A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Compelled By Love

St. Paul the Apostle by Claude Vignon (1600s)

Compelled By Love
Pentecost +5
Rev. Doug Floyd
2 Corinthians 5:14-21

As our second lesson today opens Paul says, “For the love of Christ controls us.” I just want to think about that phrase to begin with. The love of Christ controls us. That word control, often it’s translated compels, which sounds a little nicer than controls. Controls sounds a little bit like He’s taken us over. Actually, the word does mean to sort of be taken hold of. Clearly the story of Paul is a story of someone whose love of God has taken hold of him, and in the process it’s really reoriented his way of thinking about the world, his way of thinking about life.

So, here are three points that we could consider that are actually in this passage, not verse-by-verse, but in various parts of the passage and also in the book of 2 Corinthians. As the love of Christ takes hold of him it reshapes first his understanding of Christ, of Jesus Christ, and it changes from viewing Christ as the accursed one to the Anointed One. Paul also changes his perception of himself. We know other passages, like in Philippians, how he perceived himself at one point and then later how he changes. The love of Christ has reshaped his understanding of self from a Pharisee of Pharisees to the least of the apostles.

The love of Christ has taken hold of him, has reshaped the way he views people as a whole. And in light of the way he makes his argument in 2 Corinthians, from a fading glory, from on the Jewish side and I guess on the Pagan side we might speak of from those outside the veil, to a new creation. So, he begins to see people as a new creation. The love of Christ has transformed the way he views the entire world and the way he views himself. If we look in the passage today …

From the Accursed One to the Anointed One

If we look at the way he thinks about Christ, verse 16. This also relates to the way he sees others, but we’ll start out with the way he views Christ. He says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard Him thus no longer.” Now, this passage is actually started in the middle of another argument, and if we backed up to the beginning of the passage, which would be verse 11, we would begin to see … I’m gonna read verse 11, 12, and 13. “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord we persuade others, but what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known to you and your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearances and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God, and if we are in our right mind, it is for you.”

Then he says, “The love of Christ controls us.” So, he opens the passage and talks about people commending themselves based on outward appearance versus the heart, and then he talks later how he viewed Christ according to the flesh, but later viewed Him in a different way. The whole book of Corinthians is in some sense part of one of the things Paul’s doing is defending who he is by identifying himself with Christ, but by not building up his reputation based on outward appearance. The Corinthians are looking for him to boast about all his accomplishments. He’s consistently doing the opposite.

The way to understand what he is doing is to begin to understand his change and perception of Christ, because it is clear he has viewed Christ as the accursed one, as the one who hung on a tree. Accursed is anyone who hangs on a tree. Christ has offended against the law and was properly judged in Paul’s mind, and Christ’s disciples have been properly judged as well. So, Paul feels that he is proper to stand against Christ. In some sense, Paul’s passion that we see in Acts persecuting the church, persecuting Stephen, standing against Christ, is drawn from a long line within the Old Testament of Jewish stands for purity and holiness. We can go all the way back to the story of Phinehas, who is the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the High Priest.[i] When they’re traveling through the wilderness at one point the Israelite men are seduced by the Midianite women, and they begin to worship the Midianite idols, and a plague comes among them. People begin to die.

One Israelite man openly, right in front of everyone, goes and takes a Midianite woman and takes her into his tent. Phinehas, overcome with zeal for the Lord, takes hold of a spear, runs into the tent, and runs it through the Israelite and the Midianite woman, and at that moment the plague stops. So, he’s celebrated as a hero, as a righteous man who’s done a righteous thing, because he stood against the corrupting influence. If you can imagine, things like that are in Paul’s imagination when he is resisting Christ and resisting His church. When we talk about Paul as a murderer, we must think about him really as a zealot. He is passionate for the holiness of God, and he sees Christ in opposition to this, because Christ has identified Himself with those outside the veil.

That brings to mind another story, which I’ve been meditating on this week. Sometimes when you read a story and meditate on something it overshadows everything else you’re reading. I’ve been reading Leviticus, which is so exciting. Apparently, the first seven chapters of Leviticus are the least liked passages in Scripture. But, I’ve been puzzled over certain things about the sacrifices over the years, so I’ve been doing a study of Leviticus and consulting different writers. One of the men is Ephraim Radner, who is more of a theologian, so this is a theological take. He begins to connect the story of Cain and Abel with the sacrifices,[ii] and that just so captured my imagination. As I read this story in Corinthians and began to think about Paul’s reaction to Christ, and the reaction to the disciples, I was thinking about it in terms of Cain and Abel.

We have this great story at the opening of scripture of Cain and Abel, two brothers offering sacrifices to God. Abel offers a perfect lamb from his flock. God looks with favor on it. Then, Cain is a farmer so he offers from the fruit of the land. God doesn’t look with favor upon it.

Sometimes people try to determine, “Well, Cain obviously used the wrong formula,” but once we get to Leviticus we realize, No, Cain didn’t use the wrong formula, because actually, God accepts the fruit of the land and the grain offering. Cain approached God with a wrong heart. He had a heart of anger. He had a heart of jealousy. He was angry toward his brother Abel. He was jealous of his brother, Abel, probably before even the sacrificial experience. There was some kind of enmity between them, which is a reflection of the sin that’s been passed down. So, God confronts Cain about that issue, not about the sacrifice. He confronts Cain about the issue in his heart. Of course, we know what happens. Cain kills Abel. Then, he’s accused, and the curse means that the land will no longer yield to Cain’s hand. He will no longer be a farmer. Now, he’s cursed to be a wanderer. He’s banished from the family, sent away to the far country. Scripture says to the Land of Nod.

He builds cities. His progeny develop music and all sorts of other things, which reflect the image of God, all the different things they create and yet everything that comes out of his progeny is tainted with violence, and aggression, jealousy, vengeance. It’s tainted by the sin of Cain. Radner talks about these two stories at the opening of scripture, Cain and Abel, and how the church both in the early church and in the Middle Ages, these two figures played a prominent role in the imagination of the church leaders. Augustine, actually, when he writes his City of God, he looks at these two men as two different cities. Abel plants the City of Faithfulness, the City of God, and Cain is the father of the City of Man, the city that’s based on unfaithfulness, faithlessness. Two cities, and there’s various ways, two paths, two ways, which show up all throughout scripture.

When we hear the story of Cain and Abel, we might naturally place ourselves in the position of Abel, but as we see in Paul’s encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus we might more naturally want to place ourselves in the position of Cain, because when Jesus comes He comes for the accursed ones. He comes for those who are in exile, for those who have been banished from the presence of God, which actually is all humanity. So, we get to the end of today’s passage and Paul says, “For our sake …” This is verse 21. “For our sake he made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

So, Jesus comes in search of Cain. Jesus enters into the place of the banished one, the accursed one, the one who bears the mark of sin. He is sinless and yet He appears to be the sinful one, to the eyes of Paul, to the eyes of many Israelites He is the sinful one. He is the one who has violated the holiness of God by exulting Himself up in pride as an equal to the Father. He deserves to die, so He is identified the outcast, with the one who’s taken outside the camp, the one who is actually beyond the veil, the one even, according to Isaiah, that’s beyond the covenant. When He comes to restore the lost tribes of Judah that’s not enough. God will use him to restore the Gentiles as well. He restores those who are beyond the covenant, those who have been deemed beyond redemption.

So, Jesus enters into the story of those outside the covenant. He goes to the far country, and in the process He appears to be one who’s been banished, and accursed. He appears to be one who is full of sin, even though He is sinless. As he bears the sin of the world He looks like the accursed one, and that’s exactly what we see in Philippians 2. Paul views Jesus as the accursed one until the encounter with Christ on the Damascus road, and then he realizes his Lord, the God he’s worshiped is the Father of Christ and that Jesus Himself is the Son of God. His eyes are opened to who Jesus is, and his whole life becomes about proclaiming the gospel of Christ.

From Hebrew of Hebrews to The Least of the Apostles

In fact, this language of being compelled, of being controlled, by love appears in Acts. In Acts 18, we are told that Paul cannot but help preach the gospel of Christ. He has been so affected by the vision of Christ, who has come to redeem the outsider that he cannot but help proclaim the good news of Christ, that Christ has come to redeem. So, his vision of Christ has been transformed to the anointed one. But, in the very process his vision of himself has been changed, because he thought he was the zealot who was guarding the holiness of God, but now he realizes he’s the least of the apostles, because he was opposing God himself. He had presumed that he understood the ways of God. He had presumed that he was above his fellow Israelites even, the Hebrew of Hebrews. Yet, he completely misunderstood the ways of God, because his eyes had been blinded.

He begins to realize that just to be a son of Abraham by blood is not enough. That’s the argument he’ll make in Romans. It’s not enough. The heart must be changed. The heart must be circumcised. We must be cleansed only by the grace of God. So, even as a Jew he must come return to the Father through Christ, so he realizes in some sense he identifies now, and I’m not saying Paul uses Cain as an image, but in some sense he identifies with the accursed one himself. “I am the one that He came to redeem. I am not the righteous one, like Abel. I’m not the faithful one that has been unjustly persecuted. I’m the faithless one. In spite of all that I’ve done I’m still the faithless one. I am the one that’s outside the veil. I am the one sheep that’s been lost. Even though I thought I was the most faithful of all, now I realize I’m the one that wandered off that He came to rescue.”

Paul will be overwhelmed by the love of Christ that redeemed him, and from then on he will see himself as the least. In fact, this sets the whole stage for the way he talks about himself in Corinthians. Paul uses language like, “He leads us in a triumphal procession,” which is the image of him being a prisoner, not him being a victor. Jesus is the victor. He is a prisoner that’s been taken hold of by Christ, that he’s being led as one of the prisoners of war that has been captured by Christ. As he brags on himself in 2 Corinthians, he will talk about his weakness, his brokenness, his beatings, his being rejected, kicked out, banished. He himself has now come to identify with the absolute weakness of humanity, because as he realizes who he is he also realizes who he’s called to be.

He has nothing to offer the world except Christ. His own righteousness cannot save anyone. His own goodness cannot save anyone. All he can offer is Christ, so he has become completely frail, broken, and weak, which is really what the book of 2 Corinthians communicates, is a gospel of brokenness. It’s a gospel of weakness. Yet, simultaneously the glory of God revealed in us broken vessels, which brings us to this third image from a fading glory to a new creation.

From Fading Glory to New Creation

He says, “From now on we regard no one according to the flesh, even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh.” His whole perception of people has changed. He now sees the people around him, both the Jews and the Gentiles as those who have been accursed, those who have suffered the curse of sin, those who have been wounded by sin and wounded others by sin, those for whom Christ came.

The fading glory of the law, which is 2 Corinthians 3, that the law was a glory but it was a temporary glory. It was fading because it was preparing for our greater glory, that is the new creation. In the new creation that Paul sees the children of Cain have been redeemed. They are now part of the New Creation. Those who have been banished, those who have been outside the gate a way has been made for them to come home. A way has been made for the poor.

In the Leviticus passage the reason Radner even brought up Cain and Abel, or one reason, is because the grain offering, the command in relation to the grain offering … There are many ways the grain can be used in the offerings but one of the central aspects of the grain offering, it is for the very poorest of the poor of Israel who simply cannot afford any animal, not even a Turtle Dove. They cannot offer nothing as a burnt sacrifice. All they have is just a little flour and God says that’s sufficient. He makes a way for all the people of Israel to come before His throne. All they had, the very poorest of the poor, all they had is just a little bit of grain, a little bit of wheat, and that’s accepted, and there are now regulations according to how that grain offering is received. In some sense that absolute utter weakness is a description of the human condition. All we have is the weakness to bring to the throne of God.

We don’t bring the strength, we bring our failure, our weakness, our fading glory, our brokenness, our alienation, our anger. We bring our jealousy, our enmity with our brothers and sisters. We bring that to the throne. We bring it all to the throne. That’s all we have. All we have is just our weakness, our absolute desperate need for the grace of God, and He welcomes us to the table. He feeds us, He renews us, and He redeems us by Christ’s blood and His body. He restores us to Himself. This in a sense is the gospel. Now, we are made a new creation, not because we have done something but because Christ has transformed us inwardly.

So, now the other message that we see in 2 Corinthians is that inwardly we’re being renewed, we’re being glorified. Light is beginning to shine in us and through us, and that even as we feel weaker, and frailer, and physically frailer and weaker as years go by, as well as emotionally weaker and frailer, and yet inwardly He is bringing us into glory. He is transforming us so that we ourselves look like images of the anointed one.

Now we can go out into the world as weak and frail people and we can go out and find the accursed ones, and no longer look at them as the children of Cain, or the children of destruction, or the children of enmity, but we can look at them as those for who Christ came to rescue and we ourselves can just offer the grace of Christ, that we ourselves might enter into the very thing that Paul discusses in this passage, that we might be controlled or compelled by the love of Christ, that we might speak the words of grace and draw people to the goodness of God in Christ Jesus. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

[i] The example of Phinhas as an inspiration for Paul’s zeal is taken from NT Wright’s recent biography on Paul. “That was the defining moment of “zeal.” It had immediate results: the plague stopped; the rebellion was over. And Phinehas, the hero of “zeal” from then on, received the remarkable promise of a perpetual personal covenant. His family would be priests forever.” Wright, N. T.. Paul: A Biography (p. 31). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[ii] “The distinction between the sacrifices of Abel and Cain was fodder for Jewish and Christian exegesis together. At least from Philo on, the brothers’ sacrifices were read as symbols of divergent sets to the human heart before God, not only in terms of virtue and vice, but even of ingrained sinfulness and grace. Augustine provided a determining historical reading for the church when he used the two as figures of the “two cities” of God and of the world and flesh respectively, which ended up being applied according to schemes of election and heresy as various contexts seemed to justify.” Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 44.


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