2 Corinthians: The Supreme Pastoral Letter – Interview with Phil Smith

Kevin Halloran

Content Specialist, United States
January 27, 2020

When we think of the Pastoral Epistles, we usually think of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus because they were written to pastors and bear the official title of “Pastoral Epistle.” Even so, some have called the book of 2 Corinthians the “Supreme Pastoral Letter” because it helps us see the pastoral heart and pastoral suffering of the Apostle Paul in a unique way.[1]

Since WordPartners is an organization that encourages and equips pastors to teach God’s word with God’s heart, I (Kevin Halloran) thought it would be useful to talk about this book that provides unique value for pastoral ministry. With me is Phil Smith.

Phil, you’ve shared how God has used 2 Corinthians to encourage you greatly in your ministry. How did this love develop?

PS: Thank you, Kevin. My love for 2 Corinthians really developed during my time as a pastor. Coming right out of seminary, I went into a pastorate for ten years on an island in southeast Alaska. There were challenges in that pastorate. I sought to figure out: How do I evaluate ministry? How am I doing as a pastor? I had a different personality from the previous pastor. Was I failing because I wasn’t like him?

I came to love the message of 2 Corinthians: that if you are loving your people, if you are clear with the gospel, shepherding people with the Word and you’re prayerful, depending on the Lord in it—that is what true Christian ministry is about. It was very encouraging for me. It gave me great confidence in my ministry. People in my congregation also needed encouragement in their own ministries—to persevere in ministry even when it’s hard. Much of the message in 2 Corinthians is persevering in the midst of difficulty in ministry.

KH: What’s going on in 2 Corinthians? We know Paul is writing to the Corinthians again. Can you give us traveling instructions to help us understand the original context?

PS: You’ve got to do traveling instructions with 2 Corinthians. I did a conference on 2 Corinthians recently, and the first sermon was simply doing traveling instructions – starting in Acts 18 when Paul first goes and plants the church in Corinth, then moving to the tumultuous relationship that develops between him and a segment of the church in Corinth as it just descends into mayhem between him and the church. This is the fourth letter to the Corinthians, we think, based on what we read in the two letters that we have here (see 1 Corinthians 5:9–11; 2 Corinthians 2:3–4, 9, 7:8, 12). To see Paul’s continuing, loving pursuit of this church despite the way many of them treated him is remarkable, as is his shepherding care for them. To read this letter in that context is particularly helpful.

KH: One of the key ideas in 2 Corinthians, especially for the pastor, is the idea of New Covenant ministry. Can you define that for us?

PS: Yes, he does spend some time talking about himself in contrast to what seems to be some version of Judaizers in the church, the “super apostles.” They came as “servants of Christ, servants of righteousness” but served a different gospel. In chapter three he contrasts his own ministry with this ministry that emphasized the Ten Commandments, the Jewish traditions, and that sort of thing. So, those who emphasized rules and regulations without surrounding it with the gospel of Christ, that’s what you would say is a modern-day Judaizer. I think we’re all in danger of that in our churches where we emphasize rules without getting to the gospel of Jesus. New Covenant ministry is a ministry that is immersed in the gospel and empowered by the Spirit, looking to the Spirit to work through the gospel of Jesus Christ and expecting God to powerfully work.

New Covenant ministry is a ministry that is immersed in the gospel and empowered by the Spirit, looking to the Spirit to work through the gospel of Jesus Christ and expecting God to powerfully work.

A quick story: A pastor wanted to be hired here at WordPartners and we started listening to some of his sermons. I still remember while driving to Michigan listening to a sermon from the Old Testament that hardly touched on Jesus let alone the grace found in Jesus. In a sense, he was laying guilt upon guilt on his congregation, and it was like congregational abuse without pointing to the grace of Jesus. That’s a modern-day Judaizer. New Covenant ministry focuses on and gets to the grace we find in Christ.

KH: An important theme of 2 Corinthians is transformation. That pastor preaching in that way really lacks the transformative power of the gospel. It heaps rules upon people, but that isn’t going to change their hearts. With the New Covenant, we have new hearts, by God’s grace, and His Spirit, who is working in our hearts to transform us into Christ’s likeness.

PS: Absolutely. He talks about the surpassing power that comes from God (2 Corinthians 4:7)—His Spirit is transforming us from one degree of glory to another.

KH: Amen. You already mentioned one sign that that particular pastor didn’t grasp New Covenant ministry well. What are some other signs that maybe a pastor doesn’t fully grasp the implications of New Covenant ministry?

PS: The Corinthians struggled with this. They had a very worldly perspective on ministry, and even from the beginning of 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the cross, the power of the cross, and the pattern of the cross. Pastors are so often influenced by a worldly view of what success looks like, and New Covenant ministry is shaped by the cross and how we do ministry. This means that we are not surprised when there is suffering and hardship or when we feel weak or have feelings of inadequacy.

When I was in pastoral ministry, I asked, “Isn’t there more to ministry? Loving people, speaking the Word to people, speaking the gospel to people and praying for them? Is that it? Can’t there be anything more exciting to make it really powerful?” Actually, no—that’s where the power is.

We tend to want to make our ministries more impressive, more flashy. The power is in the clearly presented gospel and being servants of God who are coming as servants of the people – to serve them by bringing them the gospel.

KH: Like it says in 2 Corinthians 4:7, ”We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” It’s a crucial point to remember. Something that we see in 1 & 2 Corinthians is that the Corinthian culture valued power and oratory and celebrity, which is why the super apostles were such a draw. How does 2 Corinthians’ message speak to our culture today that emphasizes so much platform and influence?

PS: The church in America needs this letter directly preached to them. In a sense Paul is giving us a new set of glasses, as it were, to evaluate what true Christian ministry looks like. So often, we have a worldly set of glasses on that looks for success and, as you said, eloquence and magnetic personalities – people with imposing bearing about them that people are in awe of. People want a celebrity kind of leader. Those pastors who might not have that eloquence or a big personality may think they’re a bad pastor, when they’re really doing a good job, because they are faithfully teaching the Bible. Those pastors get discouraged, and they may give up on ministry when they should be encouraged, emboldened, and confident.

Paul demonstrates great confidence and courage in this letter, even though he wasn’t as eloquent as some. He didn’t have a huge personality like it seems some of them had there. He didn’t boast in the way that they boasted, and yet he had great confidence in the power of the gospel.

At the same time you have some pastors that are really doing a bad job because they’re not clearly preaching the gospel. They’re not loving their people; they are not men of prayer. Yet, because they have those worldly things about them, people pat them on the back. They say they are doing a good job. They’re really not.

So, that’s what’s so crucial for not only pastors but for the whole church to evaluate rightly. That’s what this letter is about: helping us understand what true gospel ministry is to look like.

KH: It’s interesting to think about. First Corinthians 3 talks about how our ministries will be exposed for what they truly are on the Day of Christ. It’s vital to use the right building materials as we do the work of the Lord because we will be judged (1 Corinthians 3:13–14). The artificial fruit and big platforms and all the flashy lights and a lot of followers may be proved to be nothing. What worse thing can we think of than all our work and ministry be burned up on the Day of Christ? But thank the Lord there is so much power in the true gospel and in weak ministry.

There’s power in weakness, there’s joy in sorrow. There is much sorrow in this letter and yet much joy. There’s life through death. As Paul is suffering, life comes through that. There’s confidence amidst apparent failure.

PS: Just as you said there, a weak ministry. That’s the beauty of this letter and its many paradoxes. There’s power in weakness, there’s joy in sorrow. There is much sorrow in this letter and yet much joy. There’s life through death. As Paul is suffering, life comes through that. There’s confidence amidst apparent failure. They thought he was a failure. In chapter 13 he refers to that and yet has such confidence, even though they think he’s failing. So, I hope, just by this conversation, that people are encouraged to reread 2 Corinthians, be encouraged by it, and preach it.

[1] Dr. Murray J. Harris wrote this in his article on 2 Corinthians in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible.

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