Much to his disappointment, Paul is forced to defend his ministry as an apostle to the Corinthians. Because of the immaturity of the Corinthians and the influence of Paul’s opponents upon them, the theologically-driven missionary is forced to become an apologist for his own ministry. The defense that he gives would have been radically counter-culture to the ears of the Corinthians. They had failed to understand the “Christian way” of evaluating one’s worth and instead adopted that of their culture. The standards used for evaluating one’s social status and the significance of religious belief in everyday life can be summarized in one word: boasting.
Timothy Savage has developed five key principles of this so-called evaluation process: 1) a valuing of self-sufficiency; 2) wealth as the key to status; 3) the boasting of one’s accomplishments to earn praise for oneself; 4) one’s ability to boast about victories of honor; and 5) boasting in the display of one’s wealth from where they lived. These values formed a society that placed an emphasis on boasting in one’s accomplishments and social status. Ultimately, “self-appreciation became the goal and self-gratification the reward” for everyone in this society.
Paul’s counter-culture defense of his ministry was the antithesis of what the Corinthian society valued. Paul defended his ministry by appealing to the relationship between suffering and the power of the Spirit in his apostleship. Rather than focus on his ability and sufficiency as an apostle, Paul emphasized his weakness. He argues that his “suffering is the revelatory vehicle through which the knowledge of God manifest in the cross of Christ and in the power of the Spirit is being disclosed.”
Perhaps the passage that epitomizes this theme the most comes in 2 Cor 2:14. This passage is also a controversial one. The controversy is focused on the meaning of the Greek word, thriambeuo. The meaning of this word has been debated, not on lexical grounds, but on theological grounds. For the usual meaning seems to be impossible theologically in the context of this passage. The usual meaning of this word (as in Col 2:15) harkens back to the days of the Roman Empire and its triumphal processions. The procession itself consisted of an elaborate parade held to celebrate Roman victories where by the strongest and most important of the defeated armies were “led in triumph” as conquered slaves. Moreover, those that were led were publicly disgraced by being dragged before the chariots of the victors. For one to be led in this triumphal procession was ultimately to be led to one’s death. The Romans would sacrifice all, or a sampling of those “led in triumph,” selling the rest into slavery. The construction of the sentence is such that Paul himself is the object of the triumph. Herein lies the problem – Paul is praising God for what He is currently doing in and through his life and that which God is doing is described with this gruesome imagery of the triumphal procession.
Centuries ago, Calvin understandably struggled with Paul’s language and imagery and desperately sought to reconcile the two. His solution to the problem was to conclude that when Paul used the term, thriambeuo, he must have meant to convey something different than its usual meaning. Specifically, Calvin understand the verb in a ‘factitive’ sense – that is, he saw Paul as meaning to convey the meaning “cause to triumph.” Thus, Paul did not praise God for putting him to death, but rather allowing him to participate in God’s victory.
While Calvin’s influence has been felt through many commentaries and translations of the Scriptures, by the end of the nineteenth century, many scholars observed that such a meaning was “‘philologically impossible.’” Thus, scholars were left with the seemingly troublesome language of the triumphal procession. Many could not reconcile Paul’s statement with his other teachings that seemed to endorse a “triumph in Christ” view of his ministry as an apostle.
Recently, Scott Hafemann has produced a work, which seeks to integrate Paul’s language of the triumphal procession within the larger framework of his teaching about suffering and his apostolic ministry. The following is a summary of his interpretation of 2 Cor 2:14-16a.
Hafemann asserts that Paul’s imagery of being “led in a triumphal procession” reflects the role of those in the Greco-Roman world who were led in triumph and publicly executed to reveal the glory of the conqueror. Paul uses this imagery to say that God is leading him in triumphal procession, ultimately to his death. Hafemann understands this to show that “as the enemy of God’s people, God had conquered Paul at his conversion call on the road to Damascus and was now leading him, as a “slave of Christ” … to death in Christ, in order that Paul might display or reveal the majesty, power, and glory of God, his conqueror.”
Hafemann explains that Paul uses such gruesome imagery in 2 Corinthians in conjunction with the other suffering and ‘death’ phrases within the Corinthian correspondence (e.g. 1 Cor 4:9; 2 Cor 1:9; 4:10; 6:9). Paul uses the imagery of death and dying as vivid expressions of his suffering as an apostle, since death is “suffering’s crowing achievement.” This is most evident when, in speaking of the hardships he faced in Ephesus, Paul says that he dies “every day” (1 Cor 15:31). All of this again shows that the sufferin
of Paul served as a corollary to the sufferings of Christ; they served to replicate the sufferings of Christ (1 Cor 1:18-25). Paul’s life matched the gospel he was preaching (1 Cor 4:8-13). The sufferings he experienced were the embodiment of his message of the cross of Christ, and that was the very thing that God uses to make Himself known (cf. Gal 6:17; 1 Cor 2:2-5).
After Paul uses the imagery of the triumphal procession, he moves to another analogy; one that would be more familiar to his Jewish readers (vv. 14b-16a). He uses the imagery of an “aroma” and a “fragrance” to describe “the knowledge of God” and himself, respectively. Through his suffering, Paul is able to spread the knowledge of God everywhere (v. 14). Christ is pictured as the sacrifice and Paul shows himself to the fragrance that flows up from it. Therefore, to “encounter Paul in his suffering on behalf of his churches is to encounter a picture of the crucified Christ, who died for his people” (cf. Col 1:24). It is obvious to Paul that those who are “being saved” as a result of his suffering find them to be an aroma of life, while those who reject him and the sufferings of Christ, find the aroma to be offensive (v. 15b-16a).
Thus, one sees that Paul could truly offer thanks to God for the sufferings he experienced as an apostle (v. 14a). For Paul saw the reality of his situation: the sufferings he experienced vividly portrayed to others the sufferings of Christ, and thus demonstrated the powerful truth of the gospel. God used the hardships Paul faced as a means to further his kingdom.
Paul later argues that the frailty of his life was simply the means by which the power of God was demonstrated to the Corinthians (4:7). Paul says the treasure they have is stored in earthen vessels (a metaphor for his weakness), so that God may be seen as powerful, not Paul. He goes to say “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in out mortal flesh” (4.9-11). Hafemann comments that in “his preaching and suffering, Paul stands between the glory of God and the life of his congregation as an instrument in God’s hand to bring about new life among his people.”
Paul uses the role of suffering to play a central role in his defense of his apostleship to the Corinthians. Paul points to the hardships and sufferings he has endured as his commendation to them (2 Cor 3-10). Paul makes clear the idea that “weakness” and a Spirit-filled ministry cannot co-exist is not a correct understanding of the Christian life or his ministry. It is through Paul’s weakness that the strength and power of God is revealed (2 Cor 12:7-10). Paul suffers so as to be an embodiment of the cross of Christ, while simultaneously being an agent by which the power and Spirit of God are being manifested. This is the heart of Paul’s defense to the Corinthians. It was a defense that ran against the teaching of the culture and his opponents in Corinth. But it was also a defense that could not be rejected by the Corinthians, for to reject his defense, was to reject Paul as an apostle, and do reject Paul was to reject God Himself (2:14; 2:17b; 3:5f).
Timothy Savage, Power Through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corithians, SNTSMS 86 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 19-53.
Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 25.
Ibid., 34. Ibid.
Scott Hafemann, Suffering and Ministry in the Spirit, Paul’s Defense of His Ministry in II Corinthians 2:14-3:3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 16.
Karl Dahn and Hans-Georg Link, “thriambeuo,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 1:649.
Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 107.
John Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, trans. T. A. Snail (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 33.
Hafemann, Suffering and Ministry, 22. Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 108.
Hafemann, Suffering and Ministry, 17.
Laid out in a technical manner in Suffering and Ministry in the Spirit, Paul’s Defense of His Ministry in II Corinthians 2:14-3:3, an
d in a more popular format in his NIVAC commentary on 2 Corinthians.
 Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 109. Ibid.
Hafemann, Suffering and Ministry, 46.
Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 769.
 Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, 111.