In response, Paul writes a stern letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians in our Bibles) calling for repentance and reformation. Unfortunately, many in the church rejected his words and continued to live as if Paul had no authority in their lives. This open rebellion necessitated a face–to–face “chat” with the Corinthians, which Paul calls the painful visit (2 Cor 2:1). He then leaves and sends another severe letter (now lost) written with anguish and tears in hopes of bringing repentance and reconciliation. Finally, most, but not all, of the Corinthians, realized their sin and pride and apologized to Paul. It’s at this point in their tumultuous history that Paul wrote the letter of 2 Corinthians to assure the church of his love, affection, and commitment to them. As I said, they had a history.
Given that history, it’s no wonder that 2 Corinthians is the most personal of all of Paul’s letters, providing a unique window into Paul’s life and ministry during his apostolic career. It’s also this baggage with the Corinthians that account for the complex nature of the letter. As you read it, you’d be hard–pressed not to notice the sudden shifts in his tone and emotions and the constant asides that seem out of place. However, his letter does have a carefully crafted structure, which can be broken down into three main sections, each addressing distinct topics relating to their history. The one guiding theme weaved throughout all three topics is the paradoxical nature of the “cruciform” life, that is, a life shaped by the cross. Paul will finalize their reconciliation, challenge their generosity, and confront his remaining opponents by fleshing out the surprising paradoxes of the cross and showing how it should reverse the Corinthians' whole honor/shame value system. Let’s check it out.
Paradox #1. Paul’s Low Status is Proof of Jesus’ Exalted Status
In chapters 1–7, Paul finalizes his reconciliation with the Corinthians. Their relationship was strained since the “painful visit,” so Paul wants them to know he forgives them and desires an open, honest relationship. But why had they rejected Paul in the first place? After all, he was the one who founded their church. They wouldn’t exist without him! As the letter unfolds, it becomes clear that the Corinthians grew ashamed of Paul’s low status as they were exposed to other wealthy, influential, and eloquent Christian leaders (the “super-apostles” of chapters 11 and 12). Paul was poor, persecuted, and homeless. And to top it off, he was an unimpressive public speaker. Why stay connected to the manual labor guy when they could associate with the rich, celebrity leaders of the day?
Paul tells them exactly why. True Christian leadership is not about worldly status or self-promotion. In fact, it’s the other way around. Paul sees himself and the real apostles as captive slaves to Jesus who’s leading them in a procession of triumph. Paul’s role isn’t to be impressive but rather to point to the one who is—King Jesus! He explains how through the new covenant, the resurrected and exalted Jesus is the glory of God and those who follow Jesus get to share in this glory through the transforming power of the Spirit. However, the Corinthians idea of glory and success needed to be straightened out.
Sharing in God’s glory didn’t mean being attached to the wealthy and eloquent. It meant following Jesus whose own exaltation came through his humility, sufferings, and execution on a cross, so that others could be reconciled to God. They should imitate Jesus by walking in this new “cruciform” way of life, loving and self-sacrificially serving others, just as Paul lowered himself to love and help the Corinthians. The irony of it all is that Paul’s low status, which the Corinthians were so ashamed of, was proof that he authentically represented the crucified and exalted Messiah. If they were to reconcile truly, the Corinthians would have to embrace the upside-down nature of the cross and see Paul’s ministry as a reflection of that glorious paradox.