2 Corinthians: The Supreme Pastoral Letter – Interview with Phil Smith

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Kevin Halloran

Kevin Halloran

Kevin Halloran: When we think of the Pastoral Epistles, we usually think of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus because they were written to pastors and bear the official title of “Pastoral Epistle.” Even so, some have called the book of 2 Corinthians the “Supreme Pastoral Letter” because it helps us see the pastoral heart and pastoral suffering of the Apostle Paul in a unique way.[1]

Since Leadership Resources is an organization that encourages and equips pastors to teach God’s word with God’s heart, I thought it would be useful to talk about this book that provides unique value for pastoral ministry. With me is Phil Smith, the Executive Director of Leadership Resources. Before coming to LRI, Phil pastored for ten years.

Phil, you’ve shared with the LRI staff how God has used 2 Corinthians to encourage you greatly in your ministry. How did this love develop?

Phil Smith

PS: Thank you, Kevin. My love for 2 Corinthians really developed during my time as a pastor. Coming right out of seminary, I went into a pastorate for ten years on an island in southeast Alaska. There were challenges in that pastorate. I sought to figure out: How do I evaluate ministry? How am I doing as a pastor? I had a different personality from the previous pastor. Was I failing because I wasn’t like him?

I came to love the message of 2 Corinthians: that if you are loving your people, if you are clear with the gospel, shepherding people with the Word and you’re prayerful, depending on the Lord in it—that is what true Christian ministry is about. It was very encouraging for me. It gave me great confidence in my ministry. People in my congregation also needed encouragement in their own ministries—to persevere in ministry even when it’s hard. Much of the message in 2 Corinthians is persevering in the midst of difficulty in ministry.  

KH: What’s going on in 2 Corinthians? We know Paul is writing to the Corinthians again. Can you give us traveling instructions to help us understand the original context?

PS: You’ve got to do traveling instructions with 2 Corinthians. I did a conference on 2 Corinthians recently, and the first sermon was simply doing traveling instructions – starting in Acts 18 when Paul first goes and plants the church in Corinth, then moving to the tumultuous relationship that develops between him and a segment of the church in Corinth as it just descends into mayhem between him and the church. This is the fourth letter to the Corinthians, we think, based on what we read in the two letters that we have here (see 1 Corinthians 5:9–11; 2 Corinthians 2:3–4, 9, 7:8, 12). To see Paul’s continuing, loving pursuit of this church despite the way many of them treated him is remarkable, as is his shepherding care for them. To read this letter in that context is particularly helpful.

KH: One of the key ideas in 2 Corinthians, especially for the pastor, is the idea of New Covenant ministry. Can you define that for us?

PS: Yes, he does spend some time talking about himself in contrast to what seems to be some version of Judaizers in the church, the “super apostles.” They came as “servants of Christ, servants of righteousness” but served a different gospel. In chapter three he contrasts his own ministry with this ministry that emphasized the Ten Commandments, the Jewish traditions, and that sort of thing. So, those who emphasized rules and regulations without surrounding it with the gospel of Christ, that’s what you would say is a modern-day Judaizer. I think we’re all in danger of that in our churches where we emphasize rules without getting to the gospel of Jesus. New Covenant ministry is a ministry that is immersed in the gospel and empowered by the Spirit, looking to the Spirit to work through the gospel of Jesus Christ and expecting God to powerfully work.

New Covenant ministry is a ministry that is immersed in the gospel and empowered by the Spirit, looking to the Spirit to work through the gospel of Jesus Christ and expecting God to powerfully work.

A quick story: A pastor wanted to be hired here at LRI and we started listening to some of his sermons. I still remember while driving to Michigan listening to a sermon from the Old Testament that hardly touched on Jesus let alone the grace found in Jesus. In a sense, he was laying guilt upon guilt on his congregation, and it was like congregational abuse without pointing to the grace of Jesus. That’s a modern-day Judaizer. New Covenant ministry focuses on and gets to the grace we find in Christ.

KH: An important theme of 2 Corinthians is transformation. That pastor preaching in that way really lacks the transformative power of the gospel. It heaps rules upon people, but that isn’t going to change their hearts. With the New Covenant, we have new hearts, by God’s grace, and His Spirit, who is working in our hearts to transform us into Christ’s likeness.

PS: Absolutely. He talks about the surpassing power that comes from God (2 Corinthians 4:7)—His Spirit is transforming us from one degree of glory to another.

KH: Amen. You already mentioned one sign that that particular pastor didn’t grasp New Covenant ministry well. What are some other signs that maybe a pastor doesn’t fully grasp the implications of New Covenant ministry?

PS: The Corinthians struggled with this. They had a very worldly perspective on ministry, and even from the beginning of 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the cross, the power of the cross, and the pattern of the cross. Pastors are so often influenced by a worldly view of what success looks like, and New Covenant ministry is shaped by the cross and how we do ministry. This means that we are not surprised when there is suffering and hardship or when we feel weak or have feelings of inadequacy.

When I was in pastoral ministry, I asked, “Isn’t there more to ministry? Loving people, speaking the Word to people, speaking the gospel to people and praying for them? Is that it? Can’t there be anything more exciting to make it really powerful?” Actually, no—that’s where the power is.

We tend to want to make our ministries more impressive, more flashy. The power is in the clearly presented gospel and being servants of God who are coming as servants of the people – to serve them by bringing them the gospel.

KH: Like it says in 2 Corinthians 4:7, ”We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” It’s a crucial point to remember. Something that we see in 1 & 2 Corinthians is that the Corinthian culture valued power and oratory and celebrity, which is why the super apostles were such a draw. How does 2 Corinthians’ message speak to our culture today that emphasizes so much platform and influence?

PS: The church in America needs this letter directly preached to them. In a sense Paul is giving us a new set of glasses, as it were, to evaluate what true Christian ministry looks like. So often, we have a worldly set of glasses on that looks for success and, as you said, eloquence and magnetic personalities – people with imposing bearing about them that people are in awe of. People want a celebrity kind of leader. Those pastors who might not have that eloquence or a big personality may think they’re a bad pastor, when they’re really doing a good job, because they are faithfully teaching the Bible. Those pastors get discouraged, and they may give up on ministry when they should be encouraged, emboldened, and confident.

Paul demonstrates great confidence and courage in this letter, even though he wasn’t as eloquent as some. He didn’t have a huge personality like it seems some of them had there. He didn’t boast in the way that they boasted, and yet he had great confidence in the power of the gospel.

At the same time you have some pastors that are really doing a bad job because they’re not clearly preaching the gospel. They’re not loving their people; they are not men of prayer. Yet, because they have those worldly things about them, people pat them on the back. They say they are doing a good job. They’re really not.

So, that’s what’s so crucial for not only pastors but for the whole church to evaluate rightly. That’s what this letter is about: helping us understand what true gospel ministry is to look like.

KH: It’s interesting to think about. First Corinthians 3 talks about how our ministries will be exposed for what they truly are on the Day of Christ. It’s vital to use the right building materials as we do the work of the Lord because we will be judged (1 Corinthians 3:13–14). The artificial fruit and big platforms and all the flashy lights and a lot of followers may be proved to be nothing. What worse thing can we think of than all our work and ministry be burned up on the Day of Christ? But thank the Lord there is so much power in the true gospel and in weak ministry.

There’s power in weakness, there’s joy in sorrow. There is much sorrow in this letter and yet much joy. There’s life through death. As Paul is suffering, life comes through that. There’s confidence amidst apparent failure.

PS: Just as you said there, a weak ministry. That’s the beauty of this letter and its many paradoxes. There’s power in weakness, there’s joy in sorrow. There is much sorrow in this letter and yet much joy. There’s life through death. As Paul is suffering, life comes through that. There’s confidence amidst apparent failure. They thought he was a failure. In chapter 13 he refers to that and yet has such confidence, even though they think he’s failing. So, I hope, just by this conversation, that people are encouraged to reread 2 Corinthians, be encouraged by it, and preach it.

[1] Dr. Murray J. Harris wrote this in his article on 2 Corinthians in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Dear Partners and Friends,

“Lord, please make this pastor go away.”

Our Latin American team didn’t actually say those words, but they thought them!

Pastors bring their different personalities to our training times. Colombian Pastor Luis has a “larger than life” personality – he’s outspoken, even boisterous. Unfortunately, because he brought a strong framework that didn’t fit with what he was hearing and experiencing, Luis didn’t like our training . . . and he let everyone know it! Our team actually hoped that he’d drop out from the training because he could be so disruptive.

But Pastor Luis continued on for two more years. Almost every time he opened his mouth, criticism poured out. “Well, that’s not what I see in the text! We need to find the spiritual meaning of the passage.” Frankly, our team was discouraged.

Then one night, while we were studying the book of Habakkuk, Pastor Luis raised his hand. Our team cringed. What grenade was Pastor Luis going to lob now? But then came these words. . . .

“I now realize that I’ve been doing it wrong for 20 years.”

Our team was dumbfounded. Pastor Luis had finally realized the true value of reading God’s Word as God intended it to be read. He, at last, understood that God’s Word needs to be applied as God intended it to be applied.

Our team had just witnessed a miracle of God’s transforming power – a power flowing out of God’s Word. The dam had broken. Through a long process of two years, Pastor Luis stopped being a thorn in our sides and, instead, became a reminder of God’s nothing-is-impossible grace. To God be the glory!

Equipping pastors isn’t always a smooth process – there are lots of ups and downs. Your prayers and your gifts encourage our team to “keep on keeping on.” Thank you for your partnership in this work!

With much gratitude in Christ,

Craig Parro


PS: As I write this, Pat Paredes, Juan Torres, and Pastor Dave Jaspers are heading back to Bogota next week to equip their friend, Pastor Luis. Please, would you encourage our team this week so that our growing work in two underfunded Latin American countries might continue unhindered?

Two Tools for Preachers on Applying Scripture

The difference between a hearer of the Word and a doer of the Word is stark—just read James 1:22–25. Those who only hear the Word and fail to live it out deceive themselves (1:22) and are like a man who looks into a mirror, “goes away and at once forget what he looks like” (1:24). But the one who hears the Word and does it “will be blessed in his doing” (1:25).

As preachers of God’s Word, we desire to do God’s Word and produce other doers of the Word. One crucial step in producing doers is by applying Scripture in our teaching and preaching.

Just like preachers need to grow in our handling of God’s Word, we need to grow in applying it, shepherding God’s people (and ourselves) with the transformative intent of the Word of God.

While many see the need for application, many pastors fall into the pitfall of applying Scripture in the same ways to the same types of people without thinking through the wide swath of people and circumstances present in the pews. The two resources below will help you think through application for pew-sitters in different places spiritually:

  1. Sermon Application Grid developed by Mark Dever and 9Marks. See blank grid and a sample of a filled-out grid.
  2. Tim Keller: The Kinds of People to Consider as You Apply Scripture in Preaching (Expansive List) (PDF)

By no means are these the only tools for thinking through applying Scripture, rather they provide a helpful framework for thinking through applications for a diverse group of people. Our prayer is that they would help you teach and apply God’s Word for maximum spiritual transformation.

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Putting God’s Glory on Display Together: The Story of Dave Jaspers

Leadership Resources’ ministry relies on gospel partnership, individuals, and churches who share our vision of seeing the Word of God flow powerfully from every church to every nation.

Dave Jaspers is one partner God has transformed through our relationship. Even though he has decades of preaching experience, advanced education, and is a third generation pastor, God used the Fellowship of the Word program to greatly sharpen his handling of God’s Word.

Watch Dave share his story below. Scroll down to the second video to see Dave share how our partnership to train Colombian pastors has transformed his church’s missions strategy.

“Instead of having to come up with creative ideas of how to conclude my sermon in a personal way, now I can say, ‘This is how the original audience heard and responded. And here is how it looks like for us today.”

We are grateful for our partners, Pastor Dave Jaspers and Ridgewood Baptist Church, and seeing God’s glory displayed in our partnership.

Learn more about the Fellowship of the Word program or how your church can partner with Leadership Resources to equip pastors worldwide in biblical exposition in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America.


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