When I read the Bible, there’s a part of me that wants to imagine the writers gliding smoothly through this earthly life, confident and unperturbed. And Scripture itself does suggest that the Spirit-filled life is attended by hope, joy, and peace. But that’s not to say, of course, that life becomes trouble-free; even the most faithful among those who follow Christ have to roll with some serious and often unforeseen punches.
The final chapter of First Corinthians is particularly poignant in this regard. In chapter 15, Paul wrote with soaring rhetoric about the hope of bodily resurrection, ending on a high note of encouragement to be steadfast in the work of the Lord (vs. 58). In chapter 16, Paul turns to tidying up some final details, giving them some practical direction and informing them of his travel plans.
But for anyone who has read Second Corinthians, Paul’s words may take on special significance — for the things he is describing in such matter-of-fact terms are about to blow up in his face.
He writes, for example, about the collection he is taking up among the Gentile churches for the poor of the Jerusalem church. His instructions are straightforward: Set a little money aside every week, on the day of worship, according to how the Lord has prospered you. When I get there, we’ll pool it all together; I’ll write letters of introduction for the men you choose to carry the gift and we’ll send them on their way (1 Cor 16:1-3). Did Paul know how controversial this matter would become, causing people to question his honesty and ethics?
He then tells them that he will come to them by the overland route through Macedonia, probably to visit the churches there (e.g., Philippi, Thessalonica). He wants to have a nice long visit, which is why he doesn’t want to make the trip to Corinth right away. But after Timothy returns from Corinth (4:17; 16:10) with a negative report, Paul changes his travel plans. His brief visit to Corinth is disastrous, and the apostle leaves in a cloud of personal pain.
He also mentions that he will stay on at Ephesus for a while, for ministry purposes. He envisions a wide-open door for mission, even though he knows that he has his enemies there (vss. 8-9). Did he foresee that his work would provoke a city-wide riot (Acts 19)?
Such can be the life of ministry in particular, and the Christian life in general. Paul deals pastorally with what he has in front of him. The Corinthians have asked questions, and he answers as wisely as he can. But life throws punches, and Paul will take several directly to his spiritual and emotional jaw.
And then, in faith and hope, and because of his love of Jesus and of those to whom he ministers, he will pick himself up off the mat and get back to work.