Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.XIII.
(1) This is the third time I am coming to you.—The words may point either to three actual visits—(1) that of Acts 18:1; (2) an unrecorded visit (of which, however, there is no trace), during St. Paul’s stay at Ephesus; and (3) that now in contemplation—or (1) to one actual visit, as before; (2) the purposed visit which had been abandoned (see Notes on 2Corinthians 1:16); and (3) that which he now has in view. The latter interpretation falls in best with the known facts of the case, and is in entire accordance both with his language in 2Corinthians 12:14, and with his mode of expressing his intentions, as in 1Corinthians 16:5.
In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.—There seems no adequate reason for not taking these words in their simple and natural meaning. The rule, quoted from Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15, was of the nature of an axiom of Jewish, one might almost say of natural, law. And it had received a fresh prominence from our Lord’s reproduction of it in giving directions as for the discipline of the society which He came to found. (See Note on Matthew 18:16.) What more natural than that St. Paul should say, “When I come, there will be no more surmises and vague suspicions, but every offence will be dealt with in a vigorous and full inquiry”? There seems something strained, almost fantastic, in the interpretation which, catching at the accidental juxtaposition of “the third time” and the “three witnesses,” assumes that the Apostle personifies his actual or intended visits, and treats them as the witnesses whose testimony was to be decisive. It is a fatal objection to this view that it turns the judge into a prosecutor, and makes him appeal to his own reiteration of his charges as evidence of their truth.
I told you before, and foretell you, as if I were present, the second time; and being absent now I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all other, that, if I come again, I will not spare:(2) I told you before, and foretell you . . .—Better, I have warned you before (referring, probably, to the threat of 1Corinthians 4:13-19, and implied in 2Corinthians 1:23). The chief objects of this rigour were to be those whom he had described previously as “having sinned beforehand” (see Note on 2Corinthians 12:21); but he adds that his work as judge will extend to all the rest of the offenders. What he has in view is obviously passing a sentence of the nature of an excommunication on the offenders, “delivering them to Satan” (1Corinthians 5:5; 1Timothy 1:20), with the assured confidence that that sentence would be followed by some sharp bodily suffering. In that case men would have, as he says in the next verse, a crucial test whether Christ was speaking in him, and learn that he whom they despised as infirm had a reserve-force of spiritual power, showing itself in supernatural effects even in the regions of man’s natural life.
Since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, which to you-ward is not weak, but is mighty in you.(3) Which to you-ward is not weak.—There is still a touch of indignant sadness in the tone in which the words are uttered. Men will not be able to cast that reproach of weakness upon Him whose might they will feel all too keenly.
For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you.(4) For though he was crucified through weakness . . .—The better MSS. give another reading, without the contingent or concessive clause: For even He was crucified. St. Paul seems to see in Christ the highest representative instance of the axiomatic law by which he himself had been comforted, that strength is perfected in infirmities. For He too lived encompassed with the infirmities of man’s nature, and the possibility of the crucifixion flowed from that fact, as a natural sequel.
For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him.—The thought that underlies the apparently hard saying is that the disciples of Christ share at once in their Lord’s weakness and in His strength. “We, too, are weak,” the Apostle says; “we have our share in infirmities and sufferings, which are ennobled by the thought that they are ours because we are His; but we know that we shall live in the highest sense, in the activities of the spiritual life, which also we share with Him, and which comes to us by the power of God; and this life will be manifested in the exercise of our spiritual power towards you and for your good.” To refer the words “we shall live” to the future life of the resurrection, though the thought is, of course, true in itself, is to miss the special force of the words in relation to the context.
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?(5) Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.—The position of “yourselves” in the Greek (before the verb in both clauses) shows that that is the word on which stress is emphatically laid, and the thought grows out of what had been said in 2Corinthians 13:3 : “You seek a test of my power. Apply a test to yourselves. Try yourselves whether you are living and moving in that faith in Christ which you profess” (the objective and subjective senses of faith melting into one without any formal distinction). “Subject yourselves to the scrutiny of your own conscience.” The latter word had been used in a like sense in 1Corinthians 11:28. So far as we can distinguish between it and the Greek for “examine,” the one suggests the idea of a special test, the other a general scrutiny.
How that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?—On the last word see Notes on Romans 1:28; 1Corinthians 9:27. Here its exact meaning is defined by the context as that of failing to pass the scrutiny to which he calls them: “Christ is in you” (the central thought of the Apostle’s teaching; Galatians 1:16; Ephesians 2:22; Ephesians 3:17; Colossians 1:27), “unless the sentence, after an impartial scrutiny by yourselves, or by a judge gifted with spiritual discernment, is that there are no tokens of His presence.” The ideas which Calvinistic theology has attached to the word “reprobate” are, it need hardly be said, foreign to the true meaning of the word, both here and elsewhere.
But I trust that ye shall know that we are not reprobates.(6) But I trust . . .—Better, But I hope . . . The “we” that follows is emphatic: “whether you fail to pass the test or not, I have a good hope that you will know that we do not fail, whether the test be that which you demand (2Corinthians 13:3), or that which I apply to myself as in the sight of God.”
Now I pray to God that ye do no evil; not that we should appear approved, but that ye should do that which is honest, though we be as reprobates.(7) Now I pray to God that ye do no evil.—The better MSS. give, we pray. The words that follow involve a subtle play of thought and feeling on the two forms of the trial or scrutiny of which he has just spoken. “We pray,” he says, “that you may be kept from doing evil. Our purpose in that prayer is not that we may gain a reputation as successful workers in your eyes or those of others, but that you may do that which is nobly good (may advance from a negative to a positive form of holiness), even though the result of that may be that we no longer put our apostolic supernatural powers into play, and so seem to fail in the trial to which you challenge us.” This gives, it is believed, the true underlying thought of the words, and, though the paraphrase is somewhat full, it could not well be expressed in a narrower compass.
For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth.(8) For we can do nothing against the truth.—Better, perhaps, we are powerless. Here, again, the meaning lies below the surface. The first impression which the words convey is that he is asserting his own thoroughness as a champion of the truth, so that it was a moral impossibility for him to do anything against it. The true sequence of thought, however, though it does not exclude that meaning, compels us to read much more between the lines. “Yes,” he says, “we are content to seem to fail, as regards the exercise of our apostolic power to chastise offenders; for the condition of that power is that it is never exercised against the truth, and therefore if you walk in the truth, there will be no opening for its exercise.” The feeling is analogous to that of Romans 9:3 : “I could wish myself accursed from Christ for my brethren’s sake;” perhaps also to that of the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30); perhaps, yet again, to that of the patriot dying with the prayer, “May my name be without honour if only my country may be saved.”
For we are glad, when we are weak, and ye are strong: and this also we wish, even your perfection.(9) For we are glad, when we are weak . . .—The last words cover many shades of meaning. We may think of the weakness of his bodily presence, of his physical infirmities, of the apparent failure of his supernatural powers because the condition of the Corinthian Church, as walking in faith and truth, presented no opening for their exercise. He can find cause for joy in all these, if only the disciples whom he loves are strong with the strength of God.
This also we wish, even your perfection.—Better, your restoration. This is the only passage in the New Testament in which the word occurs; but the corresponding verb is found in the “mending their nets” of Matthew 4:21, Mark 1:19, and in the “restore” of Galatians 6:1. Its proper meaning is to bring back to completeness. This, then, was what the Apostle had been aiming at all along. In his seeming harshness and self-assertion, as in his overflowing tenderness, he was looking forward to their restoration to their first love and their first purity. He would rather threaten than act, even at the cost of the threat appearing an empty vaunt, if only he might be spared the necessity for acting.
Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction.(10) Therefore I write these things being absent . . .—The words speak of an inner conflict, in which love has triumphed, not without pain, over feelings of bitterness and indignation. The storm has passed, and the sky is again clear. He does not recall what he has written, but he explains and half-apologises for it. It was better to speak with severity than to act. But even had it been necessary to act, as at one time he thought it would be, he wished them to understand that even then his aim would have been, as it was now, to restore them to their true completeness in Christ; not to inflict punishment for the sake of punishing, or as a mere display of power.
Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.(11) Finally, brethren, farewell.—The word (literally, rejoice) was the natural close of a Greek letter, and is therefore adequately represented by the English “farewell,” if only we remember that it was used in all the fulness of its meaning. “Rejoice—let that be our last word to you.”
Be perfect.—Better, as before, restore yourselves to completeness; amend yourselves. In the words “be of good comfort” (better, perhaps, be comforted, with the implied thought that the comfort comes through accepting his word of counsel—see Note on Acts 4:36) we trace an echo of what he had said in the opening of the Epistle, as to the “comfort” which had been given to him (2Corinthians 1:4; 2Corinthians 1:7). Paraclesis in its two-fold aspect is, in fact, the key-note of the whole Epistle. Taking the verb and the noun together, the word occurs twenty-eight times in it.
Be of one mind.—The phrase was one specially characteristic of St. Paul’s teaching (Romans 15:6; Philippians 2:2; Philippians 3:16; Philippians 4:2). His thoughts are apparently travelling back to the schisms over which he had grieved in 1 Corinthians 1-3, and to which he had referred in 2Corinthians 12:20. What he seeks is the restoration of unity of purpose, and with that of inward and outward peace. If these conditions were fulfilled, the “God of love and peace would assuredly be with them,” for peace rests ever upon the son of peace (Luke 10:6).
Greet one another with an holy kiss.(12) Greet one another with an holy kiss.—The tense of the Greek verb indicates that the Apostle is giving directions, not for a normal and, as it were, liturgical usage, but for a single act. In doing so, he repeats what he had said in 1Corinthians 16:20. The same injunction appears in Romans 16:16; 1Thessalonians 5:26. What he meant was that, as the public reading of the Epistle came to a close, the men who listened should embrace each other and kiss each other’s cheeks, in token that all offences were forgotten and forgiven, and that there was nothing but peace and goodwill between them. It was, perhaps, natural, that the counsel should be taken as a rubric, even at the cost of its losing its real significance, and becoming a stereotyped formula. So in the Apostolic Constitutions (possibly of the third century) we find the rubric, “Let the deacons say to all, ‘Salute ye one another with a holy kiss:’ and let the clergy salute the bishop, the men of the laity salute the men, the women the women.” The deacons were to watch that there was no disorder during the act (8:57). In the account given by Justin (Apol. i. 65) it appears as preceding the oblation of the bread and wine for the Eucharistic Feast, as it did in most of the Eastern liturgies, probably as a symbolic act of obedience to the command of Matthew 5:24. In the Western Church it came after the consecration of the elements and the Lord’s Prayer. It was intermitted on Good Friday in the African Church (Tertull. De Orat. c. 14) as unsuitable for a day of mourning. It may be noted as the survival of a residuum of the old practice, that when the usage was suppressed by the Western Church, in the thirteenth century, it was replaced by the act of kissing a marble or ivory tablet, on which some sacred subject, such as the Crucifixion, had been carved, which was passed from one to another, and was known as the osculatorium, or “kissing instrument.”
All the saints salute you.(13) All the saints salute you.—The salutation in the First Epistle came, it will be remembered, from the “brethren” of the Church of Asia. This comes from the “saints” of Philippi. The phrase, familiar as it is, is not without interest, as showing that St. Paul, wherever he might be, informed the Church of one locality when he was writing to another, and so made them feel that they were all members of the great family of God.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen.(14) The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ . . .—It is not without a special significance that the Epistle which has been, almost to the very close, the most agitated and stormy of all that came from St. Paul’s pen, should end with a benediction which, as being fuller than any other found in the New Testament, was adopted from a very early period in the liturgies of many Eastern churches, such as Antioch, Cæsarea, and Jerusalem (Palmer, Origines. Liturg. i. 251). It may be noted that it did not gain its present position in the Prayer Book of the Church of England till the version of A.D. 1662, not having appeared at all till A.D. 1559, and then only at the close of the Litany.
The order of the names of the three Divine Persons is itself significant. Commonly, the name of the Father precedes that of the Son, as, e.g., in 2Corinthians 1:2; Romans 1:7; 1Corinthians 1:3. Here the order is inverted, as though in the Apostle’s thoughts there was no “difference or inequality” between them, the question of priority being determined by the sequence of thought, and not by any essential distinction. To those who trace that sequence here there will seem sufficient reason for the order which we actually find. St. Paul had spoken of the comfort brought to his own soul by the words which he heard in vision from the lips of the Lord Jesus, “My grace is sufficient for thee” (2Corinthians 12:9). He had spoken of that grace as showing itself in self-abnegation for the sake of man (2Corinthians 8:9). What more natural than that the first wish of his heart for those who were dear to him should be that that grace might be with them, working on them and assimilating them to itself? But the “favour,” or “grace,” which thus flowed through Christ was derived from a yet higher source. It was the love of God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself (2Corinthians 5:18-20), the love of the Eternal Father that was thus manifested in the “grace” of the Son. Could he separate those divine acts from that of Him whom he knew at once as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ? (Romans 8:9-14; 1Corinthians 2:11; 1Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 4:6.) Was it not through their participation, their fellowship in that Spirit (the phrase meets us again in Philippians 2:1) shedding down the love of God in their hearts (Romans 5:5) that the grace of Christ and the love of the Father were translated from the region of abstract thoughts or mere empty words into the realities of a living experience?  The note, added by some unknown transcriber, though having no shadow of authority, is, probably, in this instance, as has been shown in the Notes on
 The note, added by some unknown transcriber, though having no shadow of authority, is, probably, in this instance, as has been shown in the Notes on2Corinthians 8:16-22, a legitimate inference from the data furnished by the Epistle.
And so the Epistle ends, not, we may imagine, if we may once picture to ourselves the actual genesis of the letter, without a certain sense of relief and of repose. It had been a hard and difficult task to dictate it. The act of dictation had been broken by the pauses of strong emotion or physical exhaustion. The Apostle had had to say things that went against the grain, of which he could not feel absolutely sure that they were the right things to say. (See Note on 2Corinthians 11:17.) And now all is done. He can look forward to coming to the Corinthian Church, not with a rod, but in love and in the spirit of meekness (1Corinthians 4:21). What the actual result of that visit was we do not know in detail, but there are at least no traces of disappointment in the tone of the Epistle to the Romans, which was written during that visit. He has been welcomed with a generous hospitality (Romans 16:23). He has not been dis-appointed in the collection for the saints (Romans 15:26) either in Macedonia or Achaia. If we trace a reminiscence of past conflicts in the warning against those who cause divisions (Romans 16:18), it is rather with the calmness of one who looks back on a past danger than with the bitterness of the actual struggle.