Read and reread.
Every book of the Bible is better understood when you take the time to get the big picture. This letter, especially. I know many of you are well beyond the 5x5 commitment, and so one thing you could do this weekend on the reflect days is to read the letter in its entirety, in one sitting.
Most of us are pretty comfortable with the concept of genre. In the Wikipedia it's defined as , "... a loose set of criteria for a category of literary composition; the term is also used for any other form of art or utterance." We have certain expectations when we go to a movie, for example, based on its genre -- laughs in comedy, tears in romance, songs in musicals, and exhilaration in action (and at least one car chase, unless it's a western and so a horse chase, or plane, train, boat, or ... well some kind of chase. And lots of explosions.). We also don't expect The Three Stooges to be high drama, or even high comedy.
When it comes to genre, the classic example is the hard-boiled detective story. The characters, the language, the elements of the plot, they're are all more or less circumscribed by the genre. Otherwise, it's not a hard-boiled detective story. One of my favorites is The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Here' s how it opens:
"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down--from high flat temples--in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan."
No one would mistake this for Dickens or Clemens or Faulkner. Or even Poe or Conan Doyle. Our judgment about the quality of the writing, our enjoyment of the story, even our understanding of the writer's purpose are enhanced by our understanding of the genre.
Well, that was more explanation than you needed, but I got to throw in a quote from The Maltese Falcon, so I'm leaving it in.
The literature in the Bible is no different. Epistles from the first century world had their own set of criteria and form. Within the epistle genre, there were sub-genres for various types of letters. Knowing about these genres, while not essential, helps us understand the structure of the letter, the presence of certain elements that may or may not sound strange to our ears (like "boasting"), and the expectations of those who received the letter. In turn, this gets us closer to Paul's intended pattern of meaning. Here are a couple of books that are about Bible study in general, and contain great material on literary types and genres: How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, by Fee and Stuart, and Read the Bible for a Change, by Ray Lubeck. Here's a basic description online. I can't vouch for the rest of the site, but the explanation is fine.
This letter is written in the middle of a fight. OK, maybe that was a bit dramatic, but there are obvious tensions between Paul and people in the church at Corinth. What's more, we're not hearing both sides of the argument, and, in fact, not even hearing all of one side. In the two Corinthian letters there are references to two other letters, a visit. and to a delegation from Corinth. There are several ways interpreters have attempted to resolve the sequence of events and whether we have all the letters. Some say, for example that chapters 10-13 are part of one of the missing letters. Here's a reasonable re-creation based on the statements in Paul's two letters, and what we know from Acts:
- First visit to Corinth.
- First letter to Corinth (now lost).
- Second letter to Corinth (1 Cor.).
- Second visit to Corinth (a “painful visit,” 2 Cor. 2:1)
- Third letter to Corinth (now lost)
- Fourth letter to Corinth (2 Cor.)
- Third visit to Corinth.
Heart, soul, mind, strength.
As Jesus said, we're to love God with all our being, which including our mind. In the end, there is no better guide to understanding God's Word than using all of our mind while relying on the power and presence of God's Spirit. In our 5x5x5 reading, we won't have the time every day to understand everything we read. That's OK. If, each day, we take one principle, or one command, or one truth from our reading and apply it to how we think, how we act, and how we live, then we will be transformed through a renewed mind. Think fiercely sisters and brothers.
And with that last thought in mind, here's something I took away from the reading.
Therefore when I was planning to do this, I did not do so without thinking about what I was doing, did I? Or do I make my plans according to mere human standards so that I would be saying both “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? But as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the one who was proclaimed among you by us – by me and Silvanus and Timothy – was not “Yes” and “No,” but it has always been “Yes” in him. For every one of God’s promises are “Yes” in him; therefore also through him the “Amen” is spoken, to the glory we give to God. But it is God who establishes us together with you in Christ and who anointed us, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a down payment. (2 Corinthians 1:17-22 NET)
In the letter, Paul is about to explain why he didn't go to Corinth as he expected to. In these verses it looks to me like some folks are bad mouthing him for his bad faith in not coming. So he begins his explanation by pushing back on any hint that he's fickle or two-faced or unreliable. There's a Beatles-esque quality to the words - yes/yes, no/no, yes/no, "you say goodbye and I say hello." And at the end of the sequence, Paul says he has always been about yes, because Jesus is. Jesus is the yes and amen of God's promises. That thought takes no special context, genre, or cultural circumstance. The only thing we can add to a statement like that is to pursue a fuller understanding of what God's promises are. And that does take study. Amen to that.