Notes on 2 Corinthians 12:19-21

2 Corinthians 12:19‑21  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Nothing can be conceived more untrue than the impressions which the Corinthians had received of the one to whom they were so deeply indebted; and this from the rivalry of men who boasted much, and as usual with little or nothing really to boast. So it was even in these early days, so often halcyon days in superficial estimation, unless indeed for eyes yet more superficial, which, misled by theory only, look for progress in Christendom, degrading the past to exalt the present and speculate on the future. Positive and weighty and even notorious facts were utterly opposed to the misrepresentation of his adversaries; and none ought to have known better than the Corinthians how unfounded was all this detraction. It would be unintelligible if one did not know the natural weakness of the mass to fall under high-sounding words, and the subtle activity of the enemy to take advantage of the flesh in order to ruin the church and make it an instrument to the Lord's shame, instead of a witness in grace to His glory. Therefore did the apostle stoop to refute this miserable trash. But he was jealous lest this too should be misinterpreted, and he next proceeds to guard even this brief notice of his slanderers.
“Ye long ago1 think that we excuse ourselves to you. Before2 God in Christ we speak, but all things, beloved, for your building up. For I fear lest by any means on coming I find you not such as I wish, and I be found by [or for] you such as ye wish not; lest by any means [there be] strife3 jealousy, wraths, feuds, slanderings, whisperings, swellings, confusions; lest on my coming again my God humble me among [or before] you, and bewail many of those that have sinned heretofore and not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and indecency which they committed.” (Vers. 19-21.)
There need be no question, I think, as to the reading in verse 19. It is not “again” as in the Authorized Version, but “this long time,” which does not suit the interrogative form. If others sought self-justification, not so the apostle, whatever their surmisings. For those who are not occupied with Christ readily conceive of others what fills their own minds. He whom they misjudged turns to the presence of God and in His sight speaks in Christ. His speech was not only in the consciousness of the divine presence, but characterized by Christ, not by the natural man. In His name does not seem the thought, nor yet conformably to His doctrine. He stood consciously over against the highest tribunal, and spoke in Christ accordingly, not in the flesh; as he thus disposed of any self-complacency on their part in judging him, so he disclaims as carefully all thought of self-interest or fear: “but all things, beloved, for your building up.” Love never fails, and it builds up. For this he spoke and toiled and suffered.
And the more because he could not but have the gravest apprehensions of not a few in Corinth, whatever his comforting hopes of the rest. “For I fear, lest by any means on coming I find you not such as I wish, and I be found by you such as ye wish not.” It was the dread of their state and its consequences for themselves and to his own heart which had hindered his going when he had intended; and the delay had exposed him to evil tongues long since. And he still feared that the work of restoring grace meanwhile was not so complete, but that much which was amiss remained feebly if at all judged in many. For rather would he come in love and a spirit of meekness, than with a rod which their condition might demand. If he found any failing not in grace merely but in righteousness, those who were thus putting the Lord to shame must be as unwelcome to His servants, as he must prove to them in vindication of His name. The evils he hints at as still at work are those which he had so unsparingly rebuked in his first epistle; strife and jealousy, outbursts of angry passion and cabals, outspoken slanderings and privy whisperings, manifestations of proud insolence, and open disorders. It is a long list of sad evils; but how soon these might characterize true believers, where there is a party or parties to take up and spread and give effect to the word of leaders!
Some see it hard to reconcile the warm expressions of loving confidence found elsewhere, especially in the central part of the Epistle, with these forebodings. They even venture to conjecture that the latter portion from chapter 10 formed another letter written at a different epoch, and under circumstances widely differing from those supposed in the preceding part; or at least that a considerable period elapsed between the writings of the former and the latter parts. But there is really no special difficulty, as the apostle does not here speak of all, but of many; and the attentive reader will not fail to discern, even in the earliest chapters of the first portion, quite enough to prepare him for the solemn anxieties which press on the apostle's spirit before he closes the Epistle with his parting appeals.
Indeed, it has been pre-eminently remarked of this very chapter with truth that it contains the most striking contrasts among those that bear the name of the Lord. There is, on the one hand, the man in Christ, viewed in an extraordinary measure of enjoying the privileges of a Christian; there is, on the other, the most distressing exhibition of the worst possible state of the saints practically in both violence and corruption; and there is between these extremes the way of the saint, in being made nothing of, that the power of Christ might rest on him. Thus there is really no difficulty for those who accept God's word in simplicity; and the intellectual activity which musters objections is spiritually as infirm and unintelligent, as it also dishonors the Lord.
Verse 21 seems naturally inconsistent with the notion of a second visit as yet, though it is admitted on all hands that the apostle had intended ere this to have paid it. “Again” goes with coming, not with “humble,” though some prefer giving it to the entire clause. What an expression of love lurks in the apostle's words! To find saints thus in sin was God humbling him in their presence, not them in his, as it looked as a fact. But he felt as he spoke “in Christ.” It was God humbling him at the evil condition of his saints, and what it rendered necessary. And what does he say as he thinks of the grossest forms of it? “And I bewail many of those who have sinned beforehand, and not repented of the uncleanness, and fornication, and indecency which they committed.” It is not that his hand would fail to wield the rod, but it was surely with a wounded heart which bled because of shameless evil among those who called on the name of the Lord. Doubtless the corruptions were, characteristic of heathen Corinth; and old habits soon revive, even in young converts, when the heart turns from Christ to other objects. But what a tale is told of feeble faith? For faith it is that overcomes; and they were overcome with evil, not overcoming it with good. Nature is an important fact for the enemy; but the Holy Spirit lifts above all hindrances, forming, exercising, and strengthening the new life we have in Christ our Lord.