WEEKLY SERMON BLOG
“The War We Wage” --- II Corinthians 10:1-6
This passage marks a new section of Paul’s letter. In the last four chapters of the letter, Paul addresses in detail his opponents in the Corinthians fellowship whom he will later refer to as “false apostles” (11:13). In order to gain influence within the Corinthian churches, these false apostles were attempting to undermine the confidence these saints had in the apostle Paul. Their critique of Paul’s methods and effectiveness thus form the background to the way that Paul addresses the threat these false apostles represent and the manner in which he will frame his discussion of the larger context of the struggle between the light and the darkness. He starts off by addressing the specific struggle between himself and the false apostles, and then presents principles by which the Corinthians can understand the way to successfully be victorious in the larger struggle against spiritual evil.
I. A Specific Battle: (vs.1-2)
Paul opens this very personal portion of his letter with the words, “Now I, Paul, myself am pleading with you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (vs.1a). The expression “I, Paul, myself” is very emphatic and stresses the personal connection he has to this fellowship. He is addressing them as one they know very well; because he had been with them for 18 months when he was used by God to establish their church in Corinth (Acts 18:11). The idea here is that these believers should not be so quick to re-evaluate Paul; because they have known him so well, and he has had such a beneficial impact upon their lives. Doubtlessly, Paul had led a number of them to faith in Christ; and had invested a great deal of time discipling them. Thus, these saints should know the genuineness of Paul’s character, calling, and commitment to them. In addition to this, Paul writes that he was “pleading” with the Corinthians. Paul was personally commissioned by the risen Christ as His representative, and so he certainly had the authority to command the Corinthians to submit to his instructions. However, as we see throughout the NT, that is not how the apostles dealt with those to whom they ministered. This is because the goal is for people to be persuaded in their hearts to do the right thing, not simply gain external compliance. Paul said he did this by the “meekness and gentleness of Christ”. The Greek word translated as “meekness” means to patiently endure the offenses of others, while the Greek word translated as “gentleness” generally means being reasonable, or fair, but when applied to someone in authority it denotes indulgence and leniency. Paul stresses that these are qualities that are associated with how Christ Himself dealt with people during His earthly ministry. What Paul was attempting to demonstrate was that his graciousness with the Corinthians was not an expression of weakness, but a result of Paul’s desire to be like Christ.
Paul then goes on to write about his interactions with the Corinthians in a way that mirrors the critiques of the false apostles, “who in presence am lowly among you, but being absent am bold toward you” (vs.1a). The implications from what Paul writes in this letter is that the false apostles were suggesting that he was humble and undemanding whenever he was face to face with the people of the Church, but in his letters (written from a safe distance), he was confrontational and even harsh. The false apostles were thus accusing him of cowardice when he was with the saints at Corinth, and vindictiveness when he wrote his letters. Paul, having cited these characteristics of his dealings with the Corinthians, would now explain his true objective in relating to them in the way that he did.
Paul writes, “But I beg you that when I am present I may not be bold with that confidence by which I intend to be bold against some” (vs.2a). Though Paul uses a different Greek word; in writing that he was begging his readers, Paul was simply continuing the pleading that he started in verse one. Paul was pleading with his readers not to make it necessary for him to prove that he could be bold in person when he next visited the church. Paul wanted to make clear that having a gentle disposition is not to equated with timidity; because if it proved to be necessary Paul would confront his opponents and the church at large. Paul wanted his readers to understand why he practiced ministry as he did; he wrote directly and forcefully so that the problems could be corrected before he visited them. Thus, his visits could be gentle and positive, not disciplinary. The “boldness” that Paul has in mind is confronting his accusers in front of the fellowship; he would personally address their falsehoods about him, as well as their false teaching in general. The language Paul uses indicates that the persons he is preparing to confront are to be distinguished from the Corinthian believers. At the same time Paul was appealing to the Corinthians to respond to the situation in such a way that it would be unnecessary for him to be confrontational.
Then Paul refers to the more general charge that the false apostles were making about him, “who think of us as if we walked according to the flesh” (vs.2b). The false apostles were suggesting that unlike themselves, Paul’s ministry and teachings were rooted in his flesh rather than in the Spirit of God. The “flesh” in Paul’s writings tends to reflect the weakness and corruption of human nature. Therefore, the false teachers were suggesting that Paul was spiritually unreliable. As is clear from both letters, these false apostles tended to boast in their own superior spirituality and thus Paul’s opponents are not merely engaging in personal attacks, but rather they are attempting to subvert Paul’s apostolic authority. The false apostles were intending on nullifying his ministry by asserting that it was of human origin. But, Paul could not these allow assaults on the Spirit’s work through him in the churches to go unchallenged.
II. The Overall Conflict: (vs.3-5a)
In order to put things in their proper perspective, Paul writes, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh” (vs.3). In this short verse, Paul turns his opponents’ criticism of him into a truth statement, by making a slight alteration in their charge against him. The opponents charged Paul with walking “according to” the flesh. This key Greek preposition when used in the way it is here, means “in reference to, as far as it relates to, or concerning”. Thus, it refers to one thing patterned after something else. Therefore, to walk “according to the flesh” means to live in a way that is characterized by or dominated by the flesh. Instead, Paul wrote that he walked “in” the flesh. This different preposition refers to the sphere in which something takes place. Therefore, Paul was saying that rather than living a life characterized by fleshly values and aspirations, he simply lived within a weak mortal form, struggling against sin just like everyone else. Additionally, Paul moved this prepositional phrase to the front of the sentence for emphasis (to stress the difference between the truth about him and the falsehood that was being spread by the false apostles). Unlike the false apostles, Paul was not going to magnify himself in order to gain respect for his authority or ministry; instead he would demonstrate that what made him someone to listen to was the fact that He genuinely represented the true God. There was no supernatural power in Paul, but that did not mean there was nothing supernatural about his ministry.
The second clause in the sentence, “we do not war according to the flesh” represents a contrast with the first clause. The clause conveys that though Paul was only a flesh and blood man still impacted by the weaknesses of the Fall; that in no way characterized his part (or the part of any true believer) in the struggle between the light and the darkness. There is a subtle jab at the false apostles, because they were trying to advance their cause through fleshly means. To wage war according to the flesh means that one relies on flimsy human resources that are void of any Divine power and thus makes one likely to resort to shameful, underhanded means to gain the desired victory (such as cunning or deception). The weapons in the arsenal of the devil (and those, like the false apostles, who are aligned with him-see 11:13-15) are deceit, subterfuge, guile, intimidation, compulsion, and force. But these are not the weapons of the child of God. Our weapons are truth, integrity, justice, holiness, and faithfulness. Therefore Paul (as a part of his ongoing response to the charges made by the false apostles) continues to distance himself from the beliefs and practices of his opponents. At the same time, Paul clarifies that he and these false apostles are on opposite sides in the spiritual conflict between darkness and light.
In the next verse, Paul elaborates on how he and his fellow saints do engage in warfare; “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God” (vs.4a). Of course, the “warfare” that Paul refers to here is the conflict between Satan’s kingdom of darkness (Lk.11:18; Eph.6:12), and God’s kingdom of light (Col.1:13; Eph.5:8). Paul writes that the weapons that we use in our spiritual warfare are not “carnal” (of the flesh), but instead are “mighty in God”. It should be understood that “carnal” weapons need not be evil. Rather, they are those things that are in man’s power, such as eloquence, organization, marketing, and the like which are neutral in themselves, but which can be put to evil use through being made to serve the dark impulses of sin. More importantly here, Paul’s point is that the way we fight against the darkness is not by employing human power in our fight. One specific reason for not doing this is that such weapons are actually powerless against the true powers of darkness. Elsewhere Paul notes that:
Paul’s point in the passage above is that other people are not the real enemy in the Christian’s conflict with evil. Instead, human beings are slaves, controlled by Satanic forces and used against us. But our struggles are directed against these spiritual forces, and not the human beings through whom they work.
Though the military campaign in which Paul was engaged at present was against his opposition in Corinth, it was merely a part of his wider mission of preaching and defending the Gospel. And in light of what he writes here, Paul was making it clear that these false apostles were pawns of Satan.
In the clause above, Paul employs a strong contrastive conjunction to express that instead of using fleshly resources to wage war, Christians use weapons that are “mighty in God”; meaning they are weapons that are made mighty because the power of God Himself works through them. Though Paul does not state here what those weapons are; we can discern from Ephesians chapter six and elsewhere that those weapons are prayer, faith, the word of God, and our choice to be obedient to that word.
Paul next explains what those weapons are meant to accomplish, “for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God” (vs.4b-5a). The Greek word translated as “strongholds” refers to fortifications, and thus to walls or ramparts that were meant to protect ancient cities from attack. The imagery in these verses is from first century siege warfare. In the same way an ancient army (like that of Rome) would seek to breach the fortifications of an enemy city, so the Christian seeks to bring down strongholds that separate people from spiritual truth. In the larger context of spiritual warfare, the strongholds of Satan are systems, schemes, structures and strategies that are designed to frustrate or impede the progress of the Gospel (both to prevent conversion and spiritual growth). The Greek word translated as “pulling down” means to take down, to tear down, to destroy, or to dethrone. By the first century A.D., Roman siege warfare had developed sophisticated machinery and advanced strategies for capturing walled cities. Siege equipment included a complex variety of artillery, catapults, battering rams, mobile towers, and many tools designed specifically to maintain a siege. These were images that were well known by Paul’s readers. In fact, Corinth, like most cities in ancient Greece, had an acropolis, which was a fortified place in the local mountains into which the inhabitants could retreat if attacked. So, using this familiar imagery, Paul intended to help his readers understand the true nature of ministry, rather than the distortion that was being fed to them by the false apostles. In the ancient world it was understood that the advantage lies with the attacker of a city, and that it was only a matter of time before any given city would fall to its attacker. This understanding of the inevitability of such a defeat is used by Paul to demonstrate the certainty of the victory that would be won by those who were involved in the advancement of the Gospel. Paul had in mind the entrenched orientation to idolatry, impurity, and self-exaltation that had proven to be so influential at Corinth and throughout the Roman Empire. These would all fall to the power of the Gospel. In verse five, Paul refers to “casting down arguments”. But what are these “arguments” that the Christian must tear down by the power of the Gospel? The Greek word refers to the reasoning process of a person’s mind and thus would include any religious beliefs, philosophical assumptions, scientific deductions, or any pattern of thinking that to one extent or another frames a person’s understanding of the world around them. Paul uses this term in a pejorative sense; specifically referring to the false arguments that were directed against him by his opponents or by anyone in their attempts to fend off the Gospel and the truth of God.
Paul closes this portion of the passage by writing that the warfare also included bringing the power of God to bear on tearing down “every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God”. Every high thing is a general way of referring to anything that might be used as a defense to keep one from being forced to truly reckon with the implications of God’s truth. Paul specifically refers to “the knowledge of God” as that which the powers of darkness seek to resist. In using this expression, Paul is not referring merely to informational knowledge about God; he is referring to a real relational knowledge of God. The evil one, and the powers of darkness seek to keep people from having a relationship with God. A tragic irony is that the false apostles and unbelievers throughout the ages were and are fighting against their own best interest by seeking to keep themselves away from God’s overtures of grace and redemption. And it was because the stakes are so high in the ministry of the Gospel that Paul was willing to suffer so much and lay his ego aside to try to win the Corinthians back to the knowledge of the true God and out of the influence of these emissaries of Satan.
III. The Goal in Our Warfare: (vs.5b-6)
Paul then writes that the objective in spiritual warfare is “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (vs.5b). The Greek word translated a “thought” refers to an idea, a purpose, or a design. Therefore, “every thought” refers to anything and everything a person thinks, believes, or understands. Each and every one of these is to by brought into captivity. This continues the imagery of warfare, because the survivors of the conquest would be subjugated and made to serve their new sovereign. In a similar way, the spiritual war in which the believer is engaged has as its goal taking captives. But in the case of spiritual warfare it is capturing the thoughts and belief systems of individuals. The idea that Paul is writing about is ministering with the intent of bringing every thought, idea, belief, or viewpoint into conformity with the teachings of Christ. This then is simply another way of referring to the discipleship process, where the individual’s understanding about what is true, important, and beneficial would be conformed to that of Jesus Christ Himself, and thus by extension re-making us into the image of God.
Paul sums up his intentions toward the Corinthian fellowship by writing, “and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled” (vs.6). In these words, Paul indicates that his immediate purpose in Corinth mirrors God’s own purpose in redemption. God could punish sinners right now, and He would be just to do so. However, the reason God delays in judgment is not because the world is not bad enough to judge; it is because He is waiting for the final portion of the elect to believe and be saved. Once the obedience of the elect has been fulfilled, God will send His Son to earth to punish ungodliness and bring all creation into harmony with its Creator. In the same way, Paul could have immediately gone to Corinth to confront the false apostles and everyone who they were influencing, but instead it was his hope that the Corinthian believers as a whole would respond to his admonitions so that he would only have to confront the false apostles. The punishment that Paul had in mind is almost certainly expulsion from the Christian fellowship as heretics. Then having done this Paul would be free to build up the saints; which was something he would be far more anxious to do than simply confront and correct them.
This makes clear that dealing with trouble-makers that threaten the well-being of the fellowship is not only the responsibility of the leadership, it is the responsibility of the entire congregation to support the teachings and standards of the leadership and resist the influence of those who would subvert the faith.
The Scriptures inform the saints that there is an enemy who seeks us harm:
I Peter 5:8
Peter teaches us here that the devil is out to devour us. But what is this imagery meant to convey, since the devil will obviously not try to eat us? The idea is that the devil is out to destroy us in some sense. The precise sense has been debated for centuries. In the middle ages it was believed that the devil had real power to physically harm the saints. In the scientific age, Christians began to take the idea of the devil as merely a representation of the evil within the human heart, and thus he had no real power in any way to harm us. In more recent times it was suggested that the devil and his demons control everything on earth that is not taken from them by the saints through the use of deliverance techniques.
However, none of these things represent Biblical teaching. First, Scripture never equates the power of the devil with the power of God. God is the “Almighty”, which requires us to understand that He has no equal who can resist His power or He would not actually be almighty. Beyond the Scriptures proclaim that:
Further we are told that though the devil can be active in bringing hardship upon believers, he can only do what God gives him permission to do:
Beyond this, the believer is given the promise that God so governs what He allows Satan to do that it will never do any real harm to the believer:
The promise is not that no temporal discomfort, pain, or loss will occur; rather that whatever God allows will advance the believer’s ultimate well-being.
The devil does have influence over unbelievers and can manipulate them so that they do hurtful things to us; but the believer’s life, wealth, and identity is in the heavenly realms and this is beyond the devil’s reach. He also cannot make the believer do anything, nor does he have power to directly harm a believer. Instead, the contest is between truth, and falsehood (Jn.8:44). The devil wishes to undo the believer by getting them to believe in lies about the nature of God, our relationship to Him, and about what is true and important. The more our thoughts and ideas are conformed to the teachings of Scripture, the less he is able to devour us.
Therefore, at the heart of the struggle is whether we will look at everything around us from a worldly perspective, or a heavenly one. And thus, in the larger context of life everything revolves around advancing or resisting God’s purposes in our minds, hearts, and lives. We can choose to ignore the conflict around us, but we do so to our own loss. Instead, we are to engage the enemy with the power and truth of God; in the confidence that the victory is assured.
In the Bonds of Christ,
Pastor Michael Huard