Global Missions through the Bible: 2 Corinthians

Editor’s Note: The history of missions is replete with examples of God using his Word to call his followers to engage in his redemptive work around the world by praying, giving, going, and sending. The aim of this article series (part one here) is to help Bible students, teachers, and readers recognize the theme of global missions throughout Scripture. In this installment, Zane Pratt, vice president of training for the International Mission Board and associate professor of missions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, examines principles pertaining to global missions from the book of 2 Corinthians.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are missionary literature, written by a missionary to a new church made up of new believers on the mission field. Like 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians was written in the context of the apostle Paul’s missionary efforts in the eastern Mediterranean world in the middle of the first century AD.

Corinth was a port city in Greece infamous for its moral degeneracy. Paul founded the church there during his second missionary journey, as recorded for us in Acts 18:1–17. He was there for at least a year and a half, sharing the gospel and training those who came to faith. After he left the city to return to his sending church in Antioch, serious issues arose in the church.

Paul’s missionary strategy included an ongoing care for the health of the churches he had planted, even though he himself did not stay voluntarily in any one location more than a couple of years at most. Paul stayed in contact with the church in Corinth. He got news about its unity and health from people he knew (1 Cor. 1:11). He sent trusted colleagues to check on them (1 Cor. 16:10–11; 2 Cor. 7:5–16).

Helpfully for us, he also wrote letters addressing the issues they were facing. These letters not only convey principles of healthy church life but help us to better understand the ways that Paul served Christ as a faithful minister of the gospel. In fact, in 2 Corinthians, we see at least six characteristics of Paul, a faithful servant of Christ Jesus.

1. A Faithful Servant Loves People

This second letter by Paul to the Corinthians shows the love he had for the people he evangelized and the churches he planted. Even though the church in Corinth caused him a great deal of pain, he remained deeply invested in their well-being. The issues that provoked Paul to write 1 Corinthians were weighty and difficult, but Paul described the process of writing that letter in highly affectionate terms: “For I wrote to you out of much affliction  and anguish of heart and many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Cor. 2:4).

When Titus came from visiting Corinth and reported to Paul how well he had been received and how much they longed for Paul, he wrote, “I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Cor. 7:4). Paul didn’t just give people the gospel. He gave them his heart, and his second letter to Corinth clearly demonstrates this dimension of his missionary method.

2. A Faithful Servant Has Integrity

This letter also displays his firm commitment to integrity in both his message and his methods. He states this more than once. “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17). “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word, but by the open statement of the truth, we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).

The first century had its share of religious and philosophical charlatans. Paul was familiar with known rhetorical tricks of the trade that could be used to stir up a crowd. There was significant temptation to modify the message to fit better with popular culture. Paul resisted all these temptations. He refused to tamper with the message to make it more popular, and he refused to utilize methods that he regarded as disgraceful or underhanded. He wanted the results of his ministry to rest entirely on the power of God and not on the slickness of his packaging of the message or on the cleverness of his methods.

“People are alienated from God, and this alienation has drastic eternal consequences. Therefore, there is ultimate seriousness to the work of the gospel.”

3. A Faithful Servant Is Filled with Evangelistic Passion

Second Corinthians also gives us a glimpse into the evangelistic passion that drove Paul’s missionary efforts. He understood the gospel in terms of a glorious substitution: Jesus became sin in our place so that we might be counted righteous in him. He understood the consequences of the gospel in extreme terms: those who are in Christ are so radically transformed that it can only be described as a brand new act of creation.

Paul understood his ministry as an evangelist and missionary in exalted terms as an ambassador—an official representative of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, bearing a message that was not his own but God’s. People are alienated from God, and this alienation has drastic eternal consequences. Therefore, there is ultimate seriousness to the work of the gospel. Paul implored people to be reconciled to God, and this lay at the heart of his understanding of his role as a missionary (2 Cor 5:17–21).

4. A Faithful Servant Helps Fellow Servants Exercise Good Stewardship

Second Corinthians also shows us that new churches on the mission field can be expected to exercise good stewardship and generosity with their money. The saints in Jerusalem had serious material needs. Paul expected the churches he had just recently established to contribute to a fund to meet those needs. The churches in Macedonia, who were very poor themselves, had already given generously (2 Cor. 8:1-5). Paul urged the Corinthians to do the same. There is no hint here of mission churches standing in financial dependence on sending churches. Brand new churches, recently planted among the unreached, were expected to be good stewards and generous givers from the start.

5. A Faithful Servant Stands against His King’s Opponents

Second Corinthians gives us a dramatic picture of how vigorously Paul resisted false teachers. The last part of the book, chapters 10 through 13, is dedicated to the defense of his ministry in the face of attacks and unfair comparisons with “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5 HCSB). Paul was concerned about two things: approaches to ministry that take advantage of others (2 Cor. 11:20) and distortions of the message of the gospel (2 Cor. 11:4). Paul used strong language and marshaled all of his rhetorical skill, to combat these serious dangers. He did not have a casual attitude toward either ministry style or gospel substance. Paul’s love for the church he had planted compelled him to go on the offensive when it was in danger.

“Paul’s passion included a deep commitment to the health of the churches he had planted as a missionary. At the same time, he never took his gaze off of unreached peoples and places.”

6. A Faithful Servant Works toward Expanding His King’s Domain

In the middle of all of this, his focus never left the unreached. “Our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged, so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another’s area of influence” (2 Cor. 10:15b–16). Paul had a passion for missions. His passion included a deep commitment to the health of the churches he had planted as a missionary. At the same time, he never took his gaze off of unreached peoples and places. As he said in Romans 15:20, his ambition remained the same: to preach the gospel where Christ was not yet known.

Zane Pratt serves as vice president of training for the International Mission Board.