Where Are They Now?
“Where are they now?” It’s a question people like to ask about the pop singers and film stars of bygone decades. “Whatever happened to so-and-so…?”
We can ask the same about the Corinthians. After the letters of 1 and 2 Corinthians, what happened to this church which had for so long been the object of Paul’s pastoral care? How were Paul’s pleading, affectionate, and sometimes pointed letters received?
This is certainly the question suggested by the end of 2 Corinthians. It is clear from his own words that Paul’s pastoral work there remained unfinished. Nevertheless, other passages in the New Testament suggest that there were some positive results.
For instance, when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he could affirm that his work in the Eastern Mediterranean—including the city of Corinth—was completed. This meant he could move on to ministry in new areas, such as Spain (Rom 15:23–24).
In the same letter, Paul expressed gratitude that the region of Achaia was joining with Macedonia in contributing to the collection for the Jerusalem church (Rom 15:26). This was the very ministry of mercy which Paul had worked hard to encourage among the Corinthians.
We also see that some of Paul’s Corinthian friends remained faithful to the apostle. For instance, Paul spent three winter months in Corinth in 56–57 AD as the guest of Gaius (1 Cor 1:14), at a time when he was writing the letter to the Romans (Rom 16:23). It seems that for all the trouble he’d experienced there, Corinth was still a welcoming place for him. Admittedly, this is meagre evidence.
But Paul’s teaching and pastoral care had certainly produced some fruit in Corinth.
What about Corinth’s history beyond the horizon of the New Testament? The history of the early church tells us that after some years, the internal struggles in this congregation continued.
Notably, there is a rebuking letter that the church father Clement wrote to believers in Corinth in the late first century AD. Clement was bishop of Rome, a church that took on the subsequent supervision of the churches in Paul’s mission fields.
The letter of 1 Clement reveals that the congregation was again divided, even in revolt against their spiritual leaders. It is striking that Clement even reminds them to read again what the apostle had written in one of his letters to them. These are Clement’s chiding words to the congregation:
Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you… But now reflect who those are that have perverted you, and lessened the renown of your far-famed brotherly love. It is disgraceful… and unworthy of your Christian profession, that it should be reported that the very steadfast and ancient Church of the Corinthians, should, on account of one or two persons, engage in sedition against its presbyters. (1 Clement 47)
We don’t know how this admonition was received. After the time of Clement, the congregation at Corinth passes out of the view of the historical record. One can only imagine the trials and travails that marked its continued existence in the post-apostolic age, as the Roman Empire began its decline.
Seeing the unfinished nature of the work in Corinth is a suitable point for our own pastoral reflections.
It reveals that even the apostle Paul had to face his limitations as one of the human servants of Christ. What he said when grappling with the nature of his task comes to mind, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor 2:16). While the apostle went on to affirm that it is God who gives all competence for ministry, the Corinthian situation teaches us to expect that ministry will be fraught with weakness and hardship.
The high ideals cherished in the seminary years run up against the hard realities of a broken world and a sinful church. It is hard not to be emotionally drained by the stresses of ministry. It is hard to receive personal criticism, and to know that some of it is well-founded. It is hard not to hold difficult members at a distance instead of loving them. It is hard not to be ensnared by the love of money or the love of praise.
How difficult to come alongside those who are in need of help, and to allow God’s power to be displayed through the hardships of the pastor’s life and ministry!
Yet the pastor who is grappling with his shortcomings and inadequacies is also greatly encouraged. For Paul offers a powerful reminder about the great privilege of being an ambassador of the crucified and risen Christ.
And we are also reassured that God is greater than any and every human weakness.
Paul’s despondent question in 2 Corinthians 2:16—“Who is sufficient for these things?”—finds its beautifully resolute answer in the following chapter: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant” (2 Cor 3:5–6). In desiring sinners to be reconciled to himself, God commands that the saving message of Christ be preached and applied in the life of his believers.
God is content to use imperfect human servants to carry out this eternally meaningful work.
To echo again the often-quoted words of Paul, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
For meeting all the responsibilities and challenges of pastoral ministry, Christ will supply superabundant strength and abiding joy. In Christ, our future is always bright.
[Adapted from Weak Pastor, Strong Christ ]