This is a rich letter full of powerful imagery; however, it seems to be a collection of fragments, lacking a theme of a theological argument or addressing a particular issue. This makes understanding Paul’s message to the Corinthians challenging to understand.
Fortunately, this study is a great help to the learner. Pay particular attention to the material titled, “Introduction”. The description of the likely segmentation into the fragments is the first step in delving into this writing. Then, analyzing the “situating” of the fragments in the timeline of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian community can be very helpful in making sense of Paul’s communication with them.
This approach gives you an opportunity to understand a complex writing as a look into Paul’s emotional attachment to the Corinthians and his passionate understanding of the gospel of Christ. This study is worth the effort!
Meet Our Professors
Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament
Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).
David L. Bartlett
David L. Bartlett was the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, USA, Bartlett served as the senior minister of congregations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. From 1990 to 2005, Bartlett served at YDS on the faculty as well as in administrative roles including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Affairs. Bartlett has published numerous books and scholarly articles. It is with great sadness that we note his passing in late 2017.
Yale Bible Study
Paul’s 2 Epistle to the Corinthians is a rich letter filled with striking imagery and powerful rhetoric, yet it lacks the coherence of some of Paul’s other writings. It does not respond to a particular issue, as does Galatians. It does not develop a complex theological argument, as does Romans. It does not respond to a series of pastoral problems, as does 1 Corinthians. Instead, it falls into three large blocks that each has a very different feel. The first, from 1:1-7:16, within a framework that comments on Paul’s situation and travel plans, offers a series of images that interpret Paul’s apostolic mission and celebrate reconciliation between he and his congregation. Chapters 8 and 9 both deal with the practical issue of fundraising in slightly different, but somewhat overlapping ways. These chapters show Paul engaged in keeping the promise he made to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem to remember the poor in Judaea (Gal 2:10). Chapters 10-13 contain Paul’s most stridently polemical passages in which he defends his apostolic activity in the face of rival apostles. These three blocks do not hang together well as a single letter. It is especially unlikely that Paul could engage in such a rancorous apology (Ch. 10-13) after encouraging people to give generously to the collection he was taking up.
To study 2 Corinthians we need to wrestle with this complex situation. One could read the letter in its canonical form, and it is a good idea to do that at least once. Most readers find that experience somewhat baffling. So in this study we will attempt to situate the parts of 2 Corinthians within the context of Paul’s fluctuating relationship with his Corinthian community.
Situating 2 Corinthians
The difficulties caused by the obvious surface tensions within 2 Corinthians have led to numerous hypotheses about its composition. Some scholars resolve the tensions by viewing the letter as something that was composed over a period of time, during which the situation with the Corinthian church would have changed. While that is possible, it leaves the question open of why one would ever send such a disjointed letter. Another and, more likely possibility, is that 2 Corinthians as we have it was created by the editors of the Pauline letter collection, which was probably brought together after Paul’s death, which took place in approximately 64 CE. The precise rationale for putting the letter together in this way is also unclear, although it may have had something to do with the editorial strategy for the collection as a whole. The polemical portion of 2 Corinthians coheres thematically with the argumentative, but less polemical epistle Galatians, which follows 2 Corinthians in all the witnesses to the collection.
If, as is likely, 2 Corinthians is a collection of fragments of Pauline letters, the challenge is to identify how many such fragments are there, and how they fit into the development of Paul’s relationship with the community at Corinth. Scholars have made numerous proposals to sort out this difficult problem. The following solution offers a reasonable reconstruction of Paul’s interaction with his Corinthian disciples and the major evidence for each stage.
- Paul comes to Corinth for the first time, and engages in evangelism in collaboration with Prisca and Aquila around 53 CE.
- Acts 18 provides an account of the start of Paul’s mission in Corinth.
- Other missionaries, including Apollos of Alexandria, visit Corinth
- 1 Cor 3:6: “I planted, Apollos watered”
- Paul writes a letter to Corinth, which has not survived (= Letter A)
- 1 Cor 5:9: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons”
- 2 Cor 6:14–7:1: This passage is odd in the context of the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians. It does not deal with the issues addressed in Ch. 10-13. It warns against being involved with lawless unbelievers. Some scholars suspect it may have been a part of another letter, perhaps the lost letter A.
- A delegation from Corinth brings a report and a letter to Paul, probably in Ephesus
- 1 Cor 1:11; 11:18, Paul refers to the delegation, “Chloe’s people,” perhaps slaves or freedmen belonging to a household presided over by a woman named Chloe.
- 1 Cor 7:1: Before addressing an issue, Paul refers to “the matters about which you wrote.”
- Paul writes 1 Corinthians (= Letter B)
- 1 Cor 16:8: Paul is in Ephesus, before Pentecost, probably in the year 54 CE.
- 1 Cor 16:1-4: Paul has begun the relief collection for the poor in Jerusalem.
- Paul’s emissaries are at work in Corinth
- 1 Cor 4:17, 16:10: Paul promises to send Timothy.
- 2 Cor 8:6: Titus, “Made a beginning” on the collection, perhaps at this time.
- Other “apostles” (= missionaries) arrive in Corinth, late 54 or early 55 CE.
- 2 Cor 11:5-22, mentions them and indicates the kind of claims they made
- 2 Cor 3:1: Paul alludes to the fact that “some people” used “letters of recommendation.” He may have these other “apostles” in view.
- Paul pays a “painful” visit to Corinth, probably in spring or summer 55 CE.
- 1 Cor 16:3-4: Paul anticipates coming for a visit.
- 2 Cor 2:1: Paul had made a “painful” visit that he did not want to repeat.
- 2 Cor 13:2: During his “second” visit, Paul had given the Corinthians a warning.
- 2 Cor 12:14: Paul plans another, “third” visit.
- 2 Cor 2:5; 7:12: An individual person has “caused pain” and “did wrong.” It is likely that this encounter took place during the “second” = “painful” visit, and was the cause of the pain. Paul’s language is allusive and what this individual did is not totally clear. It may have had something to do with the situation Paul addressed in 1 Cor 5:1-5, where Paul advised “handing over to Satan” a man who had been sexually involved with his stepmother, something of which Paul disapproved. Whoever it was, this individual apparently sided with the new “apostles” and challenged Paul.
- Paul writes another, “tearful” or emotional letter (Letter C = 2 Corinthians 10–13?)
- 2 Cor 2:3-4: “I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.”
- 2 Cor 7:8–10: “For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it.”
- Paul decides to keep his distance.
- 2 Cor 12:13; 13:1: At the time he wrote these chapters he was planning a “third visit.”
- 2 Cor 2:1: “I made up my mind not make another painful visit.”
- Paul instead sends Titus to mediate, probably late 55 or early 56 CE.
- 2 Cor 2:12-13: Paul went to Troas (northwestern Turkey) hoping to meet Titus, but he was not there.
- Titus brings good news:
- 2 Cor 7:6: Titus arrived.
- 2 Cor 7:14: Paul had “boasted” of the qualities of Titus and was not disappointed.
- Paul writes celebrating the restoration of relations with Corinth (Letter D =2 Cor 1-7).
- At some point in his relationship with Corinth Paul sends, or adds to, another letter, instructions for proceeding with the collection (Letter E = 2 Cor 8; Letter F = 2 Cor 9). It is possible that one of these sections was with Paul’s first letter (Letter A), with his letter of consolation (Letter D), or as a separate note after the difficulties between Paul and his community had been resolved.
- Paul finally makes a “third” visit to Corinth to conclude the collection and prepare for his next missionary mission, probably spring or summer 56.
- Rom 15:26-27: Paul writes Romans in Corinth, gathering the funds from the collection, which he aims to deliver in Jerusalem before going to Rome.
Studying the Letter
This reconstruction of the situation surrounding 2 Corinthians dictates the order in which this study will proceed. On the basis that 2 Corinthians 10-13 is probably the earliest major segment of the overall letter (although there may be a fragment of Letter A embedded in 1 Cor 6:14-7:1), we will start with those chapters, reflecting on the position of Paul’s rivals and the response he makes to them.
The various parts of the letter reveal much about the personality of the apostle and some of his major theological and pastoral concerns. In 2 Cor 10-13, he distinguishes himself from other apostles primarily by his commitment to the significance of Christ crucified, a principle he had established in 1 Cor 2:2. He subjects their reliance on the pedigree and their spiritual accomplishments to a vigorous critique, using rhetoric of biting irony. In his letter of reconciliation (2 Cor 1-7) Paul reveals his emotional attachment to his Corinthians. He also displays another literary skill, the ability to express his thoughts in evocative imagery, much of it involving travel and the realities of his role as an apostle. Finally, in his administrative letters (2 Cor 8-9) dealing with the issue of fundraising, he reveals his more practical, administrative side. Despite their complexity, the pieces that comprise 2 Corinthians constitute a rich source of insight into Paul and his understanding of the Gospel of Christ.
Victor P. Furnish, II Corinthians (Anchor Bible 32A; New York: Doubleday, 1984).
John Proctor, I and II Corinthians (Westminster Bible Companion: Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015).
Yale Bible Study
I. Second Corinthians 10-11: The Fool’s Vision
According to the reconstruction of Paul’s correspondence with Corinth followed here, chapters 10-13 are part of a letter (Letter C) written to Corinth after a “painful visit” by Paul to his congregation. In that visit there had been a confrontation with at least one member of the community who had a serious disagreement with Paul, perhaps over matters such as Paul’s admonitions on sexual behavior in 1 Corinthians 5. But there was something else afoot that made Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians precarious, a group of other “apostles” had appeared on the scene. Either they, or perhaps the individuals in Corinth with whom Paul was having difficulty, compared these apostles to Paul, much to Paul’s detriment. In these chapters Paul responds to the comparisons that have been made, sometimes directly, sometimes rather obliquely. In the process of this apologetic discourse, Paul offers his understanding of the gospel that he preaches and the Lord whom he serves. The challenge of understanding 2 Corinthians, in general, and this section in particular, is that we have access to only one part of a difficult conversation and have to use our imaginations to construct the other half.
Structure of 10-13
Unlike many of Paul’s other letters, the structure of chapters 10–13 is not immediately transparent. The likelihood that these chapters have been excerpted from a longer letter may explain some of the difficulty. Nonetheless, it is possible to see some patterns.
At the heart of this section is what Paul himself calls a “fool’s speech” (11:16), in which he “boasts” about his pedigree and his accomplishments as an apostle (11:21–12:10). This speech is framed by remarks that ironically apologize for speaking so “foolishly” (11:16-21; 12:11–13). Prior to the carefully framed “fool’s speech”, Paul offers a series of appeals to the Corinthians that at the same time refute charges that he believes have been made against him (10:1–11:15). After the speech he discusses his plans to make a “third visit” to Corinth (12:14–13:10) and an epistolary conclusion (13:11–13).
The initial appeal (10:1–11:15)
One way of understanding this section is to note the passages where Paul apparently alludes to charges made about him. They are:
10:1-10: That Paul is humble in person but bold when away.
10:12–18: That Paul overstepped his authority in evangelizing the Corinthians
11:1–6: That Paul is inferior to other apostles, particularly in his speech.
11:7-11: That Paul insulted the Corinthians by not accepting their financial support.
11:12-15: That Paul is inferior to others apostles, a charge to which he responds with biting invective.
The other apostles
Paul was not the only person to be travelling the eastern Mediterranean preaching a form of the “good news” about the significance of Jesus for humankind. Hints about competitors are found scattered through the pages of the New Testament. Acts names several:
Prisca and Aquila, a Jewish man and his wife (possibly gentile) from Pontos in northern Asia Minor, who had lived in Rome until Jews were expelled under the emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2). They worked with Paul and were greeted by him in Rom 16:3.
Apollos, of Alexandrian Jewish background, whose defective understanding of baptism was corrected by Prisca and Aquila (Acts 18:24–28).
Unnamed disciples who only knew of the baptism of John (Acts 19:1–6).
Judaizing apostles who challenged Paul’s message in Galatia (Gal 3:1–3; 4:17; 5:10–12).
These missionaries, and the many people on the list of greetings in Romans 16, had varying relations with Paul, from close associates to hostile competitors. The major issue for the competitors in other letters seems to be whether Gentile convers to the Jesus movement needed to observe Torah. That issue is not involved in the debates of 2 Corinthians, which seems to focus instead on an apostle’s spiritual attainment. Hence, the opponents in this text cannot be easily identified with those in other letters.
Paul’s epistolary behavior (10:1–11)
The first charge against Paul is repeated twice, once allusively in 10:1, and then again, as a quotation of what the opposition says in 10:10: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak.” The opponents may have had in mind not only Paul’s stern admonitions preserved in 1 Corinthians, (especially 1 Cor 5), but also things that he wrote in the first, now lost, letter to Corinth (Letter A). If, as some suspect, the intrusive paragraph 6:14–7:1 is a lost letter (perhaps from Letter A), it would also provide support for the claim that Paul could write severely, even if his presence was milder. It is also possible that the opponents knew of Paul’s letter to Galatians, with its strongly worded polemical passages.
Paul’s response to the charge is of a piece with his strategy throughout these chapters. He begins by affirming the critique and describes himself as a superhuman warrior (10:1-6), whose potent weapons can take down strongholds (v 4). But those strongholds are simply “arguments,” and what he takes captive is “every thought” (v 5). Paul acknowledges in hyperbolic terms the complaint against him, and concludes by mimicking an imperial Roman general, saying that his behavior aims to punish disobedience and secure complete compliance (v 6).
Paul probably knows that his ironic affirmation of the complaint might well be misconstrued, so immediately adopts a more ironic tone. He asks the Corinthians to look to the fact that both he and they “belong to Christ” (10:7). Paul acknowledges that he “boasts too much” about his authority (v 8), a note that also hints at the theme of “boasting” that will stand at the heart of these chapters. He does not, he argues, want to frighten his congregation (v 9). Instead he has a serious purpose and will act as he writes (v 11). The implicit threat abruptly introduced in the last verse undercuts the ironic gestures of the previous verses. The edgy rhetoric of this letter fragment stands in mark contrast to the tone that Paul adopts in 2 Corinthians 1–7.
Paul and apostolic boundaries (10:12–18)
A legend widespread in early Christian apocryphal literature was that the apostles divided up the world among themselves for purposes of missionary activity (See, e.g., Acts of Thomas 1.1). Although that kind of arrangement was certainly legendary, there were apparently some boundaries that early apostolic missionaries agreed to. The most famous of these is the agreement that Paul reports he reached with Peter that Peter would bring the good news to “the circumcision,” and Paul to the gentile world (Gal 2:7–8). How such a division of labor actually worked is unclear. The Book of Acts claims that Peter made the first gentile converts (Acts 10), and that Paul regularly preached first to the Jews (e.g., Acts 13:5, 14-15; 14:1) in the cities that he evangelized. Whether or not the report is factual, it shows that Luke at least understood early missionaries not to be strict observers of boundaries. Whatever the overall situation, some missionaries apparently thought that Corinth was their territory and that Paul had “overstepped his limits” (v 14). In response, Paul claims that the Corinthians were within the borders of what God had assigned to him (v 13). More important are the results, the increase in faith that has come from his action and that is a foundation for further work (v 15–16).
Claims of Paul’s inferiority to the “super apostles” (11:1–6, 12–15)
That someone was comparing Paul unfavorably with other apostles is clear, although at this stage of the argument the grounds for those claims remain murky. What is crystal clear, however, is that Paul was deeply upset by the comparison to other apostles and he yields to vitriol, which he ascribes to his “jealousy” for the “chaste virgin” that is his congregation (11:2). The opponents, whom he sarcastically labels “super apostles” (v 5) are like the serpent who deceived Eve (v 3), proclaiming not simply a different version of the gospel, but “another Jesus” (v 4). Those who do so are “false apostles, deceitful workers,” Satan in disguise (v 13). Paul does not expect that they will have a happy ending for their ministry (v 15). In these passages Paul emerges as all too human in his response to his competitors.
Financial Support (11:7–11)
Thus far Paul does not say much about what the “super apostles” are claiming for themselves; but he does indicate one point of friction: that he did not accept support from the Corinthian congregation, whereas they apparently did. This complaint, which apparently reflected negatively on Paul’s status, deeply disturbed Paul, because he in fact took pride in the fact that he paid his own way and did not burden congregations to which he was ministering with requests for support. He uses that practice as an argument in 1 Corinthians 9. He did not, he claims, make use of a right he had as an apostle to receive support from his congregation: (1 Cor 9:18: “What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”) Therefore, Paul argued, the Corinthians should not make use of their conscientious right to eat meat sacrificed to idols if it offends their fellow believers. To have Paul’s strategy now used as a ground for his inferiority to other apostles must have stung.
The Fool’s Speech, Part I (11:16–33)
The Greco-Roman culture of which Paul was a part was no stranger to people who made claims to their honor and status, who would “boast” about their pedigree or their accomplishments. Paul knew of these cultural practices and used them ironically in other contexts. For instance in Galatians 6:14 he prays that he might never boast except in the cross of Christ, but he will also boast about those whom he has brought into Christian fellowship (1 Cor 15:31), or in the Lord (1 Cor 1:31; Rom 5:11). He is now confronting a situation in which his rivals make what he construes as “boasts” about themselves, which he must counter. His addressees may well remember his rejection of “boasting” as their contemporary society understood it. Hence, Paul has to be careful in presenting what could be a conventional exaltation of his own qualifications as an apostle. He does so, but labeling it the work of a fool (11:16). In the process of developing that label, he also manages to chide his addressees as people who “put up with fools” (v 19), and with those who “make slaves” of them and “prey upon” them (v 20).
Once he begins the “fool’s speech” proper, it becomes clear what was being claimed by or for the “super apostles”: first, their status as genuine Israelites (v 22). Paul can counter those claims to illustrious pedigree but trumps them by offering a list of ironic “accomplishments.” What he offers as achievements instead is a catalogue of suffering (vv 23-27). His ironic “boasting” is thus consistent with his claims elsewhere. He boasts not in what the culture values, but in what shows his identification with Jesus.
The climax of this list of accomplishments is exactly the opposite of the kind of deed that would crown a Greco-Roman hero’s list. Paul tells of an episode that probably concluded the time he spent as a missionary in Arabia (cf. Gal 1:17). He had apparently caused an uproar in Damascus during the time when Romans, under the emperor Claudius, allowed the local strong man, Aretas, to rule the area. Instead of standing up to a tyrant, Paul ignominiously escaped his clutches, hardly the subject of a conventional boast (vv 30–33)!
Thomas R. Blanton, “Spirit and Covenant Renewal: A Theologoumenon of Paul’s Opponents in 2 Corinthians,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010) 129–51.
Doyle Kee, “Who Were the ‘Super-Apostles’ of 2 Corinthians 10–13,” Restoration Quarterly 25 (1980) 65–76.
L. L. Welborn, “The Identification of 2 Corinthians 10–13 with the ‘Letter of Tears,’”Novum Testamentum 37 (1995) 138–53.
Questions for Discussion:
- How does Paul handle the challenge from rivals? Does his strategy serve as a model of how a Christian might handle social conflict?
- Is there anything in contemporary culture that functions in the way that “boasting” about pedigree or accomplishments did in the Greco-Roman world? Is that cultural convention something that Christians should employ? If so, does Paul’s strategy about boasting serve as a useful model?
Yale Bible Study
II. Second Corinthians 12-13: Visions
We have seen that 2 Corinthians as we have it is almost certainly a composite pieced together from several letters from Paul to the churches at Corinth. We have suggested that 2 Corinthians 10-13 is probably the earliest part of that letter. Paul sent these chapters to warn the Corinthians about some “super apostles,” also called “false apostles,” who have appeared on the scene since his most recent visit. He is preparing the way for another visit to Corinth. This portion of our epistle is written as a kind of pre-emptive strike. If the Corinthians really hear and heed Paul’s words, he will be able to visit them rejoicing in reconciliation. If not, he anticipates that his visit will be harsh, demanding, and painful.
From 11:16–12:10 Paul engages in a kind of “fool’s speech” which we have seen was a familiar rhetorical device in antiquity. His role can be compared with that of the Fool in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. Lear is tricked and misled by his daughters, Goneril and Regan. The Corinthians are tricked and misled by the super apostles. The fool appears to be foolish but in fact time after time tells Lear the sad truth about himself, which could be redemptive truth if only Lear would pay attention. Paul pretends to be foolish but spends these verses telling the Corinthians the sad truth about themselves and their seducers in the hope that they will turn toward Paul’s own apostleship and the truth of his gospel.
There is a deeper layer to the role of “fool” in 2 Corinthians, however. When we read the letters Paul writes to Corinth we discover that it is not only that he plays the fool, at some deep level he contends that the Gospel he preaches is foolish. He does not have to pretend that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his own apostleship are foolish. By every standard of the world, the crucifixion and his apostleship really are foolish. But “the foolishness of God is wiser than humankind” (1 Cor 1:18–25).
Indeed John Schutz has suggested that in 2 Corinthians Paul deliberately describes his own apostleship in terms that conform his ministry to Christ’s sacrifice, so that the foolishness of his preaching may provide the Corinthians access to the saving foolishness of Christ’s cross.
Boasting about not boasting (12:1–10)
We have noted that because we get only one side of a discussion, Paul’s, we have no very distinct idea of what the super apostles were preaching, nor even a clear sense of what some of the Corinthians found persuasive in that preaching. From these ten verses it seems likely that the apostles who followed Paul to Corinth have boasted about their ecstatic, mystical experience of God and have perhaps criticized Paul for being a little too earth bound.
Now perhaps for the first time in his ministry to them, Paul recounts an experience he had fourteen years previously when he, at least as profoundly as the false apostles, was caught up into the heavenly realms.
Not for the first time Paul begins to boast of his experience, then says that he knows that boasting is of no avail (the faithful boast only in the Lord.) Nonetheless, he feels compelled to continue. In part he feels compulsion because, whether he likes it or not, the Corinthians have compared him unfavorably to the apostles who followed him. In part, he is compelled to continue because his description of a transcendent experience serves to call into question the fundamental value of just such experiences. Foolishness has already turned out to be better than wisdom. Now weakness turns out to be better than super spiritual athleticism.
Whether out of modesty or as a kind of rhetorical distancing, Paul speaks of himself in the third person as “a man” (v 2), but there is no question that the experience he recounts his own.
There are many accounts in Jewish literature of the second Temple period, roughly contemporary with Paul, about visions and ascensions. — 1 Enoch, for instance, included among the Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, built on the Biblical report of Enoch being “taken” to heaven (Genesis 5:24) and described his heavenly journeys. Paul can assume knowledge of such accounts and does not really delineate the details of his experience. He accepts the common notion that there are levels of the heavenly realm and the third level, which he visited or saw, can also be called “Paradise,” a word used only here in Paul’s writings. (See Luke 23:43)
The point of telling the story, however, is not to say how fulfilling the religious experience was but how disappointing. Paul in fact has suffered from a “thorn in the flesh” (v 7). We have no way of knowing what particular malady so distressed him. Most likely it was some kind of physical affliction. Whatever it was, Paul thought it was sent by Satan. Elsewhere in 2 Corinthians, Satan is blamed for harassing people (2:11; 11:14). But more than that, Satan is for Paul (and for Jesus and for Job) the tempter whose temptation provides the opportunity for deeper faith.
Paul prays three times that the thorn might be taken away (v 8), displaying a kind of reticence that might commend itself to those of us who think that God may be counting our prayers and waiting till we meet the divine quota. What Paul gets is an answer to prayer but not the answer he wants: “My grace is sufficient for you and my power is made perfect in weakness” (v 9). Wisdom perfected in foolishness; power perfected in weakness. Perhaps it turns out that the “super apostles” aren’t so super after all; and the somewhat disappointing parent of the Corinthian churches displays the weakness, which is always also paradoxically, God’s power.
Getting Ready for the Next Visit (12:11–21)
In these next verses Paul moves from his (wise) fool’s speech to immediate practical concerns about his relationship to the church of Corinth. On the one hand, he is specific about the details of his current situation. He has already sent Titus to check up on the Corinthians and is not pleased with what he has heard (v 18). Paul plans to visit again and has high hopes that by the time he comes the Corinthians will have repented and mended their ways.
On the other hand Paul uses an image here used earlier in this letter (11:1–2). In those verses he compared himself to a father preparing to present his daughter, the Corinthians, as a bride to Christ the bridegroom. Now in more detail he likens himself to the Corinthians’ parent (v 14). Indeed in the history of the Corinthians he was not just “like” a father, he was their founding father. He started the church and has all the parental rights and privileges that the super apostles can never rightly claim.
Again he returns to a theme clearly important to the super apostles and perhaps to the Corinthians themselves. The fact that he did not take financial compensation from them is not a sign that he was not a genuine “professional/paid” apostle (v 17; cf. 11:8–9). It is not a sign that he did not love them. It is rather that like a good parent his role is to encourage and strengthen, not to depend and take advantage.
In vv 19–21 Paul is more detailed about the transgressions he fears the Corinthians have not corrected. But again, as is often the case in Paul, the list of possible misbehaviors is sufficiently varied and sufficiently vague that it is hard to be clear what particular offenses now offend him. To be sure, from 1 Corinthians on (and perhaps even in the earlier letter cited in 1 Cor 5:9, Letter A) Paul has been concerned with some kinds of immoral sexual practices among the Corinthians, and this passage indicates that his anxiety has not yet abated (v 21).
Paul, who worries about being “humbled” (v 21), seems even more concerned that the Corinthians will not acknowledge his superiority to the supposedly superior super apostles. The fear that God will humble him before the Corinthians is the fear that the Corinthian believers will think that the super apostles’ criticisms have been vindicated. Here comes that weak old Paul again.
Weak old Paul makes clear that he has every intention of exerting his parental rights. It’s that letter that Mother or Father wrote when the first report card came home from college. “I’m on my way. Shape up.”
The Weakness of Christ (and of the apostle) (13:1–40)
As the letter draws to a close, Paul reiterates his fundamental theme, central to his dealing with the Corinthians. He is like a father and has the right to deal with them as such. He will deal with them by the power of Christ, which remarkably is manifest in the terrible weakness of the crucifixion. He will deal with them in the power of his apostleship, which remarkably is manifest not despite the fact that he is less charismatic than his opponents, but because of that fact. When he is weak, he is strong. The opening of the chapter (13:1–2) provides a powerful summary of the theological underpinning of these chapters, this letter fragment, 2 Cor 10–13.
Typically Paul closes this letter with a series of exhortations and reminders, but here the exhortations are shaped again by the theme of weakness and strength. Now, admitting his own weakness, his prayer is that the Corinthians may be strong: Strong enough to refrain from immorality; Strong enough to resist the temptations of the super apostles (who finally work for Satan); Strong enough to welcome Paul so that his fatherly visit, which perhaps also foreshadows Christ’s visit at the end of history, will be full of gratitude and affection.
The general admonitions of these verses are fairly typical, but they also demonstrate what we so often see in Paul’s letters, his strong sense that his churches are joined together in prayer and concern for one another and in mission, too.
The final verse may have originally been the final verse of this letter, represented by chapters 10–13 or may have been the moved by the editor from some other portion of the Corinthian correspondence to close the whole canonical 2 Corinthians.
Commentators rightly point out that this benediction does not assume anything like the full doctrine of the Trinity. What we have rather is an invocation of those “persons” who, in a not very systematic way, remain the major actors in the drama of Paul’s apostleship, the Lord Jesus Christ, God, the Spirit (and the communion the spirit provides with God and with fellow Christians.)
The benediction is in the wrong order for the not yet developed Trinitarian doctrine. The Father of course comes first. But the benediction may be in the right order for a letter that stresses how the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the crucified one, has redeemed the apostle and continues to redeem his children at Corinth.
Dustin Watson Ellington, “Not Applicable to Believers? The Aims and Basis of Paul’s ‘I’ in 2 Corinthians 10–13,” Journal of Biblical Literature 131 (2012) 325–40.
Jason B. Hood, “The Temple and the Thorn: 2 Corinthians 12 and Paul’s Heavenly Ecclesiology,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 21 (2011) 357–70.
Andrew T. Lincoln, “ ‘Paul the Visionary’” The Setting and Significance of the Rapture to Paradise in II Corinthians XII.1–10,” New Testament Studies 25 (1979) 204–20.
Questions for Discussion:
- Are you persuaded by Paul’s rhetorical moves in this portion of the letter, arguing that strength comes from weakness?
- Do ecstatic or extraordinary experiences of prayer or closeness to God play a role in your own life and are they accompanied by some “thorn in the flesh”?
- What is the role of money in your relationship to your religious community?
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III. Second Corinthians 1:1-2:13: Conciliation
Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians in our Biblical canon begins as do all his letters, with a formal greeting, in this case, from Paul and his colleague Timothy to the community in Corinth and throughout the province of Achaea (1:1–2). This may have been the actual greeting of the final letter in the sequence of Paul’s correspondence.
The rest of what we have called letter D (1:1–7:16) performs two major functions. It finalizes arrangements for Paul’s upcoming visit with the community and it celebrates the reconciliation that has been achieved between the apostle and his sometimes fractious congregation. Paul lays out his current situation and his travel plans in two segments, at the beginning (1:3–2:13) and at the end (7:5–16) of the letter. The meditative celebration of reconciliation occupies the central portion (2:14–6:13). Some scholars have suggested that these blocks of material comprise two different letters, but that analysis ignores the strong links between Paul’s initial “thanksgiving” section (1:3–11) and the subject matter and themes of 2:14–6:13, 7:2–4. These chapters thus appear to be a single letter with a set of practical comments framing a more meditative, and emotional, central section.
This analysis omits one segment of the letter (6:14–7:1), which fits poorly within its context and does not contribute either to the themes of the central section, nor to the practicalities of the beginning and conclusion. As suggested in our introduction, that passage is probably a fragment of another letter, which we shall discuss in due course.
Paul’s Thanksgiving (1:3–11)
As is the case in all Paul’s letters, with the exception of Galatians, a word of prayer, usually a thanksgiving, follows the formal greetings. The relevant section of this letter begins with a “benediction” (v 3) and ends with a reference to thanksgiving (11). These sections often reveal the concerns that weigh on Paul’s mind as he writes and vv 3–7 perform that function quite clearly. In the course of the first six verses Paul mentions “consolation” nine times. He has been consoled in his affliction (v 4), which enables him to console others, particularly the recipients of this letter (v 6). Affliction is something that both Paul and his congregation share (v 7), but because they share that affliction with Christ, the source of abundant consolation (v 5), they can have hope for the future. All of this language constitutes a highly emotional appeal, what ancient orators would label an appeal to pathos. Paul proceeds to specify what the afflictions are that beset him and he describes details of his life designed to evoke a sympathetic response, such as his imprisonment “in Asia” (probably in the city of Ephesus) and his condemnation to death there (vv 8-9), obviously not carried out. Yet, as Paul and his addressees are united in their consolation, they are also united through prayer in their afflictions, a fellowship that itself is a cause for thanksgiving (v 11).
It is interesting that Paul does not describe what afflictions have best the Corinthians, but, if our analysis is correct, some of that affliction resulted from Paul’s own words and deeds.
Paul’s Travel Plans and Reflections on his Relationships (1:12–2:13)
Another standard part of much ancient personal correspondence was a description of the situation of the sender. The next block of material focuses on Paul’s situation, but with a constant eye toward how he has interacted with the Corinthians.
Paul begins by continuing the emotional appeal to the Corinthians begun in the thanksgiving section. He uses the theme of “boasting,” which played such a major role in the letter preserved in 2 Corinthians 10–13. Here “boasting” does not have the edgy, ironic tone that it does in the chapters of that painful letter. Paul begins, perhaps a bit defensively, by saying that he “boasts” in his own frankness and sincerity. That remark puts a rather pleasing label on the rhetoric of the painful letter. Paul appeals for understanding (v 13), claiming that he is not writing in a way that cannot be understood, perhaps another gesture toward his earlier sarcastic tone. But in the end, “boasting” is not about him but about his congregation (v 14).
The major portion of the discussion of travel plans (1:15–2:4) deals with the fact that Paul had planned to come to Corinth by way of Macedonia in the north (v 16, the region of Paul’s first missionary activity in Europe), but he finally decided against doing so (v 23). This is probably the planned trip that Paul mentioned in 1 Cor 16:5. Paul’s decision requires some explanation. Is he simply a vacillating flip-flopper (v 17)? No, he says. Despite his change of mind about visiting, he was guided by a single purpose. His fidelity ultimately to the welfare of the Corinthians mirrors the fidelity of God (v 18), a fidelity expressed in his son Jesus (v 19).
Paul elsewhere reflects at length on God’s fidelity, particularly in Romans 9–11 and argues passionately that God is indeed consistent and faithful even when it does not appear so. Although the argument is not as developed here as in Romans, the point is the same. Paul’s apparent indecisive vacillation masks a deeper and consistent affirmation, a “Yes” directed at the Corinthians, as God’s “Yes” expressed in Jesus is directed at his Church. Paul concludes this condensed reflection on fidelity with an allusion to the ritual of baptism (vv 21–22). He thus reminds the Corinthians once again of what he and they have in common, not simply a ritual of anointing (v 21), but the common life of the Spirit (v 22), something on which he had commented at length in 1 Corinthians 12–14.
Paul now offers a more pragmatic explanation of his decision not to visit Corinth (1:23–2:4). He wanted to spare the Corinthians (v 23) the agony of another “painful visit” (2:1). Instead, Paul says, he wrote an emotional “letter with many tears” (2:4), which probably included 2 Corinthians 10–13. Interwoven with the factual explanation are further emotional appeals. He asks (v 2), if he caused pain, who could make Paul glad except the one whom he had offended? The verses express Paul’s yearning for the restoration of a positive relationship with his congregation. His own emotional state is the subject of the section’s concluding. Paul’s actions were not meant to cause pain but to be an expression of his love (v 4).
Yet another explanation of Paul’s decision not to visit rests in the events that were unfolding in Corinth (2:5-11). Paul’s description of those events is somewhat oblique, but he reveals something of what was afoot. Some single individual in Corinth had been primarily responsible for “pain” that Paul and the Corinthians have felt (v 5). A majority inflicted some punishment on him (v 6). Perhaps this is the punishment that Paul recommended in 1 Cor 5:4–5 for a man who had been guilty of what Paul judged to be sexual immorality (living with his step-mother). Paul’s recommendation in that earlier letter was harsh; the man was to be expelled from the community, handed over to Satan. Whoever the object of Paul’s ire and the community’s action was, Paul now offers different counsel. The community should “forgive and console” him (v 7), lest he be overwhelmed with sorrow. Paul establishes here a fundamental principle that guides the whole of the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians: reconciliation is the necessary condition for consolation. Both reconciliation and consolation are based in love, which Paul asks the Corinthians to show to their disciplined member (v 8). Paul practices what he preaches and declares his own forgiveness for those whom the congregation has forgiven (v 10). Once again, he emphasizes that his actions are done in solidarity with and to support the congregation (v 10). If in 1 Corinthians Paul had apparently been willing to condemn a member of the congregation to Satan, he now declares that adopting the path of reconciliation is a way to outwit Satan’s wiles (v 11). Has Paul simply changed his rhetorical strategy here, or has he in fact learned something about life “in the presence of Christ” (v 10) by his experience?
Paul concludes his remarks about his travel on a very concrete note (2:12-13). He came via Troas, in what is now northwestern Turkey. He was anxious that he did not find Titus there. This remark is initially opaque to a modern reader, but would have made good sense to the Corinthians. As Paul will make clear when he returns to the issue of his travel plans (7:6-7), Titus had been sent as his emissary to Corinth to affect the reconciliation that produced the consolation that Paul now celebrates.
David Briones, “Mutual Brokers of Grace: A Study of 2 Corinthians 1.3–11,” New Testament Studies 56 (2010) 536–56.
David Starling, “ ‘We Do Not Want You to Be Unaware’: Disclosure, Concealment and Suffering in 2 Corinthians 1–7,” New Testament Studies 60 (2014) 266–79.
L. L. Welborn, “Paul’s Appeal to the Emotions in 2 Corinthians 1.1–2.13; 7.5–16,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 82 (2001) 31–60.
Questions for Discussion:
- As Paul frames his situation in the opening of 2 Corinthians, he is involved in a process of reconciliation with his congregation. Does the rhetorical strategy that he seems to adopt here ring true from your own experience of dealing with difficult situations?
- Paul articulates a fundamental theological insight in these chapters: forgiveness and reconciliation is central to overcoming strife and discord. Do you see these principles at work (or opposed) in your own congregation or family?
- In a time when political and social strife is rampant, in the world as a whole and in our own nation, what things can Christians do to live by the principle that Paul here celebrates?
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IV. Second Corinthians 2:14-3:18: Triumphal Processions
As he rejoices in his reconciliation with the believers in Corinth, Paul also reiterates and reinforces his defense and description of his own apostleship. To do so he draws heavily on imagery from his Bible (our “Old Testament”). Again we notice as so often in Paul how he seems to presuppose a remarkably rich knowledge of Hebrew scripture on the part of mostly Gentile believers. Does this represent a trust in the kind of teaching they have received from himself and Apollos and other Christian leaders? Are the terms of the discussion set, in part, by the super apostles of chapters 10–13, who may claim particular ties to the Jerusalem apostles and to the heritage of Judaism? If so, Paul is using scripture (however metaphorically) to defend not only his reading of the gospel but his right to preach it. In any case a note of defense lies behind our verses though the major subject is his joy in the sense that the Corinthians are acknowledging him again as their rightful apostle and father in the faith.
Paul’s rhetoric in this section of 2 Corinthians builds on a series of antitheses, new vs. old, interior vs exterior, earthly vs. heavenly, which we find in other highly rhetorical compositions of the New Testament, such as the Epistle to the Hebrews. First-century recipients of the letter would have been attuned to this rhetorical flourish and would have appreciated Paul’s eloquence.
Paul distinguished from the peddlers (2:14–2:17)
In this section of our letter Paul uses mostly the first person plural, unlike chapters 10–13 where he uses mostly the first person singular. The letter is sent from Timothy as well as Paul, and the “we” may reflect that fact. Perhaps also as our apostle moves from defensiveness to gratitude he does not need to use “I” quite so often to make his point.
These verses are dominated by two images—the image of the triumphal procession and the image of the “aroma.” The Corinthians would surely be familiar with the parades staged by returning generals from a variety of Roman conquests. The victorious soldiers brought behind them the captured peoples and most prominently the captured leaders, chained and disgraced. Does Paul think of the apostles here as the triumphant soldiers of the Gospel trailing behind them the principalities and powers overcome by the power of what they preach? (See 2 Cor 10:2) Or is he in a somewhat more complicated way looking back to what he has said about the weakness of God in 1 Corinthians 1 and (if we are right that this was a previous letter) in 2 Corinthians 12? If this second suggestion is correct, we have a kind of classic paradox: Paul rejoices in his weakness; when he is weak, he is strong, and his weakness serves for the growth of the gospel.
Scholars suggest two possible sources for Paul’s reference to himself and the other true apostles as the “aroma” of God (2:14). Perhaps this refers to the aroma of true sacrifice, once in the tabernacle and now in the temple. If so, we have a kind of reminder of Paul’s sufferings as a sign of his authenticity as a servant of Christ. Perhaps, however, the reference is more to the incense burned at triumphal processions. There, too, of course the incense represents a propitiation of the gods, but its aroma would also have spread among the multitudes witnessing the procession. Yet another alternative is that Paul is referring not to a military triumph, but to a religious procession, in which the presence of a deity would be signaled by the use of fragrance incense and unguents.
The phrase with which Paul ends this section that the apostles speak “for God and in his presence” might suggest that the aroma reaches both to God and also out from God to the growing company of believers (v 17).
Whatever the precise image, a key point for Paul is that the meaning of the aroma is ambiguous. Some sense it as a pointer to death; others sense in it a sign of life (v 14). Moreover, Paul is the source of the smell! Paul may here be reminding the Corinthians of his great claim to them in 1 Corinthians. The same cross and the gospel that proclaims that cross are life to those who believe, but condemnation to those who do not. ”For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1Cor 1:18). His image also captures some of the dynamics of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians. He is who he is, an apostle of Christ, but some people perceive him negatively, others positively.
The rhetorical question, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (v 16), asks, in effect, who can sort out the mystery caused by such an ambiguous sign as an aroma that can be read in more than one way, The answer is simultaneously, “No one,” and “God.” The question of sufficiency, adequacy, recurs in 2 Cor 3:5 and may recall the slightly different vocabulary of 2 Cor 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you.”
Paul invokes another image associated with processions of various sorts, the peddlers who would be selling food or trinkets to the crowd. His contrast here with those who peddle their teaching is in general a fairly familiar distinction between the hucksters who teach or philosophize for gain and himself and Timothy who are moved entirely by sincerity. There may also be an allusion to the question raised by the super apostles of why they are willing to take money for their apostleship, like true professionals, while Paul preaches without charge. What the opponents see as shame he finds as ground for his authenticity.
A Living Covenant (3:1–18)
All of 2 Corinthians 3 is based on a contrast between the old covenant given through Moses and the new covenant given through Paul and the other true apostles. The background to the whole section is Jeremiah 31:32–34, with its promise of a “new covenant,” written on the hearts of God’s people.
The chapter seems to follow abruptly from the complex imagery of the procession in the previous verses. Yet, like the imagery of the process, the next block, focusing on the theme of covenant, treats the issue of how it is that God is made known to humankind.
The chapter begins with a discussion of “letters of recommendation” (3:1) and moves quickly to a discussion of the “letter of the law” (v 7). It seems likely that Paul is referring to the letters of recommendation that itinerant teachers would have used to gain access to new audiences. Even today a congregation searching for a new pastor or a faculty searching for a new colleague will rely on letters of recommendation from trusted sources. It may well be that Paul’s opponents, the inspiration for chapters 10–13 of our letter, came with letters of recommendation to the Corinthian congregation, perhaps even letters from the indisputably authentic apostles in Jerusalem like Peter and John. Paul needed no such letters; and as some scholars have pointed out, since he founded the Corinthian church, Paul would have had no one to receive such letters.
Nonetheless what follows is the main point. Paul claims, as he does in other passages such as Gal 1:11–12), that his apostleship comes not from human beings but from God. But it is almost equally important to him that his apostleship is validated by his relationship to his congregations. He insists that he is their father, and like all fathers sees his children as evidence of his parenthood.
2 Corinthians 3:4–18 is one of those passages where Paul, like a good interpreter, discovers the implications of the Old Testament stories he recalls. And, as elsewhere, like an enthusiastic poet, he piles image on image to draw forth the implications of his contrast between the covenant formed through Moses and the covenant formed through Jesus.
Note that the contrast between Moses’ covenant and Jesus’ covenant is not between a bad covenant and a good one but between a good covenant and a better one. God has moved from glory to glory (v 7–11).
The distinction between the two covenants (the one on stone, the other on flesh; the one of condemnation, the other of mercy) becomes a contrast between those who receive the covenant. As told in Exodus 34, Moses had to put a veil over his face to protect himself from the glory (v 13). The Corinthian believers can read the covenant “unveiled.” Those who follow Moses without knowing Jesus still have a veil over their faces, because they do not see clearly that the covenant points to Jesus. Those who believe in Jesus behold the covenant in all its glory; because the secret of the covenant, now revealed, is in fact Jesus. The covenant unveiled points to him.
If this were Galatians we could be sure that Paul is associating his opponents with the old covenant and his own gospel with the new. Here we know so little of the claims of the super apostles that we may surmise that they cite Moses as the source of their claims. Whether Paul has any implicit reference to his opponents here, it is clear enough what he claims for himself: the covenant of glory, the covenant of life, promised by Jeremiah, is the covenant of Jesus Christ; that covenant leads to life; Paul is its apostle.
In the last verses of our chapter (vv 17–18), the claim that the Lord (usually Christ) is also the Spirit may seem somewhat unusual, although Paul affirms elsewhere that the resurrected Christ has become a “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45). We saw in looking at the benediction at the very end of our canonical letter that Paul acknowledges the reality of God, the Son and the Spirit without claiming (or even pondering?) any developed doctrine of the Trinity. Paul’s reference is primarily to the spirit that is at work in the community of believers, a spirit unleashed by Christ’s triumph over death.
Here we can suspect that the Lord is the Spirit because the covenant that comes in Jesus the Lord is the covenant of Spirit to be distinguished from the covenant of the letter. In any case we know that the new covenant provides the gift of freedom.
Harold W. Attridge, “Making Scents of Paul,” in John Fitzgerald, et al., eds., FS Abraham Malherbe (Leiden: Brill, 2003) 71–88.
Paul Brooks Duff, “Transformed ‘from glory to glory’: Paul’s Appeal to the Experience of Readers in 2 Cor 3:18,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127 (2008) 759–80.
James D. G. Dunn, “2 Corinthians III.17 – ‘The Lord is the Spirit,’”Journal of Theological Studies 21 (1970) 309–20.
Jane Heath, “Moses’ End and the Succession: Deuteronomy 31 and 2 Corinthians 3,” New Testament Studies 60 (2014) 37–60.
Matthew David Litwa, “Transformation Through a Mirror: Moses in 2 Cor 3:18,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament34 (2012) 286–97.
Questions for Discussion:
- Is the notion of a “covenant” between God and humankind meaningful in our time?
- How do you understand the “Spirit” of God in the lives of faithful Christians?
- Paul’s use of imagery in these chapters is graphic and evocative. Are there images that appeal to you today to help to describe your relationship with God and with the Christian community?
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V. Second Corinthians 4: Clay Vessels
In this chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul continues the meditative reflection, begun at 2:14, on his apostolic ministry and his relationship with the Corinthian community. The meditation continues to work through an evocative image, that of the Gospel message as light for the world (4:1–6). That image in turn evokes the image of the vessel that contains the light (4:7). The fragility of that vessel is the point of comparison to the fragility of Paul’s very human self. The remainder of the chapter (4:8–18) focuses on the tension that Paul feels between his own fleshly self and the power of God’s grace at work in his ministry.
The Light of the Gospel (4:1-6)
The “ministry” to which Paul refers in v 1 is that of the Spirit, which he had celebrated at the end of chapter 3. In that ministry and through that Spirit, Paul has found “mercy,” which he showed to the offending member of the congregation (2:5–11). As frequently in this meditation, Paul interweaves celebration of fundamental values with hints of apology, as he does in the next verse, claiming that he “renounces the hidden things of dishonesty” and “commends himself” to all “in the sight of God.” The wording of the next verse, “if our Gospel be hidden,” suggests that these verses are a reaction to a criticism once lodged against Paul by his opponents in Corinth, perhaps to the effect that his teaching was obscure and hard to fathom. No, Paul says, if some make that kind of claim, it is because they have been blinded by “the god of this world” (v 4). Precisely what Paul has in mind at this point is not immediately apparent. He was certainly familiar with the cosmological framework presupposed in much Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In such texts a demonic angelic figure, variously named Satan, or Beliar, or Melchiresha (“King of Evil”), presided over the realm of sinful humankind. Further evidence of this framework will appear in the explicit allusion to Beliar in 6:15. Such a framework also probably underlies Paul’s most famous description of the woeful condition of humankind under the reign of Sin (Romans 7).
Whatever its source, spiritual blindness is the condition that Paul says obtains when his critics did not understand his gospel message. Paul proceeds to characterize that message in a series of evocative images. Paul first labels his message as “light” that emanates from the “glory of Christ” (v 4). Paul here combines two images that were common in early Christian circles. Jesus himself used the image of “light” for his disciples (Matt 5:14–16) or for the insight within them (Matt 6:22–23; Luke 11:33–36). The author of the Fourth Gospel gave special prominence to the image, both in his prologue (John 1:4–5) and in the declaration by Jesus himself that he is the “light of the world” (John 8:12).
Christ’s “glory” (v 4) evokes the exalted status of Jesus that resulted from his resurrection and ascension, when he was “seated at the right hand of the majesty on high” (Heb 1:3; Ps 110:1). Like “light,” the theme of Christ’s “glory” plays a major role in the Gospel according to John (e.g., John 1:18; 2:11; 12:28; 17:1). Paul reinforces the character of the “light” that comes from Christ, and points to its ultimate source, when he goes on to describe Christ as the “image” (eikon) of God. The Epistle to the Colossians (Col 1:15) deploys just that term in its celebration of the cosmic centrality of Christ. Such language probably builds on Jewish reflection on the role of divine wisdom, often equated with Torah, as the image of the divine. Such reflection appears in texts such as Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 and in the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Paul does not explain what the images of “light,” glory,” or “image” mean. He assumes that members of his Corinthian community are familiar with this language.
Paul does, however, exploit the combined images to summarize what his apostolic ministry is about (vv 5–6). It is not about himself, as all the controversy about his pedigree and accomplishments (2 Cor 10–11) might suggest. Instead, it is about a divine light that has “shined in our hearts.” It is a light that has provided “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (v 11). Such knowledge motivates and enables the kind of reconciling move that Paul made in chapter 1.
The Vessel that Holds the Light (4:7–18)
The next stage of Paul’s reflection begins with a famous image of “clay jars” or “earthen vessels,” which hold the treasure of the gospel message of which he has been speaking. Since that treasure has been likened to “light,” Paul probably has in mind the kind of vessels that “carried” (v 10) light, small clay lamps, which could be held in the palm of one’s hand, which were a common feature of life around the Mediterranean in the first century. Such lamps sported various decorative patterns, but often there were images of gods or mythical beings carved into them. It may be that when Paul speaks of the life of Jesus being manifested in his flesh (v 11) he compares his body to such decorated lamps.
The basic feature of the “clay jar” for Paul is its fragility. Whatever other allusions to the image Paul makes in what follows, he highlights that fragility in order to continue putting himself in proper perspective. At the same time he focuses on the content of his gospel, the message of hope and consolation that the clay vessel contains. A series of parallel phrases illustrates the contrast. At this point Paul continues the play on various antitheses that runs through these chapters, initially contrasting interior and exterior. That contrast that will resolve into further antitheses between life and death, heaven and earth.
The contrasts pair off aspects of Paul’s situation, on which he reported in 1:8–11. He is “crushed,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” “struck down” (vv 8–9). Yet he is not overwhelmed by adversity, because whatever he experiences is making manifest the “life of Jesus” (v 10).
Paul often insisted on the closeness of his relationship to Christ, perhaps no more vividly than in Gal 2:19–20), “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” He also often spoke of being “in” Christ, enveloped in a powerful and transformative reality that defined who he was and gave his life shape and meaning (Rom 3:22; 6:11; 8:1, 10; 1 Cor 1:30; 4:15). Paul’s identification with Christ in this passage dramatically reflects his distinctive spirituality.
The introduction of the life of Christ manifest in Paul’s own suffering prompts a transition to the second major antithesis of this passage, between death and life. That antithesis was familiar to Paul not only from his knowledge of the story of Jesus, but also from the Christian ritual of baptism to which he alludes on several occasions (Gal 3:27–28; Rom 6:1–4; cf. also Col 2:11–12). As Paul explains in Romans, the key point of undergoing the baptismal ritual is to effect a participation in the death of Christ from which resurrection life emerges. The fundamental conviction that believers participate in Christ’s resurrected life undergirds Paul’s expression here, although, as he does time and again in these chapters, he relates the conviction to his relationship with the Corinthians. In his persecution he experiences a taste of death, in imitation of Christ, but from that emerges “life in you” (v 12).
Paul next signals how that “life” is transmitted, through the “faith” that he has taught the Corinthians that he and they share (v 13). In describing his teaching he alludes to scripture with the phrase “I believed, so I spoke” (a citation of Ps 116:10 from the Greek translation, the Septuagint). The Corinthians share Paul’s faith, which has as its center the belief in the resurrection of Jesus (v 14). That faith, which Paul had been at pains to defend and explain in 1 Corinthians 15, grounds the hope that Paul and his congregation will share reconciled fellowship and that God will “raise us also with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence” (v 14).
The belief in the resurrection of Jesus remains for Paul the ground of his eschatological hope. That hope, and the transformation for which it yearns, is a gift of God’s grace (v 15). Here Paul uses another term characteristic of his understanding of God’s salvific work in Christ. Gratitude for the gift and hope in what it promises, participation in the glory of God (vv 14, 17), grounds the positive attitude that Paul displays in the face of the weakness of his “clay jar.” It is the source of renewal “day by day,” not of the external covering, but of the inward self (v 16). A final web of antitheses drives home the point. The realm of suffering and sin is temporary, and visible; the object of hope is invisible but eternal (vv 16–17).
The hope that Paul expresses here, based on the conviction that he participates in the life of God’s Spirit made available by the resurrected Christ, will reappear in an even more striking form, without quite so many interlocking antitheses, in Romans 8 where Paul describes the way in which the Spirit groans with us as we wait for consummation of God’s promises. He concludes that passages with his famous paean to the love of God in Christ from which nothing whatsoever can separate us. Chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians is written in very much the same spirit. Paul’s reflection on the life in the spirit here is used not as part of an argument about how Paul’s gospel is compatible with Torah but as an appeal to the Corinthians to celebrate the shared hope in resurrection life that can enable their reconciliation.
Wes Avram, “2 Corinthians 4:1–18,” Interpretation 55 (2001) 70–73.
Douglas A. Campbell, “2 Corinthians 4:13: Evidence in Paul that Christ Believes,” Journal of Biblical Literature 128 (2009) 337–56.
George W. MacRae, “Anti-Dualist Polemic in 2 Cor 4:6?” in F. L. Cross, ed., Studia Evangelica IV/1: The New Testament Scriptures (TU 102; Berlin: De Gruyter, 1968) 420–31.
Questions for Discussion:
- Is it clear how Paul makes the connections between basic elements of his gospel, his own self-defense and his appeal for genuine renewed fellowship with the Corinthians?
- What role does the resurrection of Christ play in your religious beliefs and in those of your congregation?
- Are the hopes for “glory” that Paul expresses ones that in some way or other you share?
- Is the strategy of emphasizing shared beliefs to lay a foundation for reconciliation that Paul uses in this chapter effective?
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VI. Second Corinthians 5: Ministry of Reconciliation
The richly allusive argument of this portion of 2 Corinthians continues in this chapter. Paul continues to reflect on what his life and work has meant in the light of his relationship with the Corinthians. In the process, he offers an evocative image of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
Beyond the Present Weakness (5:1–10)
Some scholars have seen in 2 Cor. 5:1–10 an interruption of Paul’s discussion of apostleship. Perhaps, they think, these verses provide a clue to the mistaken theology of Paul’s opponents, and Paul takes these verses to help the Corinthians understand a true, Pauline understanding of the resurrection of believers from the dead—rather like 1 Corinthians 15.
The discussion is further complicated when interpreters try to make these verses entirely consistent with 1 Corinthians 15, whose discussion of the “spiritual body” does not seem to agree completely with Paul’s language in these verses, with its images of “tents” and being “clothed” and “further clothed.”
It seems more helpful to interpret these verses with two observations in mind. First, these verses make most sense as a continuation of 2 Cor 4:16-18 and indeed as a continuation of the whole discussion of true apostleship in chapter 4. The issue addressed continues to be the nature of apostleship and of Paul’s apostleship in particular. Second, Paul’s language here is highly metaphorical. Often interpreters are so eager to discern a consistent theology of resurrection in Paul that they strain to make passages from 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, Philippians, and 2 Corinthians all fit together as a kind of systematic whole. Yet the metaphors of “tents” and “clothing” do not easily blend with Paul’s other passages to produce a consistent view of the resurrection life.
In contemporary terms Paul is far more a practical theologian than a systematic one. He brings to play an array of metaphors, convictions, scriptural allusions and personal reflections in order to respond to some particular issue in the congregations he addresses. Instead of seeking to produce a systematic theology, it is helpful to sketch the general claim that Paul is making in this specific context and to see its implications for the Corinthian believers.
The issue, introduced at the end of chapter 4, is that people are making a contrast between Paul’s claim to apostolic authority and the obvious fact that not only is he not an entirely impressive person physically and rhetorically; he is probably not even as impressive as he used to be. His “outer nature is wasting away” (4:16). Paul responds by contrasting his weakening outer nature to his “inner nature” which grows from strength to strength. His inner nature grows from strength to strength because it is sustained by God and partakes of God’s eternal blessing.
In 5:1-10 Paul argues that God’s eternal blessing will be confirmed and completed beyond life, but that even in this life he participates richly in the mercies of God. Furthermore, the Corinthians as believers also live with a hope for the future, but in the meantime live with faith for the present. The familiar claim that Paul believes that the consummation of God’s reign is “already” but also “not yet” finds confirmation in these verses, where the exact timeline of eternity and the attributes of the resurrected person are hard to discern but where the confidence that the God who renews life now will restore life beyond death remains strong. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (v 7).
As in 1 Corinthians 15, I Thessalonians 5 and Romans 8, Paul frames his discussion of his personal fate and the personal destiny of believers in the larger context of his trust that God is the final judge of all our lives and all our history. “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ…” (v 10).
True apostleship; true faithfulness (5:11–21)
The great claims of this section can be summed up quickly; the implications of the claims will require some elaboration. Claim one: God’s great act in Jesus Christ was to reconcile the world to God’s self. Claim two: Paul’s mission as an apostle is to proclaim and enable that reconciliation. Claim three: Believers are to be reconciled to God and by implication to each other.
We can see not only the depth of these claims but their pertinence to the situation of the Corinthian believers. Paul’s great hope is that they might be reconciled to God, more specifically to Paul’s gospel, God’s proclamation from God and about God. When they are reconciled to Paul’s gospel they will also be reconciled to the apostle himself. Through God’s grace and Paul’s apostleship, these fractious Corinthians may at last be reconciled to one another.
One of our colleagues who taught preaching for years tells the story of a seminarian who preached at the church where he was an intern. The preacher held forth for twenty minutes on the importance of “reconciliation” without once trying to explain, or illustrate, or embody what the word “reconciliation” meant. In our context it is at least clear that God’s reconciliation, enacted in Jesus Christ, includes “not counting their trespasses against them.” In the immediate context of the Corinthian church this is the good news of forgiveness on God’s part of the trespasses, missteps, unfaithful action of the Corinthians. It is at least implicitly the suggestion that they not hold the memory of old trespasses against each other. And it is probably implicitly the suggestion that they not hold any old grudges against Paul himself.
Perhaps the clearest biblical story of reconciliation is the familiar parable of the prodigal son, or of the two brothers, or of the merciful father (Luke 15:11–32), when the father runs down the road to greet the wandering son, embraces him, and throws him a feast that is a moment of reconciliation. One distinguished German theologian says that the claim that God in Christ was reconciling the world to Gods-self is the claim that the moment of the father running down the road to welcome sinners is a metaphor for God’s running out to greet us in Jesus Christ. While the older son stays in the field, outside the party, the father goes out again (Is this going out also Christ-like?) and urges the older son to be reconciled to his brother and by implication to the forgiving Father, too.
If the picture of reconciliation sketched in the parable of the Prodigal Son is the heart of Paul’s pastoral claim in this second half of 2 Corinthians 5, we may understand that claim a little better by noting a few features of the passage.
The next verses (11–15) remind us that this whole remarkable restatement of the gospel comes as Paul continues to defend his apostleship. His opponents boast of outward accomplishments; he lives out the inward gospel. As the Corinthians are his letter of recommendation, so his boasting is not for his own sake, but so that they may boast in their apostle and through him boast in the Lord. His apostleship and their faithfulness are all enabled by the love of God. It is that love (not self-love, not ambition) that propels the apostle. It is that love that can and should drive and motivate the Corinthians. Christ’s death becomes the grounding of the possibility and even the promise that believers may “die” to their old selves and find new life in Christ.
The next section (vv 16–21) is so packed with images of that new life that we will comment briefly on each verse.
In v 16 Paul continues to draw on the distinction between outer and inner truth—the human point of view and the Godly point of view. When he says that he once regarded Christ from a human point of view, this does not mean that he participated in some first century version of the Jesus seminar trying to discover who the “historical” Jesus really was. He means that in his life before his remarkable experience of conversion and call he thought that Jesus was a crucified pretender: entirely foolish and weak. Now he knows that what he sees in Christ is the foolishness and weakness which is also the wisdom and power of God.
In v 17 the Revised Standard Version translated the phrase: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.” The New Revised Standard more helpfully says: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” The Greek actually lacks an explicit verb, so the rhetoric is even more striking: “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!” The succeeding contrast between the old and the new suggests that the claim that the whole world has changed for believers is a better translation of our text.
In v 18 Paul moves to his claim that all this newness in Jesus Christ is the work of God, and that he, Paul, participates in the new creation—living it and declaring it.
In vv19–20, the RSV reads “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” the NRSV reads “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Either is a fair translation of the Greek. The NRSV seems more suited to the context, which is not primarily a discussion of incarnation but a discussion of the work God has done and continues to do in Jesus Christ.
The talk of “ministry of reconciliation” and “ambassador for Christ” reminds the Corinthians that like a true ambassador or a true minister, Paul is sent with a mission. The words he speaks are not his own; the message he declared has been entrusted to him. Of course, just behind these words is the reminder of the Corinthian doubts about Paul’s qualifications for apostleship. But the job of the ambassador is not to be strikingly presentable but to present a strikingly true message.
One familiar short hand for Paul’s teaching is that he combines the “already” with the “not yet.” Another is that when it comes to instructing his churches he moves from the indicative to the imperative. So powerfully stated here is the claim that God has reconciled the Corinthians that it becomes the imperative: “Be reconciled.” If you are the younger brother, come home. If you are the older brother, come in.
In v 21 “atonement” is a term like “reconciliation” — easy enough to use but hard to grasp. Atonement encompasses restored relationship between God and humankind, understood in Luke’s Gospel as forgiveness of sin and in Paul’s writings as the gift of God’s righteousness for those who believe.
Paul does not have a “doctrine” of the atonement. He presents a remarkable array of terms, pictures, metaphors and allusions to suggest the richness of his claim. This verse is one of the richest and in some ways one of the most puzzling. At least the claim is this, what God did in Jesus Christ God do for those who have faith. Because believers participate in Christ they participate in a remarkable interchange. He takes on their sin; they take on his righteousness. Of course that is a very provocative claim. Paul thinks it is also a saving one.
Reimund Beiringer, “Reconciliation to God in Light of 2 Corinthians 5:14–21,” in Reconciliation in Interfaith Perspective: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Voices (Leuven: Peeters, 2011) 39–58.
Hulitt Gloer, “Ambassadors of Reconciliation: Paul’s Genius in Applying the Gospel in a Multi-cultural World,” Review and Expositor 104 (2007) 589–601.
Murray J. Harris, “Paul’s View of Death in 2 Corinthians 5:1–10,” in R. N. Longenecker and M. C. Tenney, eds.,New Dimensions in New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) 317–28.
N. T. Wright, “On Becoming the Righteousness of God: 2 Corinthians 5.21,” Pauline Theology II (ed. David M. Hay; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 200-08, reprinted in N. T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012) 68–76.
Questions for Discussion:
- How do you react to the images that Paul uses for the Christian life in this chapter? Are they useful for framing the life and work of Christians today?
- What language do you find appropriate to discuss your sense of Christian mission?
- What role does an effort to find reconciliation, personally, or on a larger social stage, play in your understanding of your Christian faith?
Yale Bible Study
VII. Second Corinthians 6-7: Interpolation
Chapters 6 and 7 bring to a close the meditation on Paul’s ministry and his relationship with the Corinthians and the return to the practical considerations of Paul’s travel plans, last reported at 2:13. They also contain, as already noted, a section that many scholars suspect is an intrusion or interpolation into the text. The probable interpolation took place when the segments of various letters that make up 2 Corinthians were brought together, most likely after Paul’s death.
The Final Exhortation to the Corinthians (6:1–13, 7:2–4)
The meditation on Paul’s ministry ended in 5:19–21 with a climactic proclamation about the heart of the Gospel and Paul’s role in it. In Christ God is reconciling the world to Godself and Paul is an “ambassador” (5:20) of that message. Reconciliation is in the air for all the reasons and with all the implications that Paul had spelled out in the previous chapters. What remains is to make a final appeal to the Corinthians to accept the olive branch and in the process to accept Paul himself. As he will indicate, he has good grounds for thinking this appeal will be received, but it does not hurt to have Paul’s own personal statement about his hopes.
The appeal for reconciliation is made directly in 6:11–13 and 7:2–4. Before making that direct appeal, Paul prepares the way with an exhortation not to “accept the grace of God in vain” (6:1). Scripture (Isaiah 49:8) comes to Paul’s aid in declaring that the moment is now (v 2). The scriptural text speaks of the day of salvation; but Paul is focused not on some eschatological event, but on the restoration of his relationship with the Corinthians that he hopes will take place now. In this climactic moment Paul deftly defines once again his own ministry, at the same time calling the Corinthians to share in the values and attitudes that Paul claims as his own (vv 3–8). These verses recall by now familiar themes, that Paul is beset with adversity, but not devoid of hope. Death and life, sorrow and joy, poverty and wealth coincide in paradoxical ways in his life (vv 9–10), because that life reflects the paradox of the cross, where suffering and glorious reconciliation combine. Living by that paradox produces the virtues that Paul claims for himself and hopes for in the Corinthians, “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love” (v 6).
In the heart of his appeal (vv 11–13), Paul describes his own condition in graphic terms. Paul’s image is quite graphic and strikingly concrete: “We have spoken frankly to you; our heart is wide open to you” (v 11). Yet Paul’s message is clear. In humble love he begs for the Corinthians’ forgiveness. Though he knows the Corinthians have been upset by and reserved toward him, he asks them to open their hearts to him as he has to them (v 13). He asks them to receive him and denies having caused injury (7:2). He does not want to offend; he knows that they love one another (7:3).
The expression that concludes his appeal strikes a more positive note and prepares the way for the good news of the final passage about Paul’s travel plans. Paul has, he says, great confidence in and comfort from the Corinthians (7:4).
The Interpolation: A Severe Warning (6:14–7:1)
The tone abruptly and unexpectedly changes with a harsh admonition not to be “mismatched with unbelievers” (6:14). Reinforcing the admonition is a series of antitheses, between justice and injustice, light and darkness, Christ and Beliar (a name for Satan found in the Dead Sea Scrolls), believer and unbeliever.
The concern expressed here has not been part of Paul’s discourse about his ministry or his relationship with the Corinthians in the general context of 2 Corinthians. It does recall concerns expressed in some of his earlier advice to the community, such as his call to “clean out the old yeast” (1 Cor 5:7), or, more concretely, not to “keep company with sexually immoral persons” (1 Cor 5:9–11). An image that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 6:19 to frame his concern about the moral purity of the community resurfaces here. As the last of the series of antitheses, Paul contrasts the “Temple of God” with “idols” (2 Cor 6:16). As in 1 Corinthians the implication is that the community, like the Temple, is a space to be kept holy by keeping it free of “unbelievers.”
In 1 Cor 6:9 Paul noted that the advice not to keep company with certain types of people was something that he gave in his first, lost letter to Corinth (Letter A). The similarity in theme of this portion of 2 Corinthians to what was apparently in Letter A is the basis for thinking that this paragraph belongs to that letter.
The conclusion of the “fragment” (7:1) appeals to another term, “holiness” that also looms large in Paul’s earlier discourse with the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:30; 6:11; 7:14). It too belongs to the same general metaphorical realm of the Temple and its holiness with which he framed his argument in 1 Corinthians.
Why the fragment came to be placed here is worth pondering. Its concern with preserving the character and mission of the community certainly strikes a different note from the general context and its plea for reconciliation. Perhaps an editor was concerned that too much emphasis on the effort to effect reconciliation endangered the rigor of the community’s moral stance.
Travel Plans (7:5–16)
Earlier in the letter Paul described the situation from which he was writing. He planned a visit to pass through Macedonia and visit Corinth (1:16). He expected to meet his emissary to the Corinthians, Titus, in Troas, in northwestern Asia Minor. The meeting did not happen and so Paul went on to Macedonia (2:13). He picks up the story here, reporting that he suffered some unnamed tribulation in Macedonia (v 5), but also met Titus (v 6). What Titus delivered was good news of consolation. The Corinthians had not turned their backs on Paul, but were open to reconciliation.
Throughout the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians Paul has interwoven words of reflection, appeals to the Corinthians, and apologetic remarks about his own work as an apostle. The same combination marks this final section. As soon as he tells the Corinthians that he has heard good news from Titus, he launches into another apology for the harsh letter that he had previously sent (Letter C), part of which we have suggested survives in 2 Cor 10–13. Paul acknowledges the pain he caused and refuses to repent for it (v 8), for it had a positive outcome. The sorrow caused by the letter apparently caused a change of attitude, or repentance, on the part of the Corinthians (v 9).
Paul works several changes on the theme of positive sorrow. Using his typical antithetical style, he contrasts the sorrow that is somehow “godly” with mere earthly sorrow. One sorrow results in penance and salvation, the other in death (v 10). He then offers a catalogue of the effects that he believes his letter and the godly fear it produced had on the Corinthians: “earnestness, eagerness to clear yourselves, indignation, alarm, longing, zeal” and even “punishment.” Some of these effects, though with a positive result, do not seem particularly pleasant! In any case, the Corinthians proved to be “guiltless” (v 11); the ultimate effect of their response was positive for Paul.
A final note of apology marginalizes the effect of the focus of Paul’s tearful letter on the individual who caused him the most grief and whom Paul had forgiven earlier in the letter (2 Cor 2:5–11). The issue was, says Paul, larger than their personal conflict (v 12).
All of the nastiness is now behind us, says Paul in conclusion. Titus, the emissary, is joyful and so is Paul (v 13–16).
Gordon D. Fee, “II Corinthians vi.14–vii.1 and Food Offered to Idols,” New Testament Studies 32 (1977) 140-61.
James M. Scott, “The use of Scripture in 2 Corinthians 6.16c-18 and Paul’s Restoration Theology,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament56 (1994) 73-99
Questions for Discussion:
- If you have suffered a breach or falling out with friends or neighbors, what strategies ahve you used to try to repair the relationship? How do they compare with Paul’s outreach to the Corinthians in these chapters?
- The language of Paul’s severe warning (6:14-7:1) focuses on the preservation of the community and its “holiness.” What do you make the concern expressed by this passage? Does the effort to achieve reconciliation in fact threaten core values, either in personal or more general social relations?
- Is the language of paradox useful for a 21st century audience? If so, how would you frame the paradox of the gospel?
Yale Bible Study
VIII. Second Corinthians 8-9: Fundraising
Chapters 8 and 9 of our letter may represent one somewhat oddly conjoined letter with two somewhat different approaches to the question of the offering for Jerusalem, or they may represent two different letters—perhaps one from fairly early in Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church and one from a later occasion.
In any case both chapters present a plea to the Corinthians to participate in the offering for the poor of Jerusalem, as Paul had promised the leaders of the Jerusalem church in the visit recorded in Galatians 2:10 and continued in 1 Corinthians 16:1–4 and Romans 15:23–29.
While the two approaches are somewhat different one from another, they do not contradict each other in their stated purpose, and from that day until this fund raising is an activity in which even the most fastidious church leader has a hard time practicing perfect consistency. It is, after all, the result that counts.
Competitive Philanthropy (8:1–15)
Paul may be taking his role as a parent to the Corinthians in a less winsome direction here. He is like the father reminding Jack how generous, faithful and altogether responsible Susie has been. Or he is like the fund raising chair for Kiwanis with bar graphs showing which team of Kiwanians has done most to support the many charitable activities of that service organization.
There are several warm and winning asides in this appeal, but the basic strategy is clear, enough. The Macedonians have given generously; you Achaians had better come through. “I do not say this as a command but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others” (v 8).
In v 9 Paul grounds the appeal for generosity in a narrative deeper and stronger than that of the generous Macedonian churches. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” is a familiar Pauline phrase (e.g., Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal 6:18), and the use of the first person plural may suggest that Paul borrows it from a liturgical context where it would also be familiar to the Corinthians.
Narrowly construed, the Greek word for “grace,” “charis,” can refer to a generous gift, so that Paul is comparing the generosity of Jesus to the generosity of the Macedonians and the generosity he hopes to encourage in the Corinthians.
More broadly, however, “grace” is a short hand for the whole drama of redemption in Jesus Christ that Paul celebrated in his preaching in Corinth (for instance 1 Cor 1:18-25). The description of that redemptive drama in this verse is clearly shaped by the context of the appeal for the offering, so it may be too much to press the verse for an understanding of Paul’s Christology. Nonetheless, along with Philippians 2:6-11, our phrase suggests that Paul has some doctrine of Jesus’ pre-existence, that condition in which he was rich. Perhaps like the passage in Philippians this verse also comes from a hymn or prayer used in liturgy; but the fact that Paul uses it suggests a kind of tacit assumption that when God sent the Son, God sent him from somewhere.
In any case the verse still frequently used before the morning offering in worship today raises the stakes on the question of Corinthian generosity. Now they are called not only to emulate the Macedonians but to imitate Christ.
Before he gets to logistical details about the collection of the offering Paul makes two further hortatory points. In 8:11-12 Paul acknowledges that the Corinthians have shown good intentions toward the offering. While he does not come right out and say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, he is certainly saying that the road to faithfulness requires action as well as intent. What he gives with one hand (you certainly wish to do the right thing) he takes away with the other (but you have yet to live up to your wishes, intentions, promises).
In 8:13-15 Paul reflects on the notion of equality. While he addresses the subject succinctly, it is clear that his idea of Christian fellowship includes a generous willingness to share abundance with those who have less. His vision is one of reciprocity. Now it is the Jerusalem church that needs help from the Corinthians. One day it may be the Corinthians who need help from Jerusalem. Christian fellowship depends on mutual generosity and includes mutual obligation. Paul quotes from the Septuagint version of Exodus 16:18, the time in the wilderness when God gave the people of Israel their instructions for sharing (and not hoarding) the gift of manna.
Organizing for the Offering (8:16–9:5)
Paul commends Titus and two other brothers to the Corinthians as he is about to send them to collect the offering. He does this in part because he can rely on the reciprocal affection of Titus and the Corinthians. Titus is someone they can entirely trust, and now on Paul’s recommendation they can trust the other brothers, too. (We have no idea why these two are not named.)
In part the decision to send Timothy and the other emissaries may be a protection against the accusation elsewhere in this letter that Paul might want to take financial advantage of the Corinthians (2 Cor 11:20), even though he had been scrupulous about not taking support from the Corinthians while with them (2 Cor 11:9). In part this becomes very much like one of those letters of recommendation which Paul himself does not need (2 Cor 3:1) but which here is clearly eager enough to provide.
The section on logistics ends with yet another appeal, now not just to competition with the Macedonians, i.e., Paul’s converts in Thessalonica and Philippi, but to fear of being shamed before them. Paul has told the Macedonians how enthusiastically the Corinthians have intended to give to the offering. How he hopes that when Titus and Macedonian representatives stop off in Corinth, the Corinthians will live up to their promises. They will neglect the obligation of generosity to their shame—and to Paul’s.
Closing homiletical reflection on the offering (9:6–15)
In v 6 Paul offers a kind of proverbial saying that reminds us of Jewish wisdom literature (for instance Proverbs 11:24–25). In the larger context of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 and the still larger context of Paul’s writings, it is clear that this is not some early version of the “prosperity gospel,” where those who give generously of their financial resources will see their larders full and their portfolios flourishing. We still live under the mark of the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (8:9), and what abounds for those who live out their generous intensions is the abundance of God’s grace. The result of this grace will not be material witness but faithful “good work” for the sake of the Gospel.
Paul finds two texts to reinforce his claim for generosity. The first is an allusion in v 7 to Proverbs 22:9 in the Greek translation, the Septuagint, which includes the assurance about God’s love for the cheerful giver. The second is the full citation of Psalm 112:9 in v 9. Both quotations remind the Corinthians that when they help those in need they participate in God’s own generosity, a “righteousness” that “endures forever.”
With this move to a kind of theocentric warrant for the offering, Paul puts the theological grounding for generosity at the center of his discourse. Not only does the Corinthian generosity serve God, most importantly the Corinthian generosity will glorify God. The gift itself glorifies God, and when the saints in Jerusalem receive the gift they will glorify God (and by implication the openhanded Corinthians). Furthermore, the generosity of the churches is again reciprocal. The Corinthians will give generously to the Jerusalem community; those who live in Jerusalem will pray generously for the Corinthians.
In v 15 the word for “gift” is the same Greek word as the word translated “grace” in v 14. Whether or not there is a play on words here, there is at least a kind of congruity in the claims of the apostle. God is generous; be generous. Your generosity will redound to your blessing, and to God’s glory.
God does God’s work. Gentiles send money; Jews lift up prayers. The churches are also the Church; gift encourages gift, and grace begets grace.
James R. Harrison, “The Brothers as the ‘Glory of Christ’ (2 Cor 8:23): Paul’s doxa Terminology in its Ancient Benefaction Context,” Novum Testamentum 52 (2010) 156–88.
Stephen Joubert, “Religious Reciprocity in 2 Corinthians 9:6–15: Generosity and Gratitude as Legitimate Responses to the χάρις τοῦ Θεοῦ,” Neotestamentica 33 (1999) 79–90.
Jan Lambrecht, “Paul’s Boasting about the Corinthians: A Study of 2 Cor 8:24–9:5,” Novum Testamentum 40 (1998) 352–68.
Questions for Discussion:
- Is “grace” an important part of your vocabulary for talking about your experience of Christian faith? If so, how do you understand it?
- Raising funds for the work of the church or other worthwhile charities can be a challenging but rewarding enterprise. If you have done so, what strategies have you found to be effective? Do they resemble the moves that Paul makes?
- Which of the appeals that Paul makes in these two chapters strikes you as the most effective in eliciting support?