2 CORINTHIANS 2:14-3:6
14But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. 15For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 17For we are not peddlers of God's word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence.
1Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? 2You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; 3and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
One of the highlights of my time at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in the early 1990's was taking courses with Dr. Scott Hafemann. I took his Greek class and his Biblical theology class. He was a young New Testament professor in his early 30's. He had been a student of John Piper and much like Piper himself, Dr. Hafemann was a passionate teacher and intensely devoted to the Bible. The other popular NT prof, equally passionate, was Dr. Greg Beale. So it was the case that some students became "followers" of Hafemann (a Baptist, committed to believers' baptism) and others became "followers" of Beale (a Congregationalist, committed to paedo [infant]-baptism). I "followed" neither, since I only followed Jesus.
Anyway, being much impressed with Dr. Hafemann, one of the early books I purchased at seminary was his newly published book based on his PhD dissertation from Tubingen University. The book, Suffering and Ministry in the Spirit: Paul's Defense of His Ministry in II Corinthians 2:14 - 3:3. The entire book focused on these seven verses, along with relevant background texts from the Bible and other ancient sources. (And if you are interested in purchasing one for yourself, see: http://www.amazon.com/Suffering-Ministry-Spirit-Defense-Corinthians/dp/080280442X/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&qid=1458097807&sr=8-12&keywords=scott+j.+hafemann)
I mention this book because (1) our devotional text covers the verses that Hafemann examines in his book and (2) Hafemann's work helped me to appreciate the intimate link between righteous suffering and the power of Spirit in Paul's theology.
What was the issue?
The back cover of Hafemann's book is a good start for understanding the Corinthian issue with Paul: "How do we reconcile the apostle Paul's suffering with his role in mediating the Spirit to his churches? From the beginning of his ministry, Paul's opponents argued that his constant suffering called into question his legitimacy as an apostle.... These seven verse, Hafemann contends, constitute the heart of Paul's twin-pillared self-defense: both his suffering and his ministry of the Spirit vindicated him as an apostle of Christ."
In other words, Paul embraced the theology of the cross and the theology of the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. In fact Paul begins his Corinthian correspondence with this very clear statement in his first letter, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
To stress "Jesus Christ and him crucified" is the theology of the cross. Paul admits that he came in weakness but also with the Spirit's power. For Paul, weakness and Spirit went together. "Human wisdom" according to the Corinthians stressed eloquence, persuasive words, external power, and the absence of weakness and suffering. In this way, the Corinthians shared much in common with those who are part of the "prosperity gospel" strand within American Evangelicalism.
[Paul's understanding of the cross and resurrection comes through also from Philippians 3:10-11, "I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead."]
Focusing now on the devotional text above, the critical image or metaphor that frames the passage is the Roman triumphal procession. When the Roman army defeated an enemy army, the Romans would parade the defeated, captured enemies and lead them in a "triumphal procession" to display not only the victorious power of the Roman army but also to dedicate these captured foes to the gods of Rome.
Paul uses this well known image to convey that he has been "captured" by Christ (for Paul, before his conversion, was an "enemy" of Jesus). And Paul is now being paraded about, displayed for all to see the victorious power of Jesus who saves and Paul's life dedicated to God's glory. And like the enemies of the Roman army who were taken to their execution, Paul is destined for his death, which like Christ's death, brings about life. Hence the coupling of "death to death" and "life to life" in verse 16.
So, in Paul, it's crystal clear that righteous suffering (death) is clearly linked to the power of the Spirit (life). And this linkage shows -- or should have shown -- that Paul was a genuine apostle of Jesus Christ. Yet, it is doubtful whether the Corinthian believers really came around to seeing things as Paul did. We just can't tell since we have no further correspondence from Paul regarding how well they understood his message in 2 Corinthians.
Paul's theology of the cross and resurrection is not an isolated anomaly. It's not a theology that somehow remained obscure. For the suffering house church leaders in China, for the persecuted Christians in Syria, for the early Korean Christian martyrs at the turn of the 20th century, for many other Christians who have suffered greatly because of the name of Jesus, they would have understood what Paul was getting at. That before the Sunday of Easter, there is the Good Friday of Suffering. That it's possible, indeed to be expected, that righteous suffering goes with righteous power. The cross and resurrection together formed a coherent narrative and a consistent theology not just for Paul but for every believer down the centuries even to our time.
As the 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, often described Jesus, He is always our "crucified and risen Lord." May this Lord speak to you and strengthen you in your journey with Him, both in your suffering and in your experience of the Spirit's power.
Let's pray: Father God, thank you that you defeated the powers of death by raising Jesus from the dead. Thank you that you redeemed the powers of death by turning death and suffering for the cause of your glory and the advancement of your kingdom. We confess not only the power of the resurrection, the theology of your glory; but we also confess the power of the cross, the theology of the cross of Jesus. Help us to embrace, like the apostle Paul, both the cross and the resurrection, so that in this life there is indeed nothing to fear. Both the righteous suffering and the righteous power are gifts that come from you. In Jesus' name, amen.