Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians
To understand 2 Corinthians it is necessary to know something of the whole course of events in the relationship between Paul and his converts in Corinth. What occurred before the writing of 1 Corinthians is described in the Introduction to the commentary on that letter. In what follows, a reconstruction of the sequence of events from the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians onwards is offered. (This reconstruction assumes certain decisions regarding the literary and historical problems involved. Readers who are interested in pursuing these matters are referred to the Introduction in the TNTC on 2 Corinthians.)
The writing of 1 Corinthians
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to clarify an earlier letter he had written (1 Cor. 5:9–11), to respond to news he had received from some of Chloe’s household about Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10–12), to answer questions about his teaching in the letter the Corinthians had sent to him (1 Cor. 7:1), and to head-off some emerging criticisms of his own person and ministry (1 Cor. 4:1–18). He took the opportunity also to give instructions about ‘the collection for God’s people’ (1 Cor. 16:1–4), to prepare the way for Timothy’s visit to Corinth (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10–11) and to advise the Corinthians that he himself planned to visit them on his way to Jerusalem after passing through Macedonia (1 Cor. 16:5–9).
Timothy’s visit to Corinth
Not much is known about Timothy’s visit to Corinth. However, by the time Paul began writing 2 Corinthians, Timothy had already returned (1:1), and the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians had passed through a very difficult period.
Paul’s ‘painful’ visit
When Timothy arrived back in Ephesus he apparently brought disturbing news of the situation in Corinth. This made Paul change the travel plans he had outlined in 1 Cor. 16:5–9. Instead of journeying through Macedonia to Corinth and then on to Jerusalem, he sailed directly from Ephesus across to Corinth. It was his intention, after visiting the church there, to journey north into Macedonia and then return again to Corinth on his way to Jerusalem. By so doing he hoped the Corinthians would ‘benefit twice’ (1:15–16). However, when Paul arrived in Corinth he found himself the object of a hurtful attack (2:5; 7:12) made by a certain individual, and no attempt was made by the congregation as a whole to support Paul (2:3). It proved to be a very painful visit both for Paul and the Corinthians, and one which the apostle did not wish to repeat. So he changed his travel plans once again, and instead of returning to Corinth after the projected journey into Macedonia, he made his way straight back to Ephesus (1:23; 2:1).
Paul’s ‘severe’ letter
Once back in Ephesus, Paul wrote his so-called ‘severe’ letter to the Corinthians. This letter is now lost. From references to it made by Paul in subsequent correspondence, it appears that it called upon the Corinthian church to take action against the one who had attacked him during the ‘painful’ visit, and so to demonstrate their innocence in the matter and their affection for him (2:3–4; 7:8, 12). It is not clear who carried the ‘severe’ letter to Corinth. It may have been Titus. In any case, it was from Titus, returning from a visit to Corinth, that Paul expected news of the Corinthians’ response to this letter. Paul was fairly confident of a positive response. He expressed this confidence to Titus before the latter left for Corinth (7:14–16), and he may have even asked Titus to take up with the Corinthians the matter of the collection (8:6).
Paul meets Titus in Macedonia
Plans had been made for Paul and Titus to meet in Troas. When Paul arrived there he found a wide open door for evangelism, but because Titus had not yet come and because he was so anxious to meet him, he could not settle to his work. So he left Troas and crossed over into Macedonia hoping to intercept Titus on his way to Troas (2:12–13). When Paul reached Macedonia he found himself embroiled in the bitter persecution which the churches of Macedonia were experiencing (7:5; 8:1–2), and this only compounded his anxiety. When Titus finally arrived, Paul found great consolation (7:6–7), the more so when he heard of the Corinthians’ zeal to demonstrate their affection and loyalty to him by punishing the one who had caused him such hurt.
Paul writes 2 Corinthians 1–9
Paul responded to the good news received from Titus by writing 2 Cor. 1–9. He said how glad he was that their response to the ‘severe’ letter and Titus’s visit had justified his pride in them, especially seeing that he had boasted about them to Titus before sending him to Corinth (7:4, 14, 16). He also went to great lengths to explain the changes to his travel plans (1:15–2:1) and why, and in what frame of mind, he had written them the ‘severe’ letter (2:3–4; 7:8–12). Although Paul was overjoyed because the Corinthians had acted so vigorously to clear themselves and to punish the offender, nevertheless he urged them now to forgive and restore him ‘in order that Satan might not outwit us’ (2:11).
Apart from expressing his relief and joy, Paul dealt with two other subjects at some length. First, he explained his apostolic ministry both in Asia (Ephesus) and in Macedonia (1:3–11; 2:12–7:4). Secondly, he gave detailed instructions and encouragement about the collection for God’s people (chs. 8–9). The Corinthians had made a beginning ‘last year’ (8:10) when they wrote to Paul, and he had replied giving basic directions about this matter (cf. 1 Cor. 16:1–4). In fact, Paul had actually boasted to the Macedonians about the Corinthians’ readiness to contribute to the collection, and he was now becoming anxious lest they failed to vindicate his boasting (9:1–4).
Further bad news from Corinth
After writing 2 Cor. 1–9, Paul received distressing news about another turn of events in Corinth. Men whom Paul called ‘false apostles’ (11:13) were levelling all sorts of accusations against Paul and his messengers. Apparently the Corinthian church had been deeply influenced by these men, had accepted their gospel (11:1–4) and submitted to their overbearing demands (11:16–20). All this caused a major crisis in the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians.
Paul writes 2 Corinthians 10–13
It is not certain whether Paul received information about the new crisis in Corinth before or after he sent off 2 Cor. 1–9. In any case, it was in response to this new crisis that Paul wrote 2 Cor. 10–13. It was written to answer the accusations of the false apostles and to dispel the suspicions they had raised in the minds of the Corinthians. It reads like a last desperate attempt by the apostle to bring the church to its senses, to secure again their pure devotion to Christ and to revive once more their loyalty to their spiritual father, Paul. In it he warns them of his planned third visit, when he would demonstrate his authority, if need be, though clearly he hoped the Corinthians’ response to what he had written would make that unnecessary (12:14; 13:1–4, 10).
Paul’s third visit to Corinth
According to Acts 20:2–3, Paul did travel to Greece after the time in Macedonia and spent three months there. We may assume that at this time he made his promised third visit to Corinth. Apparently, either as a result of what he wrote in chs. 10–13, or because of his own coming to Corinth for the third time, the problems in the Corinthian church were settled for the time being. This can be inferred from Paul’s letter to the Romans which was written from Corinth during these three months. In that letter he wrote: ‘Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem’ (15:25–26). If the Achaians (who must for the most part have consisted of the Corinthians) had now contributed to the collection, obviously their misgivings reflected in 11:7–11 and 12:13–18 had been overcome. And if Paul spent three months in Greece, in a frame of mind which allowed him to write Romans, then the situation in Corinth must have improved markedly.
It would be gratifying to be able to say that after all these things the Corinthian church went from strength to strength. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Evidence from the First Epistle of Clement (written circa ad 95) indicates that disharmony had become a problem once more.
The opponents of Paul in Corinth
In the reconstruction of the course of events in Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth offered above, the opposition to Paul in Corinth consisted of two phases. In the first phase (reflected in chs. 1–7) the opposition emanated primarily from an individual offender; while in the second phase (reflected in chs. 10–13) it emanated from a group of people whom Paul called false apostles.
The offender of chapters 1–7
Traditionally the offending individual to whom Paul referred in chs. 1–7 has been identified as the incestuous person referred to in 1 Cor. 5. However, this view has been abandoned by most twentieth-century commentators on two major counts. First, Paul, who in 1 Cor. 5 called so strongly for the excommunication of the incestuous person, could hardly have turned around and pleaded for his reinstatement in 2 Cor. 2. This is not a very compelling objection because it underestimates the effects of the gospel of forgiveness in the apostle’s own life. Secondly, the offence Paul alludes to in 2 Cor. 2 is not immoral behaviour, but a personal attack upon himself and his apostolic authority. This is a far more weighty objection. However, the offender may have added to his earlier sin of immoral behaviour an additional offence, i.e. a personal attack against the apostle Paul and a rejection of his authority. The scenario could then have been as follows.
The Corinthians, when they received 1 Corinthians, did not straightaway carry out the disciplinary action against the incestuous person for which Paul called. So when Timothy came to Corinth he found the man undisciplined and unrepentant. When Paul heard this, he changed his travel plans and crossed over immediately to Corinth, intending to take the matter in hand. Once there he found himself the object of a bitter personal attack mounted by the offender, who was now guilty not only of the sin of incest, but also of attacking Paul and rejecting his apostolic authority. The church did not support Paul, so he was forced to retreat to Ephesus. From there he sent his ‘severe’ letter, demanding again that the Corinthians discipline the offender. This they finally did, and when Paul heard about it from Titus he wrote 2 Cor. 1–7, expressing his joy and relief and asking that the now presumably repentant offender be reinstated.
The false apostles of chapters 10–13
The second phase of the opposition involved a bitter personal attack upon Paul by those whom he called false apostles. The nature of the attack is reflected in Paul’s spirited response to it in chs. 10–13. The crisis precipitated by these false apostles was far from resolution when 2 Cor. 10–13 was written.
The false apostles’ criticisms of Paul. They accused him of being ‘bold’ while absent and at a safe distance, but of being ‘timid’ when present (10:1). He lived ‘by the standards of the world’ (10:2). While his letters were ‘weighty and forceful’, in person he was ‘unimpressive’ and his speaking amounted to nothing (10:9–10). They criticized Paul’s claim to be an apostle, saying it was inferior to their own because he was not a trained speaker (11:5–6). They also attacked Paul’s personal integrity in financial matters, insinuating that his refusal to accept financial support from the Corinthians (as they themselves obviously did) was both evidence that Paul did not really love his converts (11:7–11) and a smokescreen behind which he intended to extract an even greater amount from them for himself through the collection ploy (12:14–18).
The identity of the false apostles. From the various hints provided in chs. 10–13, it emerges that Paul’s opponents were Jewish Christians who were proud both of their Jewish ancestry and that they were servants of Christ. If the demand for letters of recommendation to which Paul responded in 3:1–3 emanated originally from these men, it seems reasonable to conclude that they themselves bore such commendatory letters, most likely from Jerusalem. In that case, they would have had some affinity with the Cephas party which had already formed in Corinth and which would have favoured the Jewish form of Christianity associated with Peter.
Paul accused them of preaching another Jesus and a different gospel (11:4), a charge similar to that he levelled against the men who troubled the churches of Galatia (cf. Gal. 1:6–9). These were Jewish believers who sought to impose upon Gentile converts the obligations of the law and to make them submit to circumcision. However, there are no indications in 2 Corinthians that Paul’s opponents in Corinth were trying to impose these things. There are other significant differences between Paul’s opponents in Galatia and the false apostles in Corinth. The latter laid great stress upon oratory (11:5–6), not something which was expected of the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 4:13) nor presumably of those who represented them. In addition, the false apostles at Corinth seem to have stressed the importance of visionary experiences and revelations (12:1), displays of power to prove that Christ spoke through them (13:3) and the so-called marks of an apostle (12:11–13). These things also, as far as we know, did not feature as part of the Judaizers’ approach. For all these reasons the false apostles should probably not be identified as Judaizers.
In the Greek world there was stress upon the importance of oratory and a fascination with wonder-workers who experienced visions and revelations (cf. Col. 2:18) and performed mighty works (cf. Acts 8:9–13). The false apostles in Corinth may have been influenced by the Greek world, or even accommodated their approach to the Corinthians who had been influenced by it. It is clear from 1 Corinthians that the believers in Corinth both prided themselves on such things and needed to be warned by Paul against placing too much importance upon them (1 Cor. 1:5; 4:8–10; 13:1–2). It seems then that Paul’s opponents were either Jewish believers who had themselves been influenced by the Greek world and incorporated into their own understanding of apostleship certain Greek ideas, or they were Jewish believers from the church in Jerusalem who had accepted ideas prevalent among the Corinthians so as to influence them against Paul.
Theological differences between Paul and his opponents. If we bring together the scraps of information which Paul provides about the teaching of his opponents, two major areas of theological disagreement between them and Paul may be discerned. The first relates to the gospel itself, and we have seen that Paul regards the message they preached as a different gospel in which a different Jesus was presented and by which a different Spirit was received.
The second area of disagreement was about the criteria for deciding who had the right to call themselves apostles of Christ. Such criteria were necessary because the title ‘apostle’ was claimed by individuals other than the Twelve in the early church. Paul’s opponents embraced what may be called a triumphalist viewpoint. They expected an apostle to be personally impressive, have a commanding presence and a good speaking ability (10:10) and be authoritative in his dealings with those under him (11:20–21). His claim to be an apostle would rest upon visions and revelations of God (12:1) and would be supported by the performance of signs and wonders (12:11–13). He would act as a spokesman of Christ and be known as such because of the manifestations of power in his ministry (13:3–4). And on the more formal side, the apostle of Christ would have proper Jewish ancestry (11:22) and bear letters of recommendation (3:1), most likely from the Jewish leadership of the church in Jerusalem.
For the sake of the Corinthian church Paul felt obliged to point out that his own ministry did not lack commendation (3:2–3), knowledge (11:6) or authority (13:10). He pointed out also that he had experienced visions and revelations of God (12:1–5), that he did perform signs and wonders (12:11–13) and that he could show evidence that Christ spoke through him (13:3–4). However, it is patently clear that Paul rejected this whole approach to evaluating claims to apostleship and the triumphalist criteria involved. For Paul the marks of true apostolic ministry were its fruit (3:2–3), the way in which it was carried out (i.e. in accordance with the meekness and gentleness of Christ; 10:1) and the sharing of Christ’s sufferings (4:8–12; 11:23–28). He who preaches the gospel of Christ crucified as Lord will exemplify in his ministry the weakness in which Christ was crucified as well as manifesting the power of the risen Lord (4:7–12; 12:9–10; 13:3–4).
We have here, then, two quite different ways of evaluating authentic ministry. The one is triumphalist and stresses only the manifestations of power and authority without any place for weakness and suffering. The other, while also affirming the importance of power and authority, insists that these do not belong to the apostle himself but depend wholly upon the activity of God who chooses to let his power rest upon his servants in their weakness and to manifest his power through the folly of gospel preaching (12:9–10; cf. 1 Cor. 1:17–2:5).
See also the article Reading the letters.
P. Barnett, The Message of 2 Corinthians, BST (IVP, 1988).
C. G. Kruse, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1987).
D. A. Carson, From Triumphalism to Maturity: An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 10–13 (IVP/UK/Baker Book House, 1986).
P. E. Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1961).
R. P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, WBC (Word, 1986).
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
BST The Bible Speaks Today
NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (2 Co 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.