On April 23, Grace Brethren Chapel began a new study in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in our Wednesday night bible study. Here’s a short introduction to the book of 2 Corinthians from the ESV Study Bible:
Author and Title
The apostle Paul is the undisputed author of 2 Corinthians. Although some scholars have questioned whether Paul wrote 6:14–7:1, due to its unique vocabulary and subject matter, these differences are more likely due to the fact that in this passage Paul is quoting a collage of Scripture. Second Corinthians is actually the fourth letter that Paul sent to the church he founded in Corinth (Acts 18:1–17), together with the house churches “in the whole [province] of Achaia,” of which Corinth was the capital (2 Cor. 1:1; 11:10; cf. Rom. 16:5, 23; 1 Cor. 16:15, 19). The four letters are (1) the previous letter mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9; (2) our 1 Corinthians; (3) the tearful, severe letter mentioned in 2 Corinthians 2:3–4; and (4) our 2 Corinthians.
Paul wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia around a.d. 55/56, a year or so after writing 1 Corinthians and a year before he wrote his letter to the Romans from Corinth (Acts 20:2–3).
The central theme of 2 Corinthians is the relationship between suffering and the power of the Spirit in Paul’s apostolic life, ministry, and message. In addition to calling into question Paul’s motives in organizing a collection for believers in Judea (8:20–21; cf. 2:17; 12:14–18) and questioning his personal courage (10:10–11; 11:21), Paul’s opponents had argued that Paul suffered too much to be a Spirit-filled apostle of the risen Christ. Paul argues that his weakness as an apostle is the very means by which believers are comforted (1:3–11) and God in Christ is made known in the world (2:14–17; 4:7–12; 6:3–10; 11:23b–33). Paul’s sufferings embody the cross of Christ, while his endurance amid adversity, with thanksgiving and contentment, manifests the resurrection power of the Spirit (12:7–10). Paul’s suffering as an apostle is thus the very means God uses to reveal his glory (1:3–4, 11, 20; 4:15; 9:11–15; 10:17–18).
Paul therefore sees a close tie between the Corinthians’ acceptance of his apostleship and the genuineness of their faith. To reject Paul and his proclamation is to reject Christ himself, since Paul’s message, ministry, and manner of life are one. This explains why 2 Corinthians is the most personal of all of Paul’s letters, filled with deep emotion.
Purpose, Occasion, and Background
Second Corinthians is a response to a complicated history between Paul and the Corinthian church, which must be reconstructed from the evidence available today (see note on Acts 20:1). Originally, Paul had planned to travel from Ephesus through Macedonia to Corinth (see map) on his way back to Jerusalem to deliver the money he had collected for the believers in Judea (1 Cor. 16:5–9). In the meantime, he sent Timothy to visit the Corinthians on his behalf (Acts 19:22; 1 Cor. 16:10–11). When Timothy arrived in Corinth, he found that the church was in turmoil, most likely in response to the arrival of Paul’s opponents from the east. When Paul learned of this he decided to proceed immediately to Corinth to resolve the issues first, then travel on to Macedonia before returning to Corinth for a second visit on his way to Jerusalem (the proposed “second experience of grace” of 2 Cor. 1:15).
Paul’s visit, however, turned out to be very “painful” as a result of the church’s open rebellion against him (2:1, 5–8; 7:8–13; 11:4). At that time, Paul decided it was best to suffer humiliation and leave, without retaliating, in order to extend mercy to the Corinthians (1:23–24). Once back in Ephesus, Paul sent Titus back to Corinth with a tearful and severe letter (now lost), warning the church of God’s judgment if they did not repent (2:3–4; 7:8–16).
To Paul’s great joy, the majority of the Corinthians did repent, which Paul discovered when he met Titus in Macedonia (7:5–16). But there was still a rebellious minority who, under the influence of Paul’s opponents (11:12–21), continued to reject Paul and his gospel. In response, and as yet another act of mercy, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia in anticipation of his third, impending visit to Corinth before going on to Jerusalem (12:14; 13:1).
The mixed nature of the church in Corinth, not to mention the opponents whom Paul addresses indirectly throughout the letter, explains the complex nature of 2 Corinthians and its sometimes sudden shifts in focus and tone. This has led some scholars to suggest that it is a compilation of as many as six fragments. There is no evidence, however, that 2 Corinthians ever contained less than or more than its present content, or that it was arranged in a different order.
Paul’s letter is an extended defense of the legitimacy of his apostolic ministry and its implications. It is intended to accomplish three overlapping purposes: (1) to strengthen the faithful majority and the purity of the church (primarily chs. 1–7); (2) to complete the collection as the expression of their repentance (primarily chs. 8–9); and (3) to offer the rebellious minority one more chance to repent before Paul returns to judge those still rejecting him and his message (primarily chs. 10–13). Thus, chapters 1–7 focus primarily on the past track record of Paul’s ministry, chapters 8–9 on the present responsibility of the repentant, and chapters 10–13 on the future judgment of those still in rebellion against the gospel.