Thursday, 14 January 2016
This will be the third time I am coming to you. “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.” 2 Corinthians 13:1
Despite the seeming obvious nature of the words of this verse, it is highly debated over, both in the initial clause and in the quote. First Paul says, “This will be the third time I am coming to you.” What does that mean? The obvious answer is that he had been there twice and this would now be his third visit. If one were to simply read the epistle without studying Acts and 1 Corinthians, this would be the obvious conclusion.
However, there is no noted “second” visit to Corinth. Instead, there is the note that Paul intended to come, but decided not to because of the sorrow such a visit would bring (2 Corinthians 2:1). Therefore, some commentators take the word erchomai as “I am coming.” It is a verse of intent. Thus it would read, “This is the third time I have intended to come to you.”
Either way, whether through an actual series of visits, or through his intended visits, Paul had indirectly “come” to them through his letters. He now intends to come again in person. This will occur after his letter is received and digested by the Corinthians.
After his initial words comes another curious item. It is a quote found several times in the Old Testament. He says, “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.” One such OT reference is Deuteronomy 17:6 –
“Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness.”
Jesus cites the precept as well in Matthew 18:16 –
“And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
Though those are Old Testament references (Jesus spoke those words under the law to Israel), Paul uses them as well. This shows that it is as much a part of natural revelation as it is a precept found under the law.
Having said that, the intent of Paul’s words is taken by various scholars in several ways. First, is he tying his “third visit” to the “three witnesses?” Are they the “attestations to truths which he preaches” (Pulpit Commentary)? If this is the case, then this “turns the judge into a prosecutor, and makes him appeal to his own reiteration of his charges as evidence of their truth” (Charles Ellicott).
Others say that this is referring to his visit, but that it is a petition for the Corinthians to not take action prior to his arrival. Bengel’s Gnomen says, “Therefore in this matter the apostle thought of depending not on an immediate revelation, but on the testimony of men; and he does not command the culprits to be cast out of the Church before his arrival.”
Another scholar, Lightfoot, makes the supposition that he refers to Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus. They went on behalf of Paul and were witnesses to them of his purpose. They had the information concerning the events at Corinth and had transmitted them to Paul. This seems less likely because this would make Paul a fourth witness when he arrived at Corinth to determine what was going on. As he cites the precept “two or three” then why would he actually mean four without stating it as such? Further, it ignores Titus’ visit and report as well.
Finally, Albert Barnes notes that “he anticipated that there wound be necessity for the administration of discipline there, but that he would feel himself under obligation in administering it to adhere to the reasonable maxim of the Jewish Law. No one should be condemned or punished where there was not at least two or three witnesses to prove the offence. But where there were, discipline would be administered according to the nature of the crime.”
This seems reasonable as well, but why would Paul reinsert Jewish law which was annulled in the New Covenant? He is particularly adamant that the law is fulfilled in Christ and thus set aside; it is “nailed to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
What seems the most likely option is that Paul is, in fact, tying the statement that this is his third visit in with the “two or three” witnesses as a point of natural revelation which the law only confirms. He has visited and written to the Corinthians and he will visit again. If there is still sin which has not been repented of in the church, he will deal with it based on his past warnings and admonishments.
Life application: Let us carefully evaluate each verse of the Bible. It is acceptable in verses like the one we are looking at to say, “I think the most likely option is…” However, we should never get so bull-headed about it that we refuse to consider other options as well. There is one ultimate meaning, it is true, but maybe we have misevaluated the verse from the start. Let us take care to always consider that we don’t know it all and so let us be willing to be open to correction as we grow in knowledge and in doctrine.
Lord God, how marvelous it is to see Your word continue to unfold, even after 3500 years of it being searched out. From time to time, a new insight is realized that has never been seen before. What a marvel! Thousands of scholars have searched out this marvelous gift from You and yet a new idea is brought forth that has never been revealed! How marvelous You are! How great is Your word! Thank You for Your superior word, O God! Amen.