2 Corinthians

How to read 2 Corinthians


  • Content: probably two letters (chs. 1-9; 10-13) combined into one, dealing primarily with Paul's tenuous relationship with the Corinthian church and in the process touching on several other matters as well (Paul's ministry, the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, and some Jewish Christian itinerants who have invaded the church)

  • Author: the apostle Paul, joined by Timothy

  • Date: ca. A.D. 54-55, from Macedonia (2:13; 7 :5)-most likely Philippi

  • Recipients: see 1 Corinthians

  • Occasion: Titus's return from a recent visit (7:5-7) and Paul's anticipated third visit to the church ( 13:1) in light of (1) the church's need to have the collection ready before Paul gets there and (2) their readiness to embrace some "false apostles . . . masquerading as apostles of Christ" (11:13)

  • Emphases: Christian ministry as servanthood reflecting that of Christ; the greater glory of the new covenant in contrast to the old; the glory of the gospel exhibited in the weakness of its ministers; the gospel as reconciliation; giving to the poor as an expression of generosity, not of obligation


Reading 2 Corinthians is something like turning on the television in the middle of a very complicated play. People are talking and things are happening, but we're not at all sure who some of the characters are or what the plot is. In fact, in coming to this letter from 1 Corinthians, one has the sense of entering a new world. Few of the issues raised in the earlier letter appear here, except the concern over the collection (1 Cor 16:1-4/2 Cor 8-9) and perhaps a return to the matter of idol food in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. But that is a surface view; what holds the two together is the overriding relational tension one senses between Paul and the Corinthians regarding true apostleship.

Four matters that play off against one another in the course of our letter(s) account for all of its parts: (1) Paul,s change of plans regarding visits to Corinth, (2) the collection, (3) his apostleship and ministry, and (4) the presence of the Jewish Christian itinerants.

The first three matters carry over from 1 Corinthians and are dealt with in 2 Corinthians 1-9. A chronological expranation of his immediate past relations with them, apparently touched off by his change of mind about proposed and actual visits, is found in 1:12-2:13 and picked up again in 7:5-16.The long interruption of 2:14-7:4 is the crown jewel of the letter. Here Paul defends his apostleship-in-weakness (recall 1 Corinthians), a matter that has been aggravated by Paul,s opponents (2:14-4:6). The need to have the collection ready before he comes is addressed in chapters 8-9. chapters 10-13 contain a vigorous attack against his Jewish christian opponents-comparable to that in Galatians (cf. Phil 3:2)-interspersed with indignation, biting sarcasm, and

gentle appeals to the Corinthians to come to their senses.


By any reckoning, you will find that 2 Corinthians is not easy to read in the sense of seeing how it hangs together. Three things make it so. First, it is the most intensely personal of Paul's legacy of letters, made so because at issue throughout is Paul's ongoing, mostly painful, relationship with this church. The intensity of this personal dimension accounts for a number of things, including both the way Paul speaks and the difficulty we have at times in following the flow of thought (e.g., 2:14-7:4).

Second is the probability that 2 Corinthians is Paul's fourth and fifth letters to this church, joined as one in the transmissional process (a letter precedes our 1 Corinthians [see 1 cor 5:9]; between 1 and 2 Corinthians there is the sorrowful letter mentioned in 2 Cor 2:3-4).There are two reasons for believing so: (1) Even though Paul speaks against the itinerants in 2:17-3:3 (those who "peddle the word of God for profit,,), the rest of chapters 1 -9 reflects a relatively stable situation, including appeals and terms of endearment (e.g., 1:7; 2:1-4; 6:11-13; 7:13-16), of a kind wholly lacking in 1 Corinthians. Almost everyone agrees that something has happened between his writing these words and what appears in chapters 10-13. (2) In 8:16-18 Paul commends Titus and another brother who will carry letter 4 (chs. 1-9) and pick up the collection; in 12:18 Paul refers to this sending as a past event.

Third is the question of how the four matters that make up the letter hang together. Our suggestion: Paul's relationship with this church, which was already tenuous when he wrote 1 Corinthians, had obviously soured. This is related in part to a change of plans regarding the itinerary outlined in 1 Corinthians 16:5-9. Instead of coming by way of Macedonia, he came directly from Ephesus, both to their great surprise and chagrin (the collection was not ready). A serious encounter with someone, alluded to in 2 Corinthians 2:1-2,5-11, and 7:11-12 (perhaps

one of the itinerants), caused Paul to leave just as abruptly as he had appeared.

In the meantime he changed plans yet again! Instead of returning to Corinth from Macedonia (1:15-16), he went on to Ephesus and sent Titus with his sorrowful letter (2:3-4), partly to make sure that the collection was under way (8:6). When he and Titus finally met in Macedonia

(2:12-13; 7:5-7), Titus brought essentially good news. Even though Paul's letter had hurt them, as he knew it would, it had also led to repentance and (too much) discipline of the man who had attacked Paul (2:5-11). All of this is dealt with in chapters 1-7.

Paul's first reason for coming, however, is still in the forefront-to pick up the collection (chs. 8-9). Titus is thus being sent on ahead with letter 4 (chs. 1-9), which offers explanations for his actions and especially hopes to ensure that the collection will in fact be ready when Paul and some Macedonians come a bit later (9:1-5).

Meanwhile the itinerants were still plying their trade. By the time Titus arrived with letter 4, they appear to have gotten the upper hand, so Titus rushed back to Macedonia with the bad news, causing Paul to write again, this time confronting both the Corinthians and his opponents for their playing false with the gospel and with the true meaning of apostleship. This letter was preserved as chapters 10-13 of our 2 Corinthians.

In getting these matters into perspective for an easier reading of this letter, be sure not to lose sight of the grandeur of its theology, both of ministry and of the gospel. Here Paul picks up the theology of the cross as applied to ministry, which began in 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, and plays it out in full detail. God's glory-and the power of the gospel-is not minimized, but enhanced, through the weakness of the "Jars of clay" (2 Cor 4:7; cf. 12:7-10) who proclaim it. Such ministry is in keeping with the Crucified One, after all. Hence Paul repeatedly glories in his weaknesses-not because he liked to suffer, but because it meant that attention was focused on the Savior, not on the messenger. And the passage dealing with the glory of the new covenant through Christ and the Spirit (3:1-18) is "worth the price of the book." So read and enjoy!



Salutation and Praise to God

Instead of the ordinary thanksgiving and prayer following a brief salutation (w. 1-2), note in this case that Paul bursts into praise of God for comfort / encouragement in suffering (vv. 3-7), which serves as a way of bringing the Corinthians on board regarding his most recent escape from death (vv.8-11).


An Explanation of Paul's Change of Plans

As you read this section, be alert to the fact that everything is in chronological order. So note that Paul feels compelled at the outset to give reasons for his most recent change of plans (.1:12-17). This is because, at the end of the day, the gospel itself is at stake if its messengers are not themselves trustworthy (w. 18-22). He then explains why he wrote the sorrowful letter instead of returning after the painful visit (1:23-2:4). After urging compassion on the man who caused Paul grief (2:5-11), resulting from his just-mentioned letter, he picks up with his itinerary from Ephesus to Troas to Macedonia, reflecting especially on his own anxiety over the sorrowful letter (2:12-13).


Paul, Minister of the New Covenant

Watch how Paul's anxiety with regard to receiving no news about Corinth in Troas results in this truly grand digression. Although the whole reads like a stream of consciousness, you can still trace how the stream flows. After an initial thanksgiving for victory despite present anxiety (2:14), he moves into wonder at his own God-given ministry ( vv. 15 -1 6), which he then sets in contrast to the itinerants' now in terms of the new covenant brought about by Christ and the Spirit (2:17-3:6).

This launches a contrast between the new and the old (3:7-18, evidence of the Jewishness of his opponents). To make some sense of this passage you might want to read Exodus 34:29-35 since this is a perfect example of what is known as a Jewish midrash-a sermonic application of an Old Testament text to a new situation. Note how it climaxes with the past work of Christ and the present work of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:14-18).

Paul then applies what has been said up to this point to his and their situation (4:1-6),which in turn leads to reflection on the tensions of living "already but not yet," contrasting present bodily weakness and suffering with eternal glory and future resurrection (4:7-5:10).

Returning to his own role in proclaiming Christ' Paul urges that Christ's death and resurrection change our perspective on everything -including how the Corinthians should view him and his sufferings as an apostle (5:11-17)-but note that mention of the gospel typically means elaboration of its glory and purposes, now (notably) in terms of reconciliation (5:18-21)!

Finally he appeals to them to accept both him and his gospel (6:1-2,11- l3), again set in a rhetorically powerful affirmation of present existence as "already but not yet" (w' 3-10).

The unusual digression in 6:14-7:1 is probably over the issue of eating in the idol temples (cf. 1 Cor 8:1-13; 10:14-22), touched off by his appeal to openness regarding affection (2 Cor 6:11-13), to which he returns in 7:2-4,which finally brings him back to where he left off in 2:13.


The Explanation Renewed

Note how 7:5 picks up the chronological accounting of recent events from 2:13. Paul now explains how he has responded to Titus's return with the good news of their godly sorrow and generally open attitude toward Paul. He is especially pleased that Titus found them to be as Paul had boasted of them.


Have the Collection Ready When I Come

But for all their readiness to repent (7:11), there still remains the business that Titus could only begin (8:6) but not bring to completion, namely, the collection for the poor in Jerusalem. You will see that what now concerns Paul is that he has boasted to the Macedonians of the Corinthians' readiness, and some representatives of these churches are about to accompany him to Corinth (9:1-5). So surrounding the commendation of Titus and the two who will accompany him (8:16-24, Titus is to make sure the collection is ready), Paul appeals in turn to (1) the example of Macedonia (8:1-5), (2) their own excelling in so many things, including beginning the collection (8:6- 12), (3) the biblical principle that those who have plenty should share with the needy (8: 13-15), and finally (4) generosity as a true expression of godliness (9:6- 15).


Defense of Paul's Ministry against False Apostles

Even though this issue is anticipated in 2:17 -3:3 , after the "sugar and honey" of 7:5-16 we are hardly prepared for the present barrage. You will see that the whole is a fierce defense of Paul's ministry, both personally and in terms of its character-all in light of the false apostles, whose slanders of Paul emerge throughout.

So Paul begins by taking one accusation of the opponents head-on the alleged duplicity between his letters and his personal demeanor when with the Corinthians (10:1-11), pointing out in turn the opponents' duplicity of working his turf rather than evangelizing on their own (10: 12-18).

This leads to a direct attack against them-they are deceitful purveyors of a false gospel (11:1 -4)-followed by a scathing contrast between them (as servants of Satan, who take the Corinthians' money for their own gain) and himself (11:5-15). Personally ill at ease over what he feels he has been forced to do, he finally resorts to a "fool's" speech (11:16-33, the "fool" in the Greek theater enabled a playwright to speak boldly to his audience and get away with it). Since his opponents boast in their achievements (1 0: 12- 13; 11 : 18), Paul will "boast" in his non achievements, thus deliberately-and ironically-putting his ministry into a context of conforming to the cross. The ultimate irony is his escaping Damascus through a window in the wall (the highest honor in the Roman military was given to the first person to scale a wall in battle!).

He continues the boasting in weakness by refusing to give prominence to visions and revelations, as his opponents do, concluding on the ultimate theological note-that Christ's "power is made perfect in [Paul's] weakness" 12:1-10), reflecting again the theology of the cross articulated in 1 Corinthians 1-4. 4. This is followed by a series of (mostly personal) appeals (2 Cor 12:11-21).

The final exhortations (13:1-10) then sum up the preceding arguments before the final greetings (vv. 11-13) - and the ultimate Trinitarian benediction (v. 14).

The significance of this letter for the biblical story must not be downplayed because of its strongly personal dimension. At stake is God's own character-his loving grace expressed most strikingly in the weakness of the cross, which Paul insists is the only true expression of discipleship as well. Hence Paul's readiness to boast in his weaknesses' since they serve to magnify gospel of grace' God's true power at work in the world.