2 Corinthians 1:23
You’re familiar with the oath that a witness makes in a court of law: “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” (Do they still do that in courts?) The witness is supposed to say, “I do” with the understanding that God is in the courtroom hearing every word he is about to testify. Now, as Paul nears the end of this first chapter, he makes an oath: “I call God to witness against me.” Literally, he says, “I myself am calling upon God as witness upon my soul.” I like the way the KJV renders it: “Moreover, I call God for a record upon my soul.” Paul thought that he was being gentle and gracious towards the Corinthians by not visiting them in Corinth when they expected him (remember their accusation of his being a wishy-washy hypocrite unworthy of the title “apostle”). We’ll think more about that decision of Paul’s in the next chapter, though we’ve already addressed it in part earlier (see the post on 2 Cor. 1:15-20). But for now, let’s zero-in on his oath.
Did Paul not get the memo from Jesus against all oath-making? Jesus’ brief words in Matthew 5:34, 37, summarized by his half-brother James in James 5:12, must be understood in the light of all of Scripture. Paul was an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he was not going rogue when he wrote 2 Corinthians. There are a few times in this letter when he calls upon God to witness his words and acts. There are clear references to Paul’s own awareness that what he writes to the Corinthians is being written before God (12:19). In 11:10, 31, Paul tells the Corinthians that the Godhead knows that he is not lying. The truth of Christ is in him, and God the Father knows he’s not lying. God can’t know false things (but he can know that things are false). So, if God knows that Paul is not lying, then Paul’s not lying! In other letters, Paul writes similarly. For instance, in Romans 1:9, Paul calls God his own witness. Then in Romans 9:1, he says that his conscience bears him witness in the Holy Spirit, and his conscience lies with Christ who indwells him. When Paul wanted the Philippians to know with certainty the great Christocentric affection that he had for them, he invoked God as his witness (Phil. 1:8). When Paul addressed the Thessalonians, he assured them that he came to them with the gospel in all purity (not by greed or flattery), and he made that assurance by putting God on the witness stand (1 Thess. 2:5, 10). Again, in Galatians 1:20, Paul promises the Galatians that he’s not lying, and he invokes this promise before God. There is, therefore, a healthy sampling of Pauline invocations of God as witness, as corroborator of what Paul is saying.
The Westminster Confession of Faith aptly summarizes a religious oath: “A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calls God to witness what he asserts or promises; and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he swears” (WCF 22:1). That sounds exactly like what Paul was doing.
Even though Paul was not afraid of using that language, he did use it sparingly. In other words, he didn’t preface every verse with, “I’m not lying—this is God’s word. God is my witness. Now accept what I say here.” (‘Twould make for some long letters!) Invoking God’s name as your witness is a matter of great moment. The Confession goes on to say, “to swear vainly or rashly by that glorious and dreadful name, or to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet as, in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the word of God…” (WCF 22:2). One of the prooftexts that the Westminster divines reference to buttress this point of theirs is our very text: 2 Cor. 1:23 (along with Isa. 65:16 and Heb. 6:16). Thus, there’s simply too much OT and NT evidence to do away with any and all oath-making. The warning for us, of course, is that oaths should be rare, before God, concerning weighty matters, and about that of which we’re certain, lest we enter into an oath sinfully and without faith. That’s what Jesus and James were cautioning us against.
Why, then, is Paul making this oath in his letter? This is part of his personal defense against those Corinthians who have called into question his apostolicity based in part on his change of plans. What better way to corroborate yourself as an apostle than by invoking the name of God as your witness and as the reason your plans change? Of course, to do so was a serious matter, not something to be flippantly entertained or engaged in. But Paul has been called by God, so there’s no doubt or worrying needed in this regard. Paul knows where he was headed in his life when God the Son converted, called, and commissioned him to be an apostle. The Corinthians needed that divine reminder.
Don’t we also? Some people are still tempted to do away with Paul’s words; his words aren’t red, you know. Paul says some things that can be offensive, so it would be nicer to muzzle that ox as he treads out the grain, wouldn’t it? Getting along with the world would be a whole lot easier if we could silence or defenestrate Paul’s words, right? Others who say that Paul’s words are still divine words may be tempted not to give his words equal status as other words in the Bible, or they may be tempted to say that Paul got it wrong at times: “Paul was just nearsighted there;” “Paul overstated his case here;” “Paul really showed his chauvinistic weakness in this letter;” etc. Sadly, that’s how people, yes even Christians, think sometimes. However, Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us) that he is merely a messenger, and whatever he says, he says in the presence of God as his witness. Paul’s letters, therefore, are God’s letters. This truth really is basic Christianity (answering the question, “How can we know God?”), but it bears the occasional repeat. Perhaps we will learn the lesson that the Corinthians were struggling to accept.