Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 23, 2024

2 Corinthians 6:1-13 Commentary

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of the most formative and influential books of the 20th century. He entitled it, The Cost of Discipleship. In his book that he wrote under the dark cloud of Nazi tyranny, he explored how costly it can be to take God’s grace not “in vain” (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:1) but, instead, seriously. In The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer wrote perhaps most famously, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Christ has graciously called the apostles who wrote this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. While they’ve responded to that call by coming, they haven’t yet physically died. But 2 Corinthians 6 reminds its readers that, among other things, Paul and Timothy have come perilously close to physically dying for the sake of the gospel. The Roman authorities, in fact, likely eventually executed at Paul for his faith.

Preachers might let the Spirit lead them to reflect on how the apostles’ experience warns Jesus’ friends that we too may share the same fate. We might view this text as a summons to be ready to pay a potentially very high price for following Christ’s call.

The apostles begin that warning with verse 1’s call to their “fellow workers [Synergountes]”* not to “receive [dexasthai] God’s grace [charin tou Theou] [eis kenon].” The Message paraphrases their plea as “Don’t squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given you.”

It’s noteworthy that the apostles at least suggest that the Christians in Corinth are their synergountes (“fellow workers”). After all, Paul and Timothy spend much of two letters to them scolding them for their decidedly unholy behavior. In verse 13 they even accuse Corinth’s Christians of “withholding [stenochoreisthe]” their “affection [splanchnois] from” them. Yet they graciously address the Corinthian Christians who are holding them at arm’s length in a way that’s consistent with the way God views them — as their partners in the gospel.

Paul and Timothy, after all, recognize that God has graced even Corinth’s flawed Christians with a marvelous gift: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God graced with righteousness God’s dearly beloved but decidedly unrighteous people.

Now Paul and Timothy beg Corinth’s recipients of that amazing grace to take seriously that amazing grace. It’s almost as if they beg Jesus’ friends not to empty (a literal meaning of kenon) God’s grace of its power not only to save, but also to transform people. In fact, in the light of verse 12, the apostles may be begging them to take God’s grace so seriously that they let it empower them, by the Spirit, to show the apostles the kind of affection the apostles have shown the Corinthian Christians.

The apostles go on in verses 4 and following to describe some of what they’ve endured because they’ve taken God’s amazing grace so seriously. “As servants [diakanoi] of God,” they write there, we commend ourselves [synistanontes heautous] in every way.” The seriousness with which Paul and Timothy take God’s grace is manifest in every possible way in every part of their lives. But it perhaps especially displays itself in the ways it leads to the apostles’ suffering.

They have, Paul and Timothy write in verses 4-5, experienced “tribulations [thlipsesen], hardships [anankais], and distresses [stenochorais] … beatings [plegais], imprisonments [phylakais] and riots [akatastasiais] … hard work [kopois], sleepless nights [agrypniais] and hunger [nesteiais] …” The apostles commend their ministry and themselves, in other words, for serving God in spite of tremendous adversity and suffering. What especially binds together verses 4-5 is what the biblical scholar Ernest Best (2 Corinthians, John Knox Press, 1987) refers to as “endurance.” The apostles point out that they endured external adversity voluntarily for the sake of the gospel.

Yet their commending themselves may sound arrogant to 21st century ears. It even seems to contradict 2 Corinthians 5:12’s, “We are not trying to commend ourselves to you ..” But Jesus’ followers might see the apostles as claiming that their faithfulness in the face of all that misery validates their work on God’s behalf. Their suffering for Jesus’ sake vindicates their gospel ministry. In fact, Paul and Timothy may also be summoning their readers to see any suffering their Corinthian co-workers may endure as a similar validation of the fact that they are doing God’s work.

Best also sees the Corinthian Christians’ oppositions to the apostles as standing in this claim’s background. He suggests that “where false accusations have been made against the messenger and people turn away from his message, he must commend himself so that they may be won back to the message.”

In verses 8 and following, Paul and Timothy draw contrasts between the way people view and treat them and their true selves. The apostles speak of the way they serve God “through glory and dishonor [atimias], bad report [dysphemias] and good report; genuine yet regarded as impostors [aletheis]; known, yet regarded as unknown [agnooumenoi]; dying [apothneskontes], and yet we live on; beaten [paideuoumenoi], and yet not killed; sorrowful [lypoumenoi], yet always rejoicing; poor [ptochoi], yet making many rich; having nothing [meden echontes], and yet possessing everything.”

This list of the apostles’ tribulations reminds its readers that appearance aren’t everything. In God’s Church and kingdom, in fact, appearance can be deeply deceiving. So God’s dearly beloved people join Paul and Timothy in looking deeper than outward appearances to see what God is doing in and through Jesus’ followers.

Ernest Best suggests that what verses 8-10 describe is Corinthian opposition to the apostles. Those verses imply that some of the people to whom Paul and Timothy write think of them as impostors. Best writes, “People thought Paul to be no longer of any account; they wrote him out of their minds; he was as good as dead; yet he continued to live and to live in passionate activity for God.”

The list of the inflated price Paul and Timothy are paying for their discipleship is nearly exhaustive and exhausting. It’s certainly an antidote for what we sometimes call the prosperity gospel. Some Christians assume that God doesn’t just solve all of Jesus’ friends’ problems, but also materially enriches us.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson strongly suggests that following Jesus hasn’t solved all of Paul and Timothy’s problems. It, in fact, has created all sorts of hardships and suffering they likely wouldn’t have experienced had they not received God’s amazing grace with their faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul and Timothy’s description of the pain and suffering they endure for the gospel’s sake may sound strange in the ears of many western Christians. Relatively few of us have, after all, suffered anything that’s anywhere near that severe. In fact, some western Christians’ claims of persecution for their faith ring hollow when placed next to what Paul, Timothy and many other Christians endure in parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

As the biblical scholar James F. Kay (The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2001) writes, “No doubt faithfulness to the Crucified, in battle against the illegitimate powers of the old creation, will occasion our own excruciations: suffering, hardships or even martyrdom.” Yet as Kay continues, “Nevertheless, Paul never exhorts the Corinthians to seek suffering, or to embark on strenuous hardships like his own, or to court martyrdom. Where we take up our positions on the line of battle – and the sacrifices, or even casualties, those positions engender – belongs to our specific vocation.”

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


International Christian Concern’s (ICC) website is among the treasure troves of examples of Jesus’ friends’ “troubles, hardships and distresses” (4). Those who preach on Christian suffering will find it a valuable resource for faithful preaching.

The ICC recently reported  on the June 4 execution of three Nigerian Christian by religious extremists in Nigeria. The murderers posted pictures of both the victims kneeling and then falling after being executed. The extremists allegedly abducted the men from a vehicle that was travelling through northern Nigeria.

The Rev. Ibrahim Abako, secretary of the Yobe State Chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, confirmed the deaths in an interview with Leadership Media Group, a Nigerian news outlet. “On behalf of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Yobe State chapter, we condemn in totality the killing of three Christian youth along Damaturu-Biu Road Federal Highway,” Rev. Abako said.


Preaching Connections: ,
Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup