By John MacArthur
Second Corinthians is the most personally revealing of all Paul's epistles. At the same time, it is perhaps the least familiar of all his inspired writings, often overlooked both by individual believers and preachers alike. The neglect of this magnificent epistle is an immense loss to the church, however, for it has much to offer. No one in ministry should be ignorant of the riches of these insights. A church should not ordain anyone who has not read this epistle and commentaries on this treatise.
In 2 Corinthians Paul's godly character shines through as he interacts with the most troubled of his congregations. Its thirteen chapters reveal his humility; he described himself as a lowly clay pot (4:7), stressed his human weakness and inadequacy (3:5; 11:30; 12:5, 9-10), and was reluctant to defend himself when attacked (11:1, 16-17, 21; 12:11). Second Corinthians also reveals Paul's passionate concern for his flock, both for their spiritual growth (3:18; 7:1), and for their spiritual safety (11:2-4, 29). His declaration, "For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake" (4:5) sums up his selfless concern for them. An effective, God-honoring minister must be spiritually sound, as Paul was. He was not like many: who were guilty of "peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, [he spoke] in Christ in the sight of God" (2:17). The apostle would not think of "walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God" (4:2).
Faithful, uncompromising preachers of the truth can expect a hostile reaction from the world, which will hate them like it hated Jesus (John 7:7; 15:19). No preacher in the history of the church has faced such intense persecution as did Paul, and in this letter he models how to handle suffering in the ministry (2 Cor. 1:4-10; 4:7-12; 6:4-10; 11:23-33).
Much of Paul's suffering in connection with the Corinthian church came from the savage attacks launched against him by a group of false apostles. Those charlatans had deceived some of the Corinthians into believing that Paul was weak, ineffective, and not a true apostle. The major theme of this epistle is Paul's defense of his integrity and his apostleship against those attacks (1:12-13; 2:17; 3:5; 4:2, 5; 5:9-10; 6:3-4, 11; 7:2; 8:20-21; 10:7; 11:5-6, 30; 12:11-12; 13:5-6).
Though it is an intensely intimate look at Paul, 2 Corinthians nonetheless contains rich theological truth. Here the new covenant receives its most complete exposition outside of Hebrews (3:5-18). In 2 Corinthians 5:1-11 Paul presents important teaching on what happens to believers when they die. Verses 14-21 of that same chapter discuss the doctrine of reconciliation, culminating in the fifteen Greek words of 5:21. They provide the most concise, yet profound summary of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ to be found anywhere in Scripture. Similarly, 8:9 is a brief Christological gem of immense value.
Second Corinthians also has much to teach regarding the practical aspects of living the Christian life. In 6:14-7:1 Paul discusses the principle of separating from unbelievers. Chapters 8 and 9 provide the most detailed teaching on giving in the New Testament; chapter 11 gives instruction on how to distinguish true servants of God from false teachers (vv. 7-15, 20); and chapter 12 reveals how God uses suffering in the lives of His children (w. 5-10). The epistle closes with a look at several important elements of the sanctification process (12:20-13:14).
The City of Corinth
Few cities in the ancient world were blessed with as favorable a geographic location as Corinth was. The city was strategically located on a narrow isthmus connecting the mainland of Greece with the Peloponnesus, the large, leaf-shaped peninsula that makes up the southernmost part of Greece. (Since the completion of a canal across the isthmus in the late nineteenth century, the Peloponnesus is now technically an island.) Corinth thus controlled the trade route between the northern and southern parts of Greece. In addition, travelers going to and from Italy from northern Greece and Asia Minor embarked and disembarked from Corinth's port towns, Cenchrea on the southeastern side of the isthmus, and Lechaeum on the northwestern side. Since the isthmus was narrow (less than four miles wide at its narrowest; the road connecting Cenchrea and Lechaeum was about ten miles long), many ship's captains elected to unload their cargo at one of the port cities and have it and their ship (if it was small enough) hauled across the isthmus to the other city, where they would reload their cargo and set sail again. They thus avoided a long and dangerous sea voyage around the southern type of the Peloponnesus.
Corinth in Paul's day was a large and prosperous commercial city, one of the leading cities in Greece. It owed prosperity not only to the trade that flowed through it, but to several other factors as well. Corinth hosted the biennial Isthmian Games, which drew large crowds to the city. It a had the coveted status of a Roman colony and was the capital of the main province of Achaia (which is why the city's unbelieving Jews were able to bring Paul before the Roman governor, Gallio; Acts 18:12-17). Corinthian brass and pottery wares were famous throughout the Roman world.
But Corinth also had its dark side. A sizeable percentage of its population consisted of slaves, and it was a center of the slave trade. Corinth was such an immoral city that its name became a byword for sexual vice; the verb "to Corinthianize" meant to commit sexual immorality, and 'Corinthian girl" became a slang term for a prostitute.
Throughout its long history, Corinth had been one of the most influential of the Greek city-states, at times rivaling Athens in importance. But a major turning point in the city's history came in 146 B.C. when the invading Romans destroyed it and killed or sold into slavery all its inhabitants. The site lay in ruins for about a century, until Julius Caesar rebuilt it and resettled it, largely with freed slaves from all over the Roman world. Many cultured Greeks were aghast and scorned the new city's lower class population. Its status as a busy seaport and its booming economy drew large numbers of immigrants, adding to the ethnic melting pot of Corinth's population. The transient nature of much of that population contributed to the city's loose morals. Pfeiffer and Vos note that "much of the population was mobile (sailors, businessmen, government officials, et al.) and was therefore cut off from the inhibitions of a settled society" (The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands [Chicago: Moody, 1967], 481).
It was to this wealthy, diverse, important, and immoral city that the apostle Paul came on his second missionary journey.
The Church at Corinth
Arriving in Corinth from Athens (Acts 18:1), Paul met Aquila and Priscilla, the husband and wife who became two of his closest associates (cf. Acts 18:18; Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). The pair had recently left Rome when Emperor Claudius ordered all Jews to leave the imperial city (Acts 18:2). Since they were tentmakers like himself, Paul lived and worked with them (v. 3).
As was his custom, the apostle began evangelistic work in Corinth in the city's Jewish synagogue. Silas and Timothy, newly arrived from Macedonia, assisted him in the work (v. 5). As so often was the case, most of the Jews rejected the gospel and became hostile, causing the apostle to leave the synagogue for the house of "Titius Justus, a worshiper of God [i.e. a Gentile who had shown interest in Israel's God] " (v. 7). The unbelieving Jews' antagonism intensified when "Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household: along with many others (v. 8). Hoping to capitalize on the inexperience of the new proconsul (governor) Gallio, the Jews hauled Paul before him, charging the apostle with worshiping God contrary to Jewish law (w. 12-13). Gallio, however, refused to intervene in what he perceived as an internal dispute within Judaism and dismissed the charges against Paul (w. 14-16). After staying "many days longer" (v. 18), the apostle left Corinth.
The Occasion of Second Corinthians
After his departure from Corinth, disturbing news reached Paul about problems that had arisen in the Corinthian church. In response, he wrote a noncanonical letter (not extant) in which he confronted those issues (1 Cor. 5:9). While ministering in Ephesus on his third missionary journey, Paul heard of still more trouble at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11; 16:17). In addition, the Corinthians wrote him a letter seeking clarification on some issues (1 Cor. 7:1). Paul's response was to write them the letter known as I Corinthians. Since the apostle could not leave the work in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8), he sent Timothy (possibly bearing 1 Corinthians) to Corinth.
While 1 Corinthians apparently resolved some of the problems in Corinth, a new and potentially more dangerous threat soon arose. False teachers, claiming to be apostles sent by the Jerusalem church, arrived in Corinth and soon wooed many of the congregation away from their loyalty to Paul and the truth. When Paul heard about this threat (possibly from Timothy), he left Ephesus and went to Corinth.
The visit (the "sorrowful," or "painful" visit; cf. 2 Cor. 2:1) did not go well, reaching its lowest ebb when someone (possibly one of the false apostles) defied Paul and openly insulted him (2:5-8, 10; 7:12). To his immense sorrow, the Corinthians did not take action against the offender. Paul returned to Ephesus, wrote a strongly worded letter (which also has not been preserved) known as the "severe letter" (see 2:4), and sent it to Corinth with Titus (7:5-16).
Leaving Ephesus, Paul went to Troas, where he hoped to meet Titus. Though there was an open door for ministry there, Paul's concern over the situation at Corinth prevented him from taking full advantage of it (2:12-13). Restless, unable to wait any longer for Titus, Paul went on to Macedonia where he at long last met him. Titus's news that most of the Corinthians had repented and reaffirmed their loyalty to Paul (7:7) brought great joy and relief to the apostle.
But he was wise enough to know that although the situation at Corinth had improved dramatically, the church was not out of danger yet. The false apostles were still there, and a minority of the Corinthians remained confused or loyal to them. As he prepared for his upcoming visit to Corinth (12:14; 13:1), Paul wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia (possibly from Philippi, as some ancient manuscripts indicate). In it he vigorously defended his apostleship against the false teachers' attacks, gave instruction regarding the collection for the poor believers at Jerusalem, and confronted the false apostles and their followers head-on.
The Author of 2 Corinthians
That Paul wrote this epistle, as it twice claims (1:1; 10:1), is almost universally accepted, even by critical scholars who deny that Paul wrote other New Testament books attributed to him. It is impossible to imagine a motive for someone to forge such an emotional and highly personal letter. The letter's Pauline vocabulary, similarities to 1 Corinthians, and correlation with the evidence from Acts also prove Paul's authorship.
The external evidence also confirms that Paul wrote this letter. The church father Polycarp quoted from it early in the second century, while later in that century it was included in the Muratorian Canon. Clement of Alexandria, Iranaeus, and Tertullian also quote from 2 Corinthians.
The Unity of 2 Corinthians
While the authorship of 2 Corinthians has not been questioned, its unity has been the subject of much debate. In particular some scholars, without any reason other than their bent to discredit the integrity of Scripture, deny the book's unity. Noting the abrupt change in tone between chapters 1-9 and 10-13, they argue that they were originally two separate letters that somehow became fused into the letter now known as 2 Corinthians.
At the outset it must be stated that such theories are entirely subjective, based on supposed internal evidence within the book itself. R. C. H. Lenski writes,
One fact in regard to Second Corinthians must be strongly emphasized at the very beginning: all, literally all textual evidence proves this letter a unit. No abbreviated text has ever been discovered that might raise a question on this score, and no text that showed an omission or omissions has ever been found. This fact alone stands as a bulwark against the hypotheses of our day. (The Interpretation of Saint Paul's First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1963], 795)
Further, there is no evidence from early translations of the Bible, or from writings of the church fathers that 2 Corinthians ever existed as two or more separate letters. There is also no evidence as to who compiled those hypothetical letters into 2 Corinthians, when they did it, or why they did it, only conjecture on the part of the critics. What happened to the conclusion of the first letter and the introduction to the second to allow the two to be joined is also unknown; Donald Guthrie remarks, "It must have been extremely fortunate that the two depleted fragments happened to join together or were skillfully manipulated to make a single epistle with at least the appearance of a whole, enough at any rate to elude suspicion until the eighteenth century" (New Testament Introduction [Revised Ed.; Downer Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1990] 451). The critics also often fail to take into account the physical difficulty involved in editing the scrolls on which ancient letters were written (for a discussion of this point, see David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, The New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1990], 38-39).
Some propose that chapters 10-13 are the severe letter mentioned in 24, and hence were written before chapters 1-9. This theory, however, faces major difficulties, in addition to the lack of textual evidence already noted.
First, the absence of any reference to the false apostles in chapters 1-9 is puzzling if the Corinthians had already received chapters 10-13. Even if they had rejected the false apostles before Paul wrote chapters 1-9, he surely would have commended them for doing so. Yet, chapters 1-9 do not mention the conflict between Paul and the false teachers, only the single individual who defied him (2:5-11; 7:12).
Second, chapters 10-13 are silent regarding that individual. Yet, the severe letter was written to deal with the Corinthians' refusal to discipline him (2:4-9). If chapters 10-13 constitute the severe letter, how could they fail to refer to the offense that prompted its writing?
Third Paul described the severe letter as one written "out of much affliction and anguish of heart . . . with many tears" (2:4). That description does not seem to fit the contents of chapters 10-13, with Paul's biting irony and stern rebukes of the false teachers and their followers. Why would he regret (cf. 7:8) having so forcefully defended his apostleship, or relating his human weakness that proved God empowered his ministry?
Fourth, in 12:18 Paul spoke of Titus's trip to Corinth in connection with the collection (cf. 8:6, 16-24) as having already taken place. Since, as noted above, he brought the severe letter to Corinth on that trip, chapters 10-13 obviously cannot be the severe letter; Titus could not have delivered a letter describing his bringing of that letter as having already happened.
Finally, Paul sent the severe letter to avoid visiting Corinth (2:1-4), but he wrote chapters 10-13 to prepare for an upcoming visit (12:14; 13:1).
Others, acknowledging those difficulties, argue that chapters 10-13 were a separate letter, but one that was written after chapters 1-9. Once again, it must be noted that there is no evidence that chapters 10-13 ever circulated separately from chapters 1-9. A variation of that view is that before Paul sent chapters 1-9, he received word of further troubles in Corinth. He then wrote chapters 10-13 and sent the entire letter. Paul's busy life of ministering, traveling, and working to support himself may possibly have prevented him from writing 2 Corinthians at one sitting. Yet nowhere in chapters 10-13 does he mention receiving new information from Corinth.
The difference in tone between the two sections of the epistle must not be overstated. In chapters 1-9 Paul defended himself (e.g., 1:17; 4:2; 5:12-13), and rebuked the false teachers (e.g., 2:17); while in chapters 10-13 he expressed his love and concern for the Corinthians (11:11; 12:14-15; 13:19). When the plan of the epistle is taken into account, the reason for Paul's change in tone is perfectly understandable. Chapters 1-9 are addressed to the majority (cf. 2:6), who repented because of the severe letter; chapters 10-13 to the unrepentant minority, who still clung to the false apostles (the "some" in 10:2 who still regarded Paul as if he "walked according to the flesh").
Date and Place of Writing
The date of Paul's ministry in Corinth can be determined with reasonable accuracy because of his trial before the Roman proconsul Gallio. According to an inscription found in Delphi, Gallio most likely assumed office in July A.D. 51. Paul's trial before him probably took place shortly after Gallio took office, toward the end of the apostle's ministry in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:18). Leaving Corinth, Paul went to Palestine via Ephesus (Acts 18:22). He returned to Ephesus on his third missionary journey (Acts 19:1),where he ministered for about two and a half years (Acts 19:8, 10). Paul wrote 1 Corinthians toward the end of his stay in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8), most likely late in A.D. 55. Paul planned to leave Ephesus after the Feast of Pentecost (1 Cor. 16:8), most likely in the spring of A.D. 56. He went to Macedonia from where, as noted above, he wrote 2 Corinthians later that year.
Apostolic Ministry (1:1-7:16)
The Minister's Greeting (1:1-11)
The Minister's Plans (1:12-2:13)
Concerning travel (1:12-2:4)
Concerning the offender (2:5-11)
Concerning Titus (2:12-13)
The Ministry's Nature (2:14-7:16)
Its triumph (2:14-17)
Its commendation (3:1-5)
Its basis (3:6-18)
Its theme (4:1-7)
Its trials (4:8-18)
Its motivation (5:1-10)
Its message (5:11-21)
Its conduct (6:1-10)
Its exhortation (6:11-7:16)
Apostolic Collection (8:1-9:15)
The Pattern of Giving (8:1-9)
The Macedonians (8:1-7)
The Lord Jesus Christ (8:8-9)
The Purpose of Giving (8:10-15)
The Procedure of Giving (8:16-9:5)
The Promise of Giving (9:6-15)
Apostolic Vindication (10:1-13:14)
Paul's Authority (10:1-18)
Paul's Conduct (11:1-15)
Paul's Suffering (11:16-33)
Paul's Credentials (12:1-13)
Paul's Unselfishness (1214-19)
Paul's Exhortations (12:20-13:14)
Historical and Theological Themes
Second Corinthians complements the historical record of Paul's dealings with the Corinthian church recorded in Acts and 1 Corinthians. It also contains important biographical data on Paul throughout.
Although an intensely personal letter, written by the apostle in the heat of battle against those attacking his credibility, 2 Corinthians contains several important theological themes. It portrays God the Father as a merciful comforter (1:3; 7:6), the Creator (4:6), the One who raised Jesus from the dead (4:14; cf. 13:4), and who will raise believers as well (1:9). Jesus Christ is the One who suffered (1:5), who fulfilled God's promises (1:20), who was the proclaimed Lord (4:5), who manifested God's glory (4:6), and the One who in His incarnation became poor for believers (8:9; cf. Phil. 2:5-8). The letter portrays the Holy Spirit as God (3:17, 18) and the guarantee of believers' salvation (1:22, 5:5). Satan is identified as the "god of this age" (4:4; cf. 1 John 5:19), a deceiver (11:14), and the leader of human and angelic deceivers (11:15). The end times include both the believer's glorification (4:16-5:8) and his judgment (5:10). 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--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, the nature of the New Covenant receives its fullest exposition, outside the Book of Hebrews, in chap. 3:6-16).