At the end of our introduction to the current sermon series on 2 Corinthians, we briefly considered Paul's opening words in the letter, where he reminded his readers that he was writing not just as a friend and mentor, but as an apostle -- as an official and fully-authorized representative of Jesus Himself. Here is an excerpt from a commentary that drills deeper into some application of that point for our lives today. -DD
It is one thing to work hard at understanding the meaning and significance of Paul's claim to be an "apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God." It is quite another, however, to submit to such a claim from the past, since it confronts our very identity and central assumptions as "modern"… men and women. …Paul’s claim to speak authoritatively on Christ’s behalf calls into question the "modern" propensity to worship (i.e. to depend on) "scientific progress" as the solution to our problems. Ever since the Enlightenment, the modern mindset has assumed that, since science has succeeded in leading us into a healthier and more prosperous future, people are getting better as well. In the end, therefore, the latest scientific discovery will save us. Under the power of this belief system, progress in technology is trusted to mean progress in moral development. The assumption is that increased control of our environment, more effective medicine, ever-expanding scientific understanding, and amazing new inventions must be the result of superior people thinking higher thoughts. A world filled with personal computers and cell phones must be getting better!
Ironically, at the same time the modern world often believes in a "negative" process as well. If "good" is getting better, "evil" is getting worse; just as our potential for [good] is taken to be greater than ever before, so too our potential for woe is unmatched by anything the ancients could imagine – and hence understand. We have both the promise of nuclear medicine and the peril of nuclear war. Thus, since the goal of life is seen simply to be survival for the future and pleasure in the present, the stakes appear much higher now and the moral choices more dramatic than ever before. The "good ol’ days" are quaint, and they fill us with nostalgia, but, in the end, they are irrelevant. We are convinced that our problems are much more profound than they were in those "simpler" days, and that the answers they require must be that much more sophisticated, scientific, technological, and "up-to-date.” In this culture, Paul’s claim to speak for Christ in accordance with God’s will appears small and old, naïve and outdated, a religious relic from the past with little relevance for today.
Such modern assumptions are, of course, open to serious criticism, even by those who share the scientific outlook. But the pride of the modern paradigm has attracted many adherents. Most people in the West presume that our age is superior to the past, both positively and negatively, especially to the prescientific past. As a result, when we encounter a claim to authority like that found in this passage, even Christians have trouble taking it seriously. Our cultural values clash with our confessions. Although as Christians we reject the modernist anti-supernaturalism that views the universe as a closed, evolutionary continuum of cause and effect, we are not immune to the pervasive influence of modernism’s faith in the future rather than faith in God.
We may assert Paul’s historical importance, and even assent to his apostolic authority, but we flinch at having to submit to his teaching as binding in all matters of contemporary faith and practice. Sola Scriptura may not be a problem in the realm of religion, but the sufficiency of Scripture certainly is when it comes to the realm of "real life"! Can Paul’s teaching really be adequate for the questions posed by the ethical, social, and scientific complexities of today? Do the words of Paul to a cluster of house churches in ancient Corinth really have a word for the age of AIDS and nuclear bombs, of artificial intelligence, cloning, and space travel, of psychoanalysis, nationalism, and religious pluralism?…
To read 2 Corinthians without reflecting on the assumptions of authority with which Paul wrote would be to miss one of the essential points of the text. In studying this letter, we are studying God’s Word, and in studying God’s Word we are obligated to submit to its truth and relevancy for our lives.
Scott J. Hafemann, in the NIV Application Commentary (2000, Zondervan), pp. 52-53, 56