death.
This is the story Paul compels his readers to take part in. Baptism serves as the symbol of our participation with Christ(Romans 6:4).
If this participatory interpretation of Paul’s theology is not yet fully convincing, we may look to Paul’s life for further insight. If participation is truly central to Paul’s gospel, his self-understanding should reflect this.
2 Corinthians 10-13 appears to be a useful place to start. Here we find Paul’s defense of his ministry to his church in Corinth. It is his most zealous and passionate writing. Many scholars believe it to be the “Letter of Tears” referenced in 2 Corinthians 2:4.
At this point in Paul’s ministry, everything he had been working for in Corinth appeared to be falling apart. His church was being torn from his arms by a group of Christian apostles. These “super-apostles,” as he calls them, convinced many Corinthians to reject Paul. It is here at this point of desperation that Paul pens arguably his finest work.
To win back his children Paul seeks to prove that he is truly qualified to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The super-apostles had made the Corinthians well aware of Paul’s dubious credentials as an apostle. Paul wasn’t a disciple of Jesus, nor did he ever meet Jesus. He didn’t even have a letter of recommendation from a real apostle!
There was even more damning evidence brought against Paul by the super-apostles. Here is what classified Paul as a pseudo-apostle.
“Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will continue to refrain from burdening you in any way”(2 Cor 11:7-9).
The super-apostles had persuaded the Corinthians to doubt Paul’s ministry because of his refusal to receive payment. “Surely a true apostle requires compensation,” the Corinthians thought, “Really valuable, life-changing messages don’t come cheap. How can someone who lives in poverty be worthy of honor?”
Undoubtedly, these super-apostles influencing the church were quite impressed with themselves; so impressed that they expected a worthy payment. They had wealth, power, charisma and success; all things Paul never obtained. In a culture that believed Heaven rewarded the honorable and punished the shameful, the super-apostles were apparently upstanding gentlemen. So upon arriving in Corinth their question concerning Paul was simple. Is Paul a man of honor or of shame? Could he, a man apparently stricken by God, really be a true apostle?
Here is how Paul decided to answer.
“But whatever anyone dares to boast of-I am speaking as a fool-I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman-I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship and thirsty, often without food, cold, and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble and I am not indignant?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus(blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor, under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands”(2 Cor 11:21-33)
In a breathless list of persecutions, anxieties, vulnerabilities, and humiliations, Paul makes the case for his apostleship. The Corinthians now have an extended list of reasons to abandon Paul. In a culture of honor and shame, Paul brings only those things which bring him disgrace to the forefront. How does he expect to persuade anyone? He explains himself,
“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with my weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong”(2 Cor 12:7-10).
In Paul’s eyes, the cross of Christ, the weakness of Christ, has proven the world upside down. What the world deems wisdom is foolishness. What it deems success is failure. If Christ, the one worthy of all honor, died in shame on a cross, all human accomplishments are reduced to nothing. Nothing remains unaltered by this single fact. He now sees his weaknesses as strengths. In his weaknesses, he experiences Christ. Therefore, Paul will only boast in the cross and the salvation it brings.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead”(Philippians 3:10-11).
Knowing Christ through sharing in his sufferings has become the only desire of Paul’s heart. With his heart and mind transformed, he understands what boasting truly means. The one who boasts in strength proves himself estranged from Christ. Anyone who scorns weakness has refused to die with Christ. There is no salvation, no new life, apart from death in Christ. In every beating, every flogging, Paul dies with Christ. In every anxiety, persecution, and hardship he is with Christ and Christ is with him. He in Christ and Christ in him.
The cross-shaped communities Paul sought to establish and maintain were under constant threat of being undone because of the vision of the cross espoused by the super-apostles. Theirs is an incredibly attractive vision, but one that lacks the full force of Christ crucified. It does not bid man to come and die so that he may truly live. Nor does it reveal the one great truth, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
To accept the cross-less gospel is to abandon Christ. To miss the meaning of the cross is to miss everything. In weakness and suffering, the Christian must participate in the death of Christ. There is no hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrected life if the cross is traded for worldly strength and success.
For this reason alone, Paul chose to persuade his children with a list of his weaknesses and failures.
These autobiographical passages have presented us not just with evidence, but with the fullest, most sublime expression of Paul’s participatory vision. In every instance Paul envisioned his ministry as participation in the cross of Christ. His profound understanding of Christ and his cross unquestionably make him worthy not just of the title apostle, but Apostle of the Lord.