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2 Corinthians 2:1-17 Notes

One of the ways that general cultural is out of step with a Biblical view of the world is that we are told directly or indirectly  by culture’s gatekeepers that we cannot celebrate when anyone is suffering.

The Bible, on the other hand, says that we can and must at the same time “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn”

If we don’t learn to celebrate when there is suffering…when will we ever celebrate?

And if we never celebrate then we magnify suffering and diminish hope.

We also fail to see what God might be up to in the midst of the suffering.

Mother’s day, Parent/Child dedications…they provide opportunities for the church family to celebrate God’s goodness.

These days, can also be times that make those who are suffering, feel their pain more acutely.

I am not blind to that fact.

There are those, like me, who have lost their moms…or whose moms for various reasons are hard to celebrate.

There are those who long to have children or who have lost children…or whose children have gone astray.

We can together…we must…rejoice and mourn at the same time. 

The past 13 months…culture has told us…you cannot be glad in anything…how dare you be happy or hopeful.

That is always nonsense.

Since that fateful bite of fruit in the first garden…mourning and rejoicing have been the twin tracks that humanity runs on.

One without the other is not reality.

My favorite author said this about our time, in a sermon turned into a book:

“This year creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravated the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.  Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”

“What does Covid do to death?  It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier, but I hardly suppose that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us….”

“It does force us to remember death.  It makes death real to us….all the schemes of happiness that centered in this world were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise person can realize it. Now the stupid-est of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and we must come to terms with it.” 

“If we had looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.”

I said that was spoken about our time…and it was, but it was spoken in England in 1939 as Germany had invaded Europe and the war was about to come in fury over the skies of Britain, raining destruction down on its cities.  

But his words are about all times…because all times have their challenges, and God desires to use those challenges to “rouse a sleeping world”

I put Covid in place of War to demonstrate how his words apply to today.

His words came from an essay entitled “Learning in War-time”

It was delivered to students studying at Oxford as the war loomed…a war that would eventually take the lives of over a hundred million people.

He was challenging them to live faithfully in their callings…and if they are currently called to study…and not fight in the war…they must embrace that.

Eventually…virtually all of them would have to go to war.

But war only became the opportunity to see reality for what it already was…Covid has done much the same.

Today we are in 2 Cor. 2

At the end of chapter 1 and into chapter 2 Paul mentions that it was order to “spare them” that he did not return to Corinth.

The last visit had gone poorly so he opted to write a letter and let time and the Holy Spirit do their work before he returned to face to face contact.

Look at verse 4

“For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.”

The severe or harsh letter he wrote prior to this one (in between 1 Cor. and this one), (a letter we don’t have)….was written out the depths of his love for them.

This love…was the reason he had such great distress, anguish and tears.

This is not hyperbole…he literally wept and wept over his friends.

He chastened them severely because he loved them dearly. 

He goes on to say in regards to an individual who was the ring leader of the revolt against Paul’s leadership.

“Forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”

“If you forgive him, I forgive him…in Christ.”

Evidently the Corinthians had responded to Paul’s letter by disciplining this divisive man…probably others who followed him as well.

He was negatively influencing them…but had lost that power…and he had been told to repent or become unchurched.

We will see as we go through the letter…he (and others who followed him) repented and now Paul was full speed ahead in forgiveness.

“He messed up, he fessed up…let’s move on.”

Why is this so important? 

Look at verse 11

“In order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.”

What are his schemes?

He is called the “accuser” 

He loves to divide and destroy, especially from within…like a virus…biological or digital.

When people fail to forgive and move on together…they have been “outwitted” by Satan.

He has his way when people are not restored to community…because division and destruction of relationships are his great joy.

But I doubt he has anything that resembles joy…maybe it’s better to say.

His unquenching rage desires others to experience his misery…and the destruction of relationships allows that to happen.

Satan had a good last year.

Lots of accusation, lots of separation and division.

People literally broke fellowship over differences in opinion on masks, vaccines, social justice activities…it is amazing.

Satan had a good year…but God had a better one…he always does…many relationships have grown, many people have become more secure and confident in their faith.

Many have become more attuned to listen to the views of others…while remaining firm on core convictions.

Paul had good intel on the enemy, on his strategies and tactics…and equally as important…his heart had been transformed.

This very man who had been behind so much heartache for Paul…was now being fully supported by Paul.

“Reaffirm your love for him” he wrote.

Satan, the accuser wants him to remain in his guilt…God does not…and neither do I…writes Paul.

In verses 12, 13 he talks about going to a city northwest of Ephesus to proclaim Christ…and he experienced success but he was uneasy because he was waiting to hear back from Titus.

Titus had delivered the harsh letter…and Paul, at this time, didn’t know how the church would respond.

He took off for Macedonia, over on the European continent to try and connect with Titus.

Paul was being embarrassingly “uncool” in letting the Corinthians know how much they meant to him…and how anxious he was to hear word from them.

People who care a great deal about someone…will sometimes act as if they don’t care, because of their own insecurity.

When people act with unkindness, or don’t respond to us like we hoped…

We act with pride and self-protection.

“I don’t care what you do…do whatever.”

When in fact, we do care…we desperately care…but we are just willing to sacrifice relationship for stupid pride in the moment.

Paul wasn’t about that nonsense.

He tells them… “Even though great things were happening in Troas, I had no peace of mind because I had not heard word of how you guys had received my letter.”

But he did eventually find Titus and he heard, with joy, that the church had responded to God and to him quite well.

So, here he breaks into some joyfully praise:

14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. 15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?

So, after talking about his heartache, his grief, his tears…the chastisement of a divisive person and the need to forgive him…

Then his own lack of peace and desperate search for Titus in order to get word on the situation in Corinth…

He launches into this interesting and poetic paragraph of praise.

I can imagine Paul writing this letter…thinking of his past pain, feeling and smelling and tasting and remembering all the heartbreak and anxiety…because he was not just worried about his friends in Corinth…he was also trying to avoid mortal danger in Ephesus.

And those are accurate swords…traumatic memories have their own smells, and sounds and feelings.

But then he enters into, at that same moment, gratitude and worship and praise.

He embraces the tension…he feels the pain, but he lives in the real victory of the gospel.

He uses language where his idea can become lost in translation.

Here’s the back story, I’ll use a real world example.

Julius Caesar was a Roman general who became emperor, largely through his military victories (and his wicked conniving)

He had been driven by a vision since he was child…a vision of riding in Triumph through Rome…in a victory procession.

One ancient document says that for this to happen you had to kill, as a commanding general, at least 5000 in a single battle.

Julius would lead his army to kill women and children and combatants alike…in order to inflate the number of those who would die in battle…he was just a terrible human being.

After decades of war…killing thousands of innocents in order to gain the right…he finally, at age 54 achieved his dream.

 He rode through the streets of Rome, clothed in purple, the color of royalty.

His robe adorned with gold stars and suns.

Riding a chariot pulled by four white stallions (some historians say bulls)…the city cheering him and his enemies fearing him… the smells of flowers and incense would literally fill the city.

These very same smells would be the smell of life to his allies and the smell of death to his enemies.

You have to know…that that day he had dreamed of his entire life would become the most depressing and distressing night of his life.

I haven’t read this…but I’m sure it’s true.

It why he would increase his wickedness…his desperation for power…because his dream fulfilled did not fulfill

People who fix their hearts on mere human achievement….find that when they capture their dreams they remain just as they were…they are not changed, they are not fulfilled.

People who aspire to win gold medals, fame, money…whatever…most often suffer great discouragement when they realize they are the same people with the same emptiness after capturing their dreams.

And in just a very few years this evil man would die, stabbed to death by enemies and allies alike…pulling his robe over his face as he fell.

Because he didn’t want anyone to look him in the eyes as he died, His pride was his priority even in his last moment.

Very few would have ever seen a Roman Triumph parade like this…but it was embedded in their cultural memories.

Paul takes this very powerful symbol and uses it to describe his humble life and ministry.

It’s the opposite of how the Corinthians would have thought of the use of this language.

There is both truth and irony in the language.

14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. 15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.

Do you see what he is saying to this church in this proud city?

Paul, who is not much to look at, a felon, an outcaste…is being led by God himself in triumphal procession in Christ…as the knowledge of the Gospel goes out from his mouth and life.

Christ is conquering…through sacrifice and proclamation…not by taking life, but by giving life…through the gospel.

First he gave his own life…now his people give their lives away for the gospel.

This same gospel is the smell of life to those who believe…and the stench of death to those who deny it.

Then, look at the final phrase in verse 16

And who is equal to such a task?

Maybe he sits back from the writing of the letter and takes a deep breath and he contemplates all this…

“Wow, who can possibly be up to a task as big as all this?”

Exactly, who is up to such a task?


Living in balance on the perpetual twin tracks of human life…rejoicing and mourning, living in some sort of normal…even while war or covid rages.

This has been notoriously hard for humans to pull off. 

It is more simple; we think…to mourn or rejoice

To live completely at war…or act as we are completely at peace.

To be happy or unhappy…not both in different ways at the same time.

To have friends or to have enemies (and to put virtually everyone in one camp or the other…and people don’t change those positions once they are set in them)

But this is not a sustainable life…because it is not real life.

The life of gospel balance…is evident in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth.

He goes back and forth…between his joy and his sorrow, his memories of tears and his joy and love…his harsh critique, and his tender forgiveness.

But maybe he is not so much going back and forth as he is living in the tension of both at the same time.

Later he will write, in this same letter… “meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed…but meanwhile we live with gospel confidence.”

This life is going to be “groaning”…or as Jesus said, “In the world you will have trouble.”

But this life is also a life with real confidence and real victory….or as Jesus said “I have overcome the world.”

We will always have the necessity of being faithful in the small and the mundane…even in the midst of great challenges…whatever our times have for us to be found faithful in.

We will always have the necessity of giving and receiving grace from one another…we will, in this life…move towards each other, fail one another, repent, and move back towards each other.

…OR we have no relationship with one another at all.

Because there will be no perfection in any human relationship…but there can and there must be gospel direction…giving and receiving grace.

We will not find a life free from these difficult tensions…it does not exist.

But we can live a life of ongoing joy and victory in the midst of these tensions…but we are not equal for this task by ourselves.

the task of living and telling the gospel in all its beauty and power.

Bill and Melinda Gates…have more money than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes…but they are getting divorced after decades of marriage.

I’m not singling out the issue of divorce…I’m pointing to the reality that two brilliant, driven, rich humans could not survive in relationship together.

But intelligence, drive, and money…what else, our culture asks, do you need for success?

Well…clearly more than that.

There is something beautiful in the whole flow of the relationship between Paul and his friends at Corinth.

Here, in this letter we see how the gospel gained the victory over Satan in the restoration of relationships.

In relationships that had gone south because of sin…we see the hints of the ultimate renewal of all things in the restoration of those relationships.

Meanwhile we groan(life is hard, relationships are hard)…and meanwhile…God gets victory.

This restoration came about by God using:

-Truth, Time, and Turning


-Paul spoke the truth in love

-Truth is essential in all relationships…with God or others.


-Paul didn’t press for resolution…he intentionally didn’t go back for a follow on visit in order to give the church time to think, pray, hear from God.

-And to give the divisive man (and others) time to turn, to repent.

-And to give himself time…to cool down, to get perspective, to hear from God and others.


-Repent is a word that means to “turn around in your mind and go a different way”

-It is a mental, “About face”…leading to a life “about face.”

-The turn signifies the one who has sinned, they do an about face back towards God.

-It also signifies the one who has been sinned against.

-They too must “turn” back toward the offender and forgive them.

-To repent, turn and go the other way is to turn back towards God.

-To receive one another back is likewise to turn towards God.

Paul wrote in verse 10 “I have forgiven in the sight of Christ” is literally “in the face of Christ.”

Paul, has turned his face, fully to the face of Christ…when we turn our faces to Christ…we will turn our hearts towards one another.

In this restoration of relationships…Satan was robbed of his victory.

Embrace this life of gospel tension, and start doing it now…not in some imaginary future.

We too often put life on pause…”There is too much going on right for me…it will be better when (you feel in the blank)”

-Covid, job, health, kids, house…weather

I plead with you…don’t believe this

What is the right thing(s) for you to be doing right now?

-Maybe you are doing them…then stand steadfast…hold the tensions.

But if there a right thing to be doing…then get started…don’t wait.

Don’t be impulsive (as I have said…you may need to give others time if there is a break in relationship)…but I’m talking specifically about choices that are entirely ours to make.

“Is this the right thing?”


“Now is the right time!”

Lewis again,

“The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable.  Favorable conditions never come.”

He was talking about continuing to learn even during war time…but it could apply to many things…ministry, walk with God, better relationship with family, service, sacrifice…the discipline of showing up.

Don’t wait for favorable conditions to come before you do what needs to be done in your life.

Forgive others.

Throw in with a whole heart in your church or in your walk with Christ.

Live in the tensions…and find gospel freedom…do it starting now.

We can echo with Paul…

“Who is up to such a task?”

We are certainly not…but as we will see next week in chapter 3…

Though we are not competent in ourselves…our competence comes from God.

We tend to think if only we had more…time, opportunity, health…if only we had more of something…

Then we could live life more fully, more victoriously.

No…if only God continually had more of us…then we could live more victoriously…more fully

I want to conclude with Paul’s analogy of smells…life and death.

And add one more…the loss of smell. 

COVID has had a strange effect on many people

-They lost their ability to smell and taste.

Paul spoke of the gospel as having the fragrance of life to some and death to others.

*We can all experience a short of spiritual Covid…the fragrance of the gospel can lose its delight to us.

It may not smell like death…but it may also cease to smell like life to us.

All things can begin to smell the same…and then we can lose our capacity to enjoy tasting the goodness of God as well.

Wake up your senses to God…ask him to help you to delight in him and in the fragrance of the gospel.

This life with God…is relationship with God.

Like all relationships it is founded on truth claims, facts…but it is in fact a relationship…and relationships are to be enjoyed…delighted in.


Show up.  Moments become movements.

From the perspective of your choice in all this…discipline is destiny not merely waiting for some sort of desire.

Showing up is the most fundamental and essential of disciplines.

After years of watching…seeing…I am absolutely convinced of this.

Regain or enhance your sense of smell…delight in the fragrance of the gospel.

Don’t wait for it to happen…God is all for it…it is up to you to move that way.

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