What do you think of if I bring up the idea of self-examination?
When I talk about self-examination, it’s often in the context of Passover preparation and we usually turn to 1 Corinthians. But there’s another instruction about self-examination in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. That’s what I want to look at today as we move from Passover to Pentecost (May 28 this year).
Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you—unless, indeed, you fail the test!2 Corinthians 13:5, NET
My dad read this verse a couple weeks ago in his sermon, and it jumped out at me because of how Paul uses the word “faith.” As you might imagine if you read my book review of Relational Faith, faith in scripture has been on my mind a lot lately. I wanted to take a closer look at this verse with Brent Schmidt’s study on the original first-century context for the Greek word pistis fresh in my mind.
As you’ve no doubt noted in the title, I might have started by looking at the end of 2 Corinthians, but we’re going to look at the entire letter. One of the key principles I follow when interpreting Paul’s writings is that he must be read in context. This includes looking at the parts of the letter around the verse(s) you want to look at as well as keeping historical context in mind. As I started looking at the context, I realized the whole letter is important to understanding the self-examination point near the end.
Faithful New Covenant Ministry (2 Corinthians 1-5)
Paul opens this second canonized letter to the Corinthians with a message of comfort and hope. He then goes on to explain why he didn’t visit the Corinthian church earlier, saying, “Now I appeal to God as my witness, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth. I do not mean that we rule over your faith, but we are workers with you for your joy, because by faith you stand firm. So I made up my own mind not to pay you another painful visit” (2 Cor. 1:23-2:1, NET). It seems that the “painful visit” he alludes to might have been connected with the issues he wrote about in 1 Corinthians, for he now counsels them to welcome back a man he’d previously told them to put out of the church because of sinful behavior now that he has sincerely repented.
This is also the first time Paul brings up “faith” in this letter. A note in the NET says that “because by faith you stand firm” could be translated “because you stand firm in the faith.” As we know from our discussion of Schmidt’s book a couple weeks ago, “faith” in the first century wasn’t simply a set of beliefs or a feeling. Rather, “in the first century, pistis implied active loyalty, trust, hope, knowledge, and persuasion” as part of a covenant relationship (p. 11). Here in 2 Corinthians, Paul is telling his readers that he and other ministers don’t rule over their faithful covenant relationship with Jesus; ministers are there to help you stand firm in the covenant that you entered into with God when you were baptized.
Paul then goes on to talk about his role as a person sent by God for ministry work, referring to himself and his fellow ministers as “servants of a new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6, NET). He then compares the new covenant with the old, speaking of the letter of the law written in stone and the spirit of the law that’s associated with an even more glorious ministry. It’s in the context of ministers’ roles in the New Covenant that he begins talking about faith again. He says, “we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, ‘I believed; therefore I spoke,’ we also believe, therefore we also speak” (2 Cor. 4:13, NET, quoting Ps. 116:10). Just a little farther down the page, Paul makes the famous statement, ” we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7, NET). We don’t yet see all the glorious promises of the covenant, but we trust that God will deliver them when we are faithful to Him.
Living in Holiness and Faith (2 Corinthians 6-10)
Paul goes on to talk about reconciliation, Christ’s sacrifice, and true teachings. He also continues his discussion of ministry in the New Covenant, describing himself and other “ambassadors for Christ” as “fellow workers” with his readers (2 Cor. 5:20; 6:1, NET). He also talks about the things that responsible Christians need to do, urging us “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1, NET) or associate too closely with unbelievers.
For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore “come out from their midst, and be separate,” says the Lord, “and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,” says the All-Powerful Lord.
Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God.2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1, NET
Paul returns to the topic of his previous letters again after this point, reinforcing that “sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret” (2 Cor. 7:10, NET). He doesn’t regret writing a letter that made them sad because it bore such good fruits and led to rejoicing, encouragement, and more fervent faith.
The next two times “faith” shows up in 2 Corinthians, it’s in the context of faithful action. Paul tells them “you excel in everything,” including “in faith,” when writing about generous giving to other saints in need (2 Cor 8:7, NET). He then goes back to talking about his ministry work and says, “we hope that as your faith continues to grow, our work may be greatly expanded among you” (2 Cor. 10:15, NET). For Paul, faith always went along with doing something.
2 Corinthians 10-12
One of my favorite passages from 2 Corinthians comes at the beginning of chapter 10 (of course, there weren’t chapter breaks originally; it’s just a convenient way of navigating scripture). I usually think of this as a section about spiritual warfare and mental health. It is those things, but it’s also part of Paul’s discussion of his ministry and his hopes for the people he writes to.
Now I, Paul, appeal to you personally by the meekness and gentleness of Christ (I who am meek when present among you, but am full of courage toward you when away!)—now I ask that when I am present I may not have to be bold with the confidence that (I expect) I will dare to use against some who consider us to be behaving according to human standards. For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds. We tear down arguments and every arrogant obstacle that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ. We are also ready to punish every act of disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete. You are looking at outward appearances. If anyone is confident that he belongs to Christ, he should reflect on this again: Just as he himself belongs to Christ, so too do we. For if I boast somewhat more about our authority that the Lord gave us for building you up and not for tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of doing so.2 Corinthians 10:1-8, NET
As Paul goes on, he continues describing his ministry work. With the topic of faith in mind as I read this, I’m struck by how all-in Paul was to his faith commitments. He endured terrible suffering to keep preaching the gospel. He passionately defends the ministry work that God gave him, and condemns those who claim to be apostles but don’t have the same commission from God and commitment to teaching His word faithfully. He even shares his story of glorious revelations and a humbling thorn in the flesh to show “I lack nothing in comparison to those “’super-apostles,’ even though I am nothing” (2 Cor. 12:11, NET). Yet this defense isn’t for his own benefit; he’s writing to build his readers up before his third visit because he’s afraid he’ll find that some of them still aren’t living in the faith.
Have you been thinking all this time that we have been defending ourselves to you? We are speaking in Christ before God, and everything we do, dear friends, is to build you up. For I am afraid that somehow when I come I will not find you what I wish, and you will find me not what you wish. I am afraid that somehow there may be quarreling, jealousy, intense anger, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder. I am afraid that when I come again, my God may humiliate me before you, and I will grieve for many of those who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.2 Corinthians 12:9-21, NET
Now Paul reveals the point of the whole letter. He’s been writing to build people up and encourage them to make necessary changes before he comes. “Quarreling, jealousy, intense anger, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder” are not things that he ought to see in a faithful church, nor is “impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness.” Those things have to go. Which brings us to the instruction to test ourselves.
Putting Yourselves to the Test (2 Corinthians 13)
This is the third time I am coming to visit you. By the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter will be established. I said before when I was present the second time and now, though absent, I say again to those who sinned previously and to all the rest, that if I come again, I will not spare anyone, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak toward you but is powerful among you. For indeed he was crucified by reason of weakness, but he lives because of God’s power. For we also are weak in him, but we will live together with him, because of God’s power toward you. Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you—unless, indeed, you fail the test! And I hope that you will realize that we have not failed the test! Now we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong, not so that we may appear to have passed the test, but so that you may do what is right even if we may appear to have failed the test. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the sake of the truth. For we rejoice whenever we are weak, but you are strong. And we pray for this: that you may become fully qualified. Because of this I am writing these things while absent, so that when I arrive I may not have to deal harshly with you by using my authority—the Lord gave it to me for building up, not for tearing down!2 Corinthians 13:1-10, NET (bold italics mark a quotation from Deut 19:15)
Notice the intensity of Paul’s instruction here. “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” This is important. He’s been building up to this for the entire letter. Paul didn’t just tell the Corinthians they needed to repent, stop sinning, and live obediently with God because he wanted to. He taught this because it’s necessary for faithful living.
“Or do you not recognize regarding yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you,” Paul asks, “unless, indeed, you fail the test!” Either Jesus is in you and you’ll be living in the faith, or He’s not. There are no two ways about it. You can’t live sinfully and still say you have a relationship with Jesus. If the Lord is living inside you, then you’ll be acting like Him and when you mess up you’ll repent and change.
Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice, set things right, be encouraged, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.2 Corinthians 3:11-13, NET
This is how Paul ends the letter. He wants his readers to “set things right,” but he also wants them to rejoice, be encouraged, and live in peace. As Proverbs says, “the wise in heart accept commandments” (Prov. 10:8, WEB). For those who love God, correction like Paul gives here motivates change and also brings joy because it helps us live in a closer relationship with God.
Featured image by Aaron Kitzo from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Find us Faithful” by Steve Green