Even though this book is called 2 Corinthians in our Bibles, there are multiple clues within this letter that it’s not the second letter Paul ever wrote to the church in ancient Corinth. Paul had started this Jesus community some time ago on one of his missionary journeys (Acts 18), and, after moving on, he heard a report that things were not going well. The letter he wrote to them in response to this news is commonly known as 1 Corinthians, but it appears that many in the church had rejected Paul’s teachings within that letter and had rebelled against his authority.
We learn that Paul followed up in person with what he calls a “painful visit” (2 Cor. 2:1) and that he later sent another letter, which was written with “anguish and tears” (2 Cor. 2:3-4; 7:8-12). After all these measures, most but not all of the Corinthians realized their arrogance and apologized to Paul, hoping to reconcile with him. So finally Paul wrote this letter, 2 Corinthians, to assure them of his love and commitment.
This book has been designed with three main sections, each addressing a distinct topic. In chapters 1-7, Paul finalizes his reconciliation with the Corinthians. In chapters 8-9, he addresses the topic of forgotten generosity. And in chapters 10-13, Paul challenges the remaining Corinthians who still reject him.
Christian tradition holds that the Apostle Paul wrote the book of 2 Corinthians. This is the second of two known letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians.
The events described in 2 Corinthians take place in the city of Corinth. 2 Corinthians was likely composed between 53 and 58 C.E., about one year after Paul’s first letter to Corinth.
The book of 2 Corinthians is a letter written in prose discourse to the churches in Corinth.
Reconciliation through Jesus
The upside-down way of the cross
2 Corinthians can be divided into three parts. Chapters 1-7 finalize his reconciliation with the Corinthian church. Chapters 8-9 address generosity in the community. And chapters 10-13 challenge those who reject Paul.
2 Corinthians 1-7: Suffering and Poverty As Proof for Apostleship
Paul opens by thanking the “God of all mercy and comfort,” who brought peace and encouragement to him and the Corinthians during this time of division and dispute. He acknowledges that things have been tense since his painful visit, and he makes it clear that he has forgiven them and wants an open, honest relationship.
But why had they rejected Paul in the first place? As we discover later in the letter (2 Cor. 10-11), the Corinthians had disregarded Paul as a credible leader. He was poor and earned only a meager living through manual labor. He was under constant persecution, and he was often homeless. To top it off, he wasn’t a very impressive public speaker. Once the Corinthians were exposed to other more wealthy and impressive Christian leaders, they started to think less of Paul and eventually became ashamed of him.
Paul responds by first showing that the elevation of these leaders based on their wealth, eloquence, and success is a betrayal to Jesus and reveals a distorted value system. True Christian leadership is not about status or self-promotion. Paul depicts himself and the other apostles as captive slaves to King Jesus, who’s leading a procession of triumph. Paul’s job isn’t to be impressive but rather to point to the one who is, Jesus.
In chapter 3, Paul alludes to the Corinthians’ recent demand that he provide some letters of recommendation from other apostles in order to prove his authority and credentials. This is silly to Paul, as their church wouldn’t even exist had he not started it. Paul says that they are the proof of his genuine leadership and that they themselves are his letter of recommendation. He cleverly quotes from the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, saying that God’s Spirit has written his letter of love on the hearts of his new covenant people. The Corinthians shouldn’t need any more proof than that.
The mention of the new covenant leads Paul into a long comparison of the old covenant between God and Israel mediated by Moses and the new covenant between God and the Corinthians mediated by Jesus and the Spirit. The old covenant made at Mount Sinai was truly glorious, making Moses himself shine with God’s glory, but that glory eventually faded. Not to mention the laws of the covenant were ineffective at truly transforming Israel. The new covenant, by comparison, is even more glorious because the resurrected Jesus is the glory of God. He lives on forever, and his Spirit is transforming people to become more faithful like Jesus himself.
This sounds amazing! Who wouldn’t want to share in God’s glory? But Paul goes on to show how the paradox of the cross turns the Corinthians’ ideas of glory and success upside-down (2 Cor. 4-7). After all, Jesus’ glorious exaltation as King of the world took place through his suffering, execution, and death. On the cross, Jesus revealed God’s salvation as he died for the sins of the world, reconciling people to God. And even more, Jesus revealed God’s character—the Father is a being of self-giving suffering love that seeks the well-being of others. Jesus also revealed a new cruciform way of life, in which believers should imitate the cross by love and sacrificial service to others.
Paul’s ultimate goal is that his own life and ministry imitates the cross. So although his apostolic career has been marked by humility, suffering, and poverty, it was all to serve the Corinthians. When they disapprove of Paul’s poverty and suffering, they disapprove of Jesus too. Paul’s way of life and leadership is actually the proof that he authentically represents the crucified and risen Jesus. While Paul really wants to reconcile with the Corinthians, he won’t let things lie until they have been transformed and embrace the upside-down paradox of the cross.
2 Corinthians 8-9: A Plea for Gospel-Motivated Generosity
After this passionate appeal, Paul moves on to address the Corinthians’ forgotten generosity (2 Cor. 8-9). The Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem had fallen into poverty due to a famine. In response, Paul was raising money from among the new churches that he had started, which were mostly full of non-Jews. The hope was that these churches would send a relief gift as a symbol of their unity in the Messiah Jesus. While many churches were indeed thrilled to give, the Corinthians, in the midst of all this conflict with Paul, forgot to save up for the gift.
For Paul, this wasn’t only about the money. It was another sign that the Corinthians had not been transformed by the Gospel, which is, at its heart, a story of generosity. “For you know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, that even though he was rich, for your sake, he became poor so that through his poverty, you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). In other words, Paul is telling the story of the Gospel through financial metaphors. Jesus gave up his glorious honor, or wealth, and lowered himself to die like a poor slave. He did this so that other people, impoverished through sin and death, could be exalted and become wealthy through the riches of God’s grace. To be a Christian is to let this story sink deep into your heart and mind, allowing it to transform you into someone who is more generous and more willing to share your life and resources to help others.
2 Corinthians 10-13: An Invitation to Humble Repentance
In the final section of the book of 2 Corinthians, chapters 10-13, Paul focuses on the main source of conflict with the Corinthians. There was a group of impressive leaders that Paul sarcastically calls “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11), who came to Corinth promoting themselves and badmouthing Paul as a poor, unsuccessful leader. At the risk of sounding self-promoting, Paul says that if these guys want to compare credentials, he can totally take them on.
Are they Jewish Bible experts? Well, so is Paul. He was a Pharisee! And he has the entire Bible memorized. Do they brag about their superior knowledge of Jesus? Well, Paul has actually seen and spent time with the risen Jesus himself, and he has even had visions of Jesus’ heavenly throne room. More importantly, Paul has given his entire life to the mission of Jesus, sacrificing comfort and stability and never asking the Corinthians for money. Unlike the super apostles who charged for their “wisdom,” Paul has earned his own living, so he could serve them free of charge.
But Paul says he refuses to brag about his accomplishments because those aren’t the things that really matter as a Christian. Instead he will brag about how flawed and weak he is because it’s in his inadequacies that he discovers the love and mercy of Jesus. Or, as Jesus once told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect through weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Paul concludes with a sober warning to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 13). They need to examine their hearts. Their contempt for Paul’s way of life and their love for these super apostles shows that they don’t grasp who Jesus is on a fundamental level. They’re not living like transformed followers of Jesus should be, so he invites them, once again, to humble themselves before the grace and love of Jesus.
2 Corinthians gives us a unique window into the life of Paul and the paradox of the cross. The cross challenges our values and worldviews. Most societies value success, education, and wealth, but God values humility, weakness, and service. We know this because his love and power were made known through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The cross also unleashed the transforming power and presence of the Spirit, empowering Jesus’ followers to take up his cruciform way of life and make it their own. And that is the powerful challenge of the book of 2 Corinthians.