Jun 15, 2023

3 Things You Should Know about 2 Corinthians

4 Min Read

Like 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians covers a myriad of issues in addressing a church that is beset by immorality, false teachers, sectarianism, and theological confusion. In this letter, the Apostle Paul’s care and concern for the Corinthian church are palpable. Let’s consider three important characteristics of the letter that help us understand and apply its overall message.

1. Second Corinthians represents the culmination of Paul’s intense dealings with the church at Corinth.

The founding of the church in Corinth (around AD 52) took place during Paul’s second missionary journey (see Acts 18:1–11). Luke tells us that Paul stayed in Corinth for more than eighteen months. It seems that soon after Paul left Corinth for Antioch, significant problems arose in the new congregation. Paul found out about these problems while in Ephesus on his third missionary journey (see Acts 19). In all likelihood, 2 Corinthians is the fourth letter that Paul had written to the church within a span of roughly two years:

  • Letter 1: The “previous” (nonextant) letter (see 1 Cor. 5:9)
  • Letter 2: 1 Corinthians
  • Letter 3: The “severe” (nonextant) letter after the “painful” visit (see 2 Cor. 2:3–4; 7:8–12)
  • Letter 4: 2 Corinthians

Paul sent the “severe” letter through Titus, who returned to Paul with a joyful report of the church’s repentance and loyalty to the Apostle and the Apostolic teaching. Thus, 2 Corinthians is a “happy” (though not perfect) culmination of a complex relationship between the Apostle and the Corinthian believers. Paul’s joy at the report from Titus regarding the Corinthians’ welfare (see 2 Cor. 7:6–7) demonstrates what the Apostle valued in the life of the church. These include the peace, purity, and unity of the church (including church discipline), as well as the Christian’s ethical conduct, humility, and generous stewardship. If the Apostle was so anxious that this church possess and manifest these attributes, we ought to work toward these in our churches and our Christian lives as well.

2. Second Corinthians provides a strong defense of Paul’s Apostolic ministry.

Paul goes to great lengths to demonstrate, contra the false “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5), that his Apostleship is genuine because he has been commissioned and entrusted by the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ to speak in His name (see 2 Cor. 5:18; 13:3). This he does by giving extended treatment to the topics of weakness and suffering (2 Cor. 11:29–30; 2 Cor. 12:1–10; 2 Cor. 13:4), the new covenant (2 Cor. 3), and Christian service (2 Cor. 5–6), showing that his Apostolic ministry is consistent with the ministry and character of the Lord Jesus and is characterized by what the world sees as deficiency but which God sees as faithfulness (more on this below). Paul is adamant to defend his Apostleship because he is adamant to defend the gospel. If his gospel isn’t true, then the Corinthians are still in their sins and without hope. Therefore, his defensiveness is more about his love for his readers than his concern for his own image. It’s worth noting that Paul’s defense of his Apostolic credentials makes 2 Corinthians a very personal, autobiographical letter. We perhaps learn more about Paul and about the church to which he’s writing than any other New Testament letter. Paul isn’t the stoic curmudgeon that many have made him out to be. He’s sensitive yet magnanimous, concerned yet confident, gentle yet firm. Paul loves the church, and he loves the gospel. He’s unwilling to permit false teachers to come in and supplant his Apostolic work. He loves these new Christians too much to let wolves come in and devour them.

3. Second Corinthians is a sort of model for Christian ministry.

Throughout its history, the church has been tempted to adopt worldly characteristics of success as the criteria for church leadership. In our day, we often assume that Christian leaders ought to model a successful CEO or a charismatic television personality. The Corinthians assumed that the Christian leader would look like the exemplary Greek rhetorician. The false apostles who had crept into the Corinthian church were challenging Paul’s claim to Apostleship, pointing to his suffering, his weakness, and his want of oratory elegance. Then and now, power and charisma can become the de facto marks of a blessed minister of the gospel. In response to these false accusations, Paul indeed holds forth his credentials, but not the ones we might expect. He commends himself (and the other Apostles):

by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Cor. 6:3–10)

This narrative questions our implicit paragon of successful ministry. Do we regard people according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16)? Second Corinthians teaches us that genuine Christian ministry is characterized by “simplicity and godly sincerity” (2 Cor. 1:12), that church officers aren’t self-sufficient (2 Cor. 3:5), and that ministry is more dying to self than it is self-promotion (2 Cor. 4:11–12). Paul elected not to accept compensation from the Corinthians, not wanting to introduce a stumbling block (2 Cor. 11:7–9). He didn’t carry letters of recommendation with him (2 Cor. 3:1–3). He refused to practice cunning (2 Cor. 4:2) or to tickle ears (2 Cor. 2:17) because it wasn’t his ministry or his message—it is God’s. The same is true of all Christian servants in the new covenant. Ministry in the church is to be modeled after the head of the church, He who “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4).

This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.