The church in Corinth (2 Cor 1:1; 6:11)
Prior to writing this epistle, Paul has paid a visit to Corinth (his second visit, cf. 2 Cor 12:14; 13:1). But Paul’s words in 2 Cor 2:1 suggest that his previous visit was a painful one, possibly because some among the Corinthian believers challenged Paul’s authority. Subsequently, Paul wrote a letter, possibly a severe one, which might have caused the Corinthians much sorrow (2 Cor 2:3; 7:8–12). But when Titus returned to Paul from Corinth with an encouraging report, (2 Cor 7:6–7), Paul received great comfort.
Now Paul decides to write the present epistle, known as Second Corinthians, in preparation for his third visit to Corinth. In this epistle, Paul shares much of his personal thoughts and experience about his God-given ministry, convinces the Corinthians of his genuine love for them, reminds them about their commitment to support the believers in Jerusalem, defends his apostleship, and warns the sinners of the punishment he would bring with his next visit.
Paul’s writing in Second Corinthians is intensely personal, revealing his deepest joys, worries, sorrow, and comfort. He cares profoundly for the Corinthians, and repeatedly appeals to them to open their hearts to him and his ministry (see 2 Cor 6:11–13). Especially in the first seven chapters, Paul shifts from one thought to the next freely as he expresses his strong emotions. As such, this portion of the epistle is not as topically structured as many of Paul’s other epistles.
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)
Excluding the opening and closing, we may divide the epistle into three main divisions. In the first major section, Paul expresses his convictions about and experience in his ministry. He also speaks constantly about the comfort and grace of God that sustain his ministry. The middle division is a reminder to the Corinthians to fulfill their promise of giving to the believers in need. In the final major section, Paul makes a vigorous defense of his ministry as an apostle against those who belittle and challenge him. Below is a simple outline of the epistle:
- Opening (1:1–2)
- God’s Comfort and Paul’s Ministry (1:3–7:16)
- Collection for the Believers in Macedonia (8:1–9:18)
- Paul’s Authority as an Apostle (10:1–13:10)
- Closing (13:11–14)
Paul speaks of his sufferings and afflictions in this letter more than in any of his other letters. He wants the Corinthians to know the affliction he experienced in Asia in which he was burdened beyond his strength that he despaired of life itself. That experience taught him to rely not on himself but on God (1:8–10).
Then he tells of another kind of suffering—his previous painful visit to the Corinthians. He has decided to delay his visit but wrote a painful letter instead, and he did so out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears. He did so in order not to suffer pain again from those who should have made him rejoice (2:1–4).
Paul’s ministry is marked by afflictions, including beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, slander, false accusations, and sorrow (6:4–10). In his defense against his opponents, Paul is compelled to boast of the many sufferings he has endured for the ministry (11:23–29). But all these tribulations and hardships only serve to manifest God’s great power in him. He is afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in his body (4:1–12).
He exhorts the believers that this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (4:17). Furthermore, Paul has learned that his sufferings in his ministry serve a good purpose. The thorn in his flesh was given him to keep him from becoming conceited (12:7). His weakness is in fact an opportunity to have the power of Christ rest upon him. So for the sake of Christ, he is content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities (12:9–10).
Sufferings do not defeat believers or the ministers of the gospel because of the comfort we receive in our sufferings. Paul calls God the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction (1:3–4). As Paul shares abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ he also shares abundantly in comfort too (1:5). He is confident that as the believers share in his sufferings, they will also share in his comfort (1:6).
God’s comfort may be channeled through believers. God, who comforts the downcast, comforted Paul by the comfort of Titus and by the comfort with which he was comforted by the Corinthian believers. The news brought back by Titus that the Corinthian believers longed for Paul was a great source of comfort for Paul, and he considered it a comfort from God. As such, he is filled with comfort, and in all his affliction he is overflowing with joy (7:4–8, 13).
We who have received God’s comfort ought to comfort those who are suffering. Paul writes that God comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (1:3–4). With the same mindset we are to also comfort those who have turned back from their wrongdoings. As such, Paul urges the Corinthians to forgive and comfort the offender in the church who has received the church’s discipline lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2:5–11).
One reason that makes this letter deeply personal is Paul’s disclosure of his convictions about his ministry as well as his joys and struggles as a minister of the gospel. He tells his readers that they are a letter from Christ delivered by the ministers of the gospel (3:1–3). [ref] God has made Paul and his fellow workers sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant. This ministry is not of the letter but of the Spirit. It is more glorious than the ministry of Moses. Whereas the old ministry is a ministry of death and is being brought to an end, the new ministry gives life and is permanent (3:4–18).
The ministry of the gospel of Christ carries great power. It spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere. To those who are perishing, it brings a fragrance of death, but to those who are being saved, it brings a fragrance of life (2:14–17). God has shown in the hearts of the ministers to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Like treasure in jars of clay, God manifests surpassing power through the frailty of the ministers. Even as the ministers are constantly being given over to death for Jesus sake, the life of Jesus is manifested in their mortal flesh (4:7:–12).
Paul and his fellow workers, having this ministry by the mercy of God, do not lose heart. Even though those who are perishing are unable to see the light of the gospel, the ministers of the gospel speak the truth faithfully and commend themselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (4:1–6). Hence, Paul reminds his readers that though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day because this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (4:16–18).
The ministry that God has entrusted to Paul is a ministry of reconciliation. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and is entrusting to the ministers the message of reconciliation. As ambassadors for Christ, Paul makes an appeal on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God (5:17–21). The message of Christ’s atoning death is in itself the motivation behind Paul’s ministry. Controlled by the love of Christ, Paul no longer lives for himself but for Him who who died for us and was raised (5:13–15).
Paul also writes about another kind of ministry—the ministry of the saints. [ref] The brethren abroad have pledged to send aid to the church in Jerusalem. The churches in Macedonia have set an excellent example in this ministry. In their affliction their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. They gave beyond their means and begged the ministers earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief effort (8:1–5). To complete the collection, Paul has sent Titus and two brothers with him to Corinth. These are men of good reputation and integrity who will minister this act of grace with Paul (8:16–24). Paul asks the Corinthian believers to work with these men and be ready with the ministry for the saints as they have promised. He reminds them of the bountiful grace that God will grant to those who cheerfully. Not only will their generosity increase the harvest of righteousness, their ministry is overflowing in many thanksgiving to God (9:6–15).
Love for Believers
In his letter, Paul’s profound love for the believers in Corinth is evident. Although Paul’s change of plans may have been misconstrued as unreliability, Paul’s intention is to spare them of another painful encounter. The believers are supposed to bring Paul joy, but instead they have caused him pain. After writing them a painful letter, Paul worries that he might have caused them pain because of the severity of the letter. So he explains that it was out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears that he wrote them. He wrote the letter not to cause them pain but to let them know the abundant love that he has for them (1:23–2:4).
Paul needs no letter recommendation from anyone to authenticate his ministry because the believers themselves are his letter of recommendation, written on his heart (3:1–2). As fragile jars of clay Paul is always being given over to death for Jesus’ death. But while death is at work in the minister of the gospel, life is at work in the believers (4:10–12). Being controlled by the love of Christ, Paul no longer lives for himself but for Christ. His sole aim in ministry is to be faithful to God and to serve the believers. That is why he writes, “If we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.” (5:13–15). Paul is completely open with the believers, and he asks them to make room in their hearts for him in return. The believers are in his heart, to die and to live together. Upon hearing the repentance of the Corinthians, Paul rejoiced greatly because he had been deeply concerned about the effect of his previous letter on them (7:1–16).
As Paul defends his ministry, we may take note again of his love for the believers. He warns the Corinthians that when he comes he is ready to punish every disobedience. Yet, concerned that his words may be too harsh, he immediately assures his readers that he does not want to appear to be frightening them with his letters (10:1–9). Paul’s love for the believers provokes him to a divine jealousy for them as he sees how they are in danger of losing their pure devotion to Christ (11:1–4). He vigorously guards them against the threat of the false apostles, boasting and making himself appear as a fool. He wishes that the Corinthians would accept him after all that he has sacrificed for them. He receives support from other churches, but chooses to never a burden to the Corinthians. This choice was due to his love for them (11:9–10). He tells them that, like a parent who takes care of his children, he will gladly spend and be spent for their souls. He asks them, “If I love you more, am I to be loved less?” He wants them to understand that the sole reason for his earnest defense of his credentials as an apostle is for their upbuilding (12:13–19). Regardless of how they may judge Paul, it is his sincere hope that the believers will do what is right and obey the truth (13:5–10).
Commendation and Boasting
Paul’s apostolic authority has come into question in the church in Corinth. Compounded by the allegations of Paul’s opponents, the tension between Paul and the Corinthians is palpable in Paul’s writing. Paul is in a position to repeatedly defend his apostleship while explaining that he is not commending himself.
Paul writes that his boast is in that he behaves with simplicity and godly sincerity. He hopes that the Corinthians will fully understand that he has no ulterior motive in writing them and that they will boast of Paul on the day of the Lord Jesus as Paul will boast of them (1:12–13).
Being a true minister of the gospel, Paul is not a peddler of God’s word but speaks in Christ with sincerity and as commissioned by God (2:14–17). Lest his readers think that he is commending himself, Paul tells the Corinthians that he does not need letters of recommendation as some do. The believers themselves are the ministers’ letter of recommendation. They are a letter from Christ, ministered by the servants of God, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God (3:1–3). God’s transforming power in the believers is in itself the best testimony to Paul’s ministry. As such, Paul refuses to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth he commends himself to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (4:2).
Paul exhorts the believers to aim to please the Lord. He tells them that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account for what we have done (5:6–10). Not only is Paul fully accountable to God, he also hopes that he is known to the believers’ conscience (5:11). He tells his readers that he is not commending himself again but is giving them cause to boast about the ministers and answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart (5:12).
Paul mentions how he boasted about the Corinthians on a few occasions. He takes great pride
in the Corinthians (7:4). For the Corinthians have proved
themselves innocent by their grief as a result of Paul’s previous letter (7:8–11). Paul was not put to shame because his boasting before Titus about the Corinthians has proved true (7:13–14). With regards to the charitable work of helping the church in Jerusalem, Paul has boasted to the Macedonians about the Corinthians’ readiness to give (9:2). To ensure that the Corinthians will be actually ready when the believers from Macedonians come with Paul, Paul is sending Titus and two brothers ahead to make preparations for the collection. Paul asks the Corinthians to give proof of his boasting about them and not let his boasting be proved empty (8:24; 9:3).
Paul goes to great lengths to speak of boasting in the final section of the epistle. Paul should have been commended by the Corinthians because of all that Paul has done among them, but because of their mistrust, Paul is forced to boast as a fool (12:11–13). Being questioned of his authority, Paul says he will not be ashamed if he boasts a little too much of his authority (10:8). Unlike those who commend themselves, Paul will not boast beyond limits in the labor of others (10:12–16). Instead, he seeks the Lord’s approval and boasts only in the Lord (10:17–18). Paul exposes the identity of his opponents as deceitful workmen and servants of Satan. To undermine the claim of his opponents with their self-serving motive, he boasts of the fact that he has preached to the gospel among the Corinthians free of charge (11:7–12). Paul asks the Corinthians to bear with him as a fool as he boasts (11:16–18). In no way is he inferior to the super-apostles. In terms of being a servant of Christ, he has labored and suffered far more than his opponents (11:21–29).
Yet Paul takes us by surprise in his extensive rhetoric on boasting. Although he says that since many boast in the flesh, he too will boast, his boasting is in fact of a very different kind. Rather than boasting of his strengths, he chooses to boast of his weaknesses (11:30). Even when he describes his most extraordinary heavenly experience, Paul deliberately refrains from boasting of his own accomplishments. Instead, he shares about the thorn in his flesh which has been given him from becoming conceited. Despite his plea to the Lord to remove the thorn, he was assured that the Lord’s grace was sufficient for him. Consequently he has learned to be content with and boast about his weaknesses so that the power of Christ may rest upon him (12:1–10).
Weakness and Power
Paul’s defense of his apostolic ministry reveals much of his views about the weaknesses of the ministers of the gospel and the great power of God through the gospel. At the beginning of the letter, Paul recalls his affliction in Asia in which Paul and his coworkers were utterly burdened beyond their strength that they despaired of life itself. But Paul realized that the near-death experience was to make them rely not on themselves but on God who raises the dead. The comfort that he receives from God in his affliction in fact enables him to comfort others with the same comfort (1:3–11).
The gospel, for which Paul is a minister, manifests the great power of God. Christ always leads his ministers in triumphal procession to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere. To those who are perishing the gospel brings forth a fragrance of death, but to those who are being saved it brings forth a fragrance of life. Such power latent in the gospel is beyond the doing of mere human beings (2:14–16).
Unlike the old covenant, which was a ministry of death and had a fading glory, the gospel of Christ gives life through the Spirit (3:1–11). Paul writes, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant.” (3:5–6). This new covenant has surpassing and permanent glory, and anyone who turns to the Lord is transformed from glory to glory. This glorious hope makes us who are servants of the new covenant very bold (3:12–4:6).
As ministers of the gospel, we are like jars of clay holding a treasure. The utter seeming incompatibility of the treasure and the jars of clay is to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. No affliction or persecution is able to defeat us because the life of Jesus is manifested in our mortal flesh (4:7–11). We may speak with confidence, knowing that this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (4:13–18).
The truth of power in weakness is also seen in the work of charity that Paul urges the Corinthians to complete. The believers in Macedonia serve as a living testimony of God’s abundant grace in man’s inability. They have given beyond their means in the relief effort. But in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity (8:1–4). Paul reminds the Corinthians and us that whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. God is able to make all grace abound to us so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, we may abound in every good work. Through our generosity God can enrich us in every way to be even more generous, and many thanksgivings will follow as a result (9:6–15).
Among the accusations laid against Paul was the suggestion that he was weak when he was among the Corinthians (10:10). To counter this allegation, Paul wants the Corinthians to know that he and the fellow ministers of the gospel carry divine power in their spiritual warfare, being able to exercise their authority to punish every disobedience (10:1–6). But even when Paul attempts to answer those who boasts of the flesh, he cannot bring himself to do the same. That is why his boasting becomes a boasting about his weaknesses instead of his strengths. His vivid recollection of the hardships he endured in ministry, especially of his narrow escape at Damascus, displays his weaknesses more than anything (11:23–33). His boasting of visions and revelations also turns out to be a boasting of his weaknesses, through which Christ manifests His power (12:1–10).
In conclusion, Paul says that just as Christ was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God, Paul is weak in Christ. But in dealing with the believers he will live with Christ by the power of God (13:3–4). To Paul, what matters ultimately is that the believers do what is right and walk according to the truth. Paul would gladly be perceived as weak as long as believers are strong in the Lord (13:5–10).
Although we may not be in the same situation as Paul and the Corinthian church, much of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is directly applicable to our Christian walk and our ministry today. God’s comfort in our afflictions, the immeasurable power of Christ through our weakness, and the confidence we have by the grace of God are as real for us as they were real for Paul and his fellow workers. These truths can help us immensely especially when we meet with hardships and find ourselves helpless.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians about giving are definitely relevant to believers today. We can still lay claim to God’s promise that He gives bountifully to the cheerful giver. Our generosity is able to bear the fruit of righteousness and make us even more generous. The way Paul makes careful arrangement for the collection to ensure financial accountability is also an apt reminder for the church today to manage the offerings of believers with utmost integrity.
Finally, we have much to learn from Paul the minister through his writing. As ministers of the gospel ourselves, we may imitate Paul’s total dedication to his calling and his determination to be faithful to God. His conviction of God’s power in the ministry and his dependence on God in all his weaknesses are models for us in our own ministry. His selfless love for the Corinthians is evident in his choice of not burdening the Corinthians, his concerns over their response to his severe letter, his hope that they walk in the truth, and his feeling a divine jealousy for them even to the point of boasting as a fool. It would be the blessing of the church today if we have more ministers who love the flock of God as much as Paul loved the believers.