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Introduction to Paul’s 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians

Table of Contents

General Info

Like the other Pauline epistles, the title of the book comes from the name of the recipients, in this case, the church at Corinth.  The Corinthian church produced more heartache and problems for Paul than perhaps any of the other churches that he founded.  While on his second and third missionary journeys, Paul wrote four letters to the church (see the “Historical Background” section below for more info on each of the letters).  The last letter became canonized as 2nd Corinthians.

Like the first epistle, the second contains many very practical applications for all churches today, particularly in our modern age in which many churches are attempting to blend in with our pagan culture rather than transforming it.  Some the the issues discussed in the first epistle had improved somewhat, but many were no resurfacing.  Not only that, but Paul now had the added problem of false prophets infiltrating the church and attempting to promote themselves by slandering Paul’s credentials as an apostle, even stooping to attacking his personal character as well as his God-given credentials. 

Regarding the book’s canonization, there were no issues with this book or any other of the Pauline epistles.  They were gathered together early in the second century AD, and were included in the lists of “accepted” books by many of the second and third century AD church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexander, Tertullian, and more before being “officially” canonized at the Council of Carthage in AD 397.

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Brief Survey

Paul opens the letter by praising “the God of all comfort” for delivering him from troubles.  He then writes of his travel plans and explains the delay in visiting the church.  In chapter 2, he gives instructions on how to restore a repentant believer, gives a brief account of his recent work of spreading the gospel, and contrasts himself from the false teachers.  In chapter 3, he notes the superiority of the gospel over the Mosaic law due to the power of the Holy Spirit.  In chapter 4-6, he speaks of his apostolic ministry, noting the suffering but also the eternal rewards.  He also spoke of the necessity of regeneration and of reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ, culminating with a brief summary of the gospel (5:21).

In chapter 7- 9, Paul meets expresses his joy and gratitude over the church’s repentance, and commends them for their generous spirit in giving to the needy in Jerusalem.  In chapters 10-12, he again speaks of his apostolic ministry and of his sufferings.  He also reveals a thorn in his flesh and boasts about his weaknesses that keeps him humble, giving several personal details of his life that are found nowhere else in Scripture.

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Key Verses

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (1:3-4)

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.  For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. (2:14)

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (3:17-18)

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (4:4-6)

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.”  Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. (4:13-14)

For we live by faith, not by sight.  We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (5:7-10)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (5:17-21)

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.  Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (9:6-8)

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.  The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.  On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (10:3-6)

For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.  It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness.  Their end will be what their actions deserve. (11:13-15)

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (12:7-10)

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.  Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?  And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test...  May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (13:5-6, 14)

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Author, Date and Recipients

Like the other letters of the Apostle Paul, he identifies himself as the author at the beginning of the book, and his authorship has not been seriously challenged.  However, some critics have challenged the unity of the letter.  The typical contention is due to the changing tone between chapters 1-9 that carries mostly a positive tone, and chapters 10-13 which is more severe and negative.  The most popular theory amongst the minority that supports this disconnection is that chapters 10-13 may have been a separate letter, now lost, that was later added to the book.  Perhaps the best explanation for the changing in tone is that Paul is addressing the majority who repented in the first section, and the minority who were still in rebellion in the latter.  In further support of the letter’s unity, we can note that the first section contained indications that some problems remained with some members of the church.  In addition, there has never been the slightest indication in the early historical writings of the church or any known manuscripts that would support the two-letter theory.  Historically, it has always been accepted, at least until modern times, as one unified letter.

Like the first epistle, the original recipients were the members of the church in Corinth.   This second epistle was likely written approximately two years after the first.

See the Author of 1st Corinthians, A Brief Bio of the Apostle Paul and the Historical Background of Acts for additional info on his life and ministry.

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Historical Background

See the Historical Background of 1st Corinthians for details of the City of Corinth and of the church founding.  Here, we’ll attempt to give a brief overall summery of Paul’s visits and letters in their historical context.

The contents of the two existing letters to the church are best understood in the context of the whole.  Paul actually made three visits to Corinth and wrote four letters to the church.  Paul’s first visit to the city lasted about 18 months (50-52 AD) while on his second missionary journey.  During this visit, he formed the Corinthian Church (Ac 18:1-18).  While Paul was spending 18 months in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, he received at least two letters reporting certain problems that had arisen in the church at Corinth.  He responded to the reports with two letters of his own.  The first, referred to in 1Corinthians 5:9-11, is no longer in existence.  The second letter however, became  First Corinthians.  Paul’s initial plan was to visit them after first spending some time in Macedonia (1Cor 16:5-11), however he received word that the problems were intensifying so he altered his travel plans to visit them immediately (2Chr 1:15-16).

This visit however, as chronicled in Second Corinthians, did not go as planned.  Paul was subject to many attacks from the false teachers that had obtained a stronghold in the church.  To make matters worse, he received little support from the church members.  Thus, being very discouraged, he once again changed his plans and headed for Ephesus.  After reaching Ephesus, he wrote a harsh letter to the Corinthian church, a letter delivered by Titus (mentioned in 2Cor 7:8-12 but no longer in existence).  By the time Paul caught up with Titus in Macedonia, his sorrow turned to joy when he learned that the church members at Corinth had repented (2Cor 7:12).  Paul then wrote his fourth letter to the church in response to the good news.  This final letter would become canonized as Second Corinthians.  The Corinthian Church’s participation in the offering for Jerusalem (Rm 15:26) indicates that Paul’s third visit to that church was successful.  Shortly after writing 2 Corinthians, Paul traveled to Corinth and spent three months there before finishing his journey.

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See the Timeline for the Epistles of Paul for additional context.

30 or 33 (1) Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, Pentecost
~ 46-48 Paul’s first missionary journey
~ 49-52 Paul’s second missionary journey
~ 51-52 Paul establishes the Church at Corinth during a 1-2 year stay in the city
~ 53-57 Paul’s third missionary journey
~ 54-56 Paul writes 1st Corinthians from Ephesus
~ 56-57 Paul writes his second epistle to the Corinthian Church from Macedonia
~59-60 Paul’s voyage to Rome
~ 60-62 Paul imprisoned in Rome
~62-65 Paul released and goes on fourth missionary journey to Spain (according to tradition)
~ 64-67 Paul imprisoned and martyred in Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

This is one of Paul’s most personal letters, along with the letter to the Philippian church.  As we noted in our Intro to 1st Corinthians, if the church at Philippi was Paul’s pride and joy, the Corinthian church was Paul’s problem child.  Yet, the epistle also contains a number of  important theological themes.  It portrays God the Father as the all-powerful Creator (4:6), who raised Jesus from the dead (4:14), and who will also raise all believers to eternal life.  Paul also confirms Jesus Christ as the One who suffered (1:5), fulfilled God’s promises (1:20), who is the very image of God and displays His glory (4:5-6).  The apostle  also portrays the Holy Spirit as God (3:17-18) and the deposit guaranteeing the believers’ salvation (1:21-22; 5:5).  Satan is described as the “god of this age” (4:4), a deceiver and counterfeit angel of life (11:14-15).  Eschatological (end times) themes include both the believer’s glorification and his judgment at the judgment seat of Christ (5:1-10).

Another prominent theme is the suffering of the believer.  Paul’s ministry serves as a great example of suffering that honors and points people to Christ, and in this letter, he gives us the fullest description of his sufferings (11:16-33).  We’ve already mentioned the concise summary of the gospel found in chapter 5:14-21, but Paul also notes the necessity of repentance by the believer (7:8-10).  The glorious truth of God’s sovereignty in salvation is the theme of 5:14–21, while 7:9, 10 sets forth man’s response to God’s offer of salvation, that is genuine repentance.  Second Corinthians also presents the clearest, most concise summary of how sinners are reconciled to God, through the substitutionary atonement of Christ, to be found anywhere in Scripture (5:21), and defines the mission of the church to proclaim reconciliation (5:18–20).  Finally, Paul gives us one of the fullest descriptions of the New Covenant attributes, with the exception of that in the Book of Hebrews (3:6–18).

The primary purposes of the epistle is Paul expressing his joy and appreciation for the positive response of the church to his previous letters, to follow-up on his appeal to the church regarding the collection for the Jerusalem saints, and to defend his apostolic authority against the false teachers that had infiltrated the church.

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 Interpretation Hints and Challenges

We’ve already mentioned Paul’s divinely succulent summary of the gospel, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (5:21).  Some have questioned however, whether the statement that Jesus  was “made to be sin” conflicts with Hebrews 4:15 that proclaims that we have one [Jesus] who has been tempted in every way,  just as we are — yet he did not sin.  This is easily explained.  On the cross, Jesus was made “to be sin for us”.  The means that he was our substitute who, although He never sinned, He was judicially charged with our offenses.  To illustrate, suppose a person is charged with a crime and the judge levies a very high fine that the defendant could never repay.  Fortunately, an extremely rich person takes pity on the defendant and pays his or her fine.  The defendant is then released since his or her debt is now paid-in-full.  This is exactly what Jesus did for each believer.  We have all sinned and the penalty of sin is death (Rm 3:23,6:23).  Since it takes a sinless person to pay the debt for our spiritual sins, only the death of Jesus was sufficient to atone for our sins (Heb 9:11-28).  On the cross, Jesus’ last word before He died was the Greek word tetelestai, meaning “It is finished”.  This same word, also meaning “paid in full” was stamped on debt contracts when fully paid.  To sum up, Jesus never committed an actual sin, but was judicially and substitutionally charged, and although sinless, paid the price for our sins.

Although of less theological significance, one of the most debated phrases in the bible is found in chapter 12, verse 7, which reads in part, Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Over the centuries, many scholars have debated the nature of this “thorn in the flesh”.  See our separate article, What was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh? for a discussion of this topic.

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The book could be divided into two sections.  The first would consist of chapters 1-9 that is primarily addressed to the repentant members and carries a mostly a positive tone.  The second would consist of chapters 10-13 that is primarily address to the rebellious members and is more severe and negative.  This is not a strict division in that, the first section contains some warnings and the second contains some exhortations.

1:1 - 1:11 Introduction
1:12 - 2:13 Paul’s Ministry and Travel Plans
2:14 - 7:16 The Spiritual Nature, Basis, and Themes of Paul’s Apostolic Ministry
8:1 - 9:15 The Collection for the Jerusalem Church
10:1 - 12:13 Paul’s Defense of his Apostolic Authority
12:14 - 13:14 Paul’s final Defense and Warning to the Rebellious Members; Benediction

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