Updated: Dec 21, 2018
Gospel ministry and life in the church are full of great difficulties and trials. These difficulties are on full display in Paul’s second recorded letter to the church in Corinth. The Apostle Paul’s most personal letter is the final letter of several that he wrote to the church: the letter mentioned in 1 Cor. 5:9, our canonized 1 Corinthians, which could arguably be the “severe” letter mentioned in 2 Cor. 2:3-4 (or the “severe” letter could be a separate letter altogether) and finally 2 Corinthians. 2 Corinthians was written while Paul was in Macedonia roughly one year after he wrote 1 Corinthians (55/56 AD).
Many times we read Paul’s epistles as theological treatises or systematic theologies. Though they are chock full of theology (it’s Holy Scripture; it’s all theological), we would do well to remember that Paul’s epistles are personal letters from an apostle and church planter to churches that he either planted or ministered to. 2 Corinthians reminds us of this personal nature in that the main thrust of the letter is Paul’s defense of his ministry. Ironically, Paul does not defend his ministry by discussing his great theological and rhetorical abilities, but rather by exposing and boasting in his suffering and weakness. In the midst of defending his ministry, Paul exhorts the church to give generously to their fellow Christians in need, particularly the Christians in Jerusalem (chs. 8-9).
After his customary greetings (1:1-2), Paul jumps right into discussing the “affliction we experienced in Asia” (1:8), reminding the Corinthians of the comfort that can only be provided by God himself. He then moves to explain why he didn’t visit them. The church saw Paul as fickle, so he explained that he stayed away to spare the church an inevitably painful visit rather than from a lack of confidence or decency (1:23-2:2). One of the disappointments that Paul had with the church was the lack of forgiveness for a repentant brother (2:7-8). His other disappointment is due to the church’s lack of discernment regarding false teachers (which he discusses later). Unlike the “peddlers of God’s word” who have seemingly bewitched some in the church, Paul and his companions are “men of sincerity, commissioned by God” (2:17). He continues to defend his ministry writing that his ministry is not due to his own sufficiency (3:4-5) but to the mercy of God (4:1). And it is not a ministry about him, but rather one that is empowered by the Holy Spirit to point the church towards Christ Jesus. Paul boasts that his Christological responsibility is to “give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6). This focus enables Paul to endure various trials without being destroyed or quitting the ministry. Rather, Paul’s Spirit-empowered resilience encourages the saints so that, in their own trials, they too can know that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (4:17).
The apostle knows that his despair is temporary, but life in Christ is eternal. He points the church to the day in which Christ will judge both good and evil (5:10). Yet the saints should not be fearful because they have been reconciled to God through Christ (5:18) and are therefore new creations (5:17). As an ambassador for Christ, Paul sees his ministry as one of reconciliation. The church can find joy in that they are reconciled to God because of the substitutionary work of Christ Jesus – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). Due to the ministry and message that has been entrusted to Paul, he warns the church to have no partnership with those who practice and teach evil (6:14).
After his initial defense of his ministry (1:3-7:1), Paul writes to the Corinthians of the great joy he has for them upon hearing from Titus how the church was a repentant church (ch. 7). In the midst of their questioning of Paul’s ministry, the apostle can still rejoice because the majority of the church had accepted Paul’s authority via the letter sent to them (7:12) and Titus’ visit. Though a church should be very much known for its theological and ethical purity, it is just as vital that a church is known for its lifestyle of repentance. Upon writing these thoughts, Paul swiftly couples his commendation of their repentance with exhortations for their generosity (chs. 8-9). Paul exhorts them specifically by recalling the generosity of the Macedonian church in their poverty (8:1ff) and by reflecting on God’s love of and supply to cheerful givers (8:9ff).
Paul ends his epistle defending his ministry once again by boasting in sufferings. The Corinthian church sees Paul as physically and rhetorically inferior (10:10), yet Paul sees his suffering and inferiority as proof of ministry. Over against the so-called “super apostles” (11:5), Paul boasts in the many dangers he endured for the sake of the gospel (11:24ff). Though he could boast of his pedigree (11:22-23) and his revelations (12:1-6), he would rather boast in his weakness so that “the power of Christ may rest upon me” (12:9). Paul makes his final plea by writing “aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you” (13:11). A sober reminder even for the church today.