Introduction: Second Corinthians
CORINTH’S FAVORED LOCATION:
The location of a city often plays a large role in determining its character. New York City, blessed with a great natural harbor and a solid rock foundation, became a prosperous metropolis. Chicago, positioned on rail and water traffic ways between the East Coast and the Midwest, did the same.
A quick glance at a map of Greece will reveal that Corinth had similar advantages. Northern Greece (the Greek mainland) is separated from Southern Greece (the Peloponnese) by a body of water called the Gulf of Corinth. The Peloponnese (pronounced peh-low-poe-NEESE) constitutes approximately one-quarter of the Greek land mass.
A closer look will reveal that the Peloponnese is not an island, but is connected to the mainland by the Isthmus of Corinth (an isthmus is a narrow strip of land that connects two larger land masses). Corinth was located on the northern shore of that narrow strip of land at the narrowest part of the isthmus, which was only four miles (6 km.) wide at that point. Therefore, commerce moving by land from Northern to Southern Greece had to pass through Corinth.
Also, much ship traffic from Northern to Southern Greece stopped at Lechaeum (Corinth’s port city), where its cargo would be unloaded and transported across the narrow isthmus to be reloaded on another ship. That process spared the ships the long journey around the southern tip of the Peloponnesus, where treacherous weather posed a hazard to shipping. Corinth, therefore, was a vital traffic way for commerce by both land and sea between Northern and Southern Greece — and between lands to the west and lands to the east. Also, the plain to the west and south of Corinth was fertile, contributing further to the city’s prosperity.
The Romans conquered and destroyed Corinth in 146 B.C., but Julius Caesar began rebuilding it in 44 B.C. and it became the capital of the province of Achaia in 27 B.C. By the time Paul visited Corinth, it had long since regained its earlier beauty and prosperity.
Corinth suffers the reputation of “sin city,” in part because of the thousand sacred prostitutes once thought to ply their trade at the temples of Aphrodite there — and in part because Paul devoted considerable attention to sexual concerns in his letters to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5; 7:1-16, 25-40; 11:5ff; 2 Corinthians 6:14 – 7:1; 12:21).
However, the temples of Aphrodite that have been excavated are relatively small, and modern scholars believe that Corinth’s bad reputation was, in part, due to propaganda from rival Athens. But any large city gives people a cloak of anonymity, and people who don’t expect to be held accountable for their sins find themselves sorely tempted. The transient population following trade routes through Corinth also brought vices. The same is true of most modern cities today.
The extensive traffic through Corinth caused it to be ethnically diverse, and many religions were practiced there. Philo tells of a significant Jewish presence in Corinth.
PAUL’S EIGHTEEN MONTHS IN CORINTH:
Acts 18:1-17 recounts Paul’s visit to Corinth on his Second Missionary Journey and his work with the Jewish community there. We can date this visit fairly precisely, because of the reference in Acts 18:12 to the Roman proconsul Gallio. Gallio held office in Corinth about one year, probably beginning in 51 A.D. Based on this, we believe that the appearance of Paul before Gallio in Acts 18 took place in the middle of the year in 51 A.D. (Murphy-O’Connor, 732-733).
Paul spent 18 months in Corinth (Acts 18:11), arguing in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to draw Greeks (Gentiles) as well as Jews (Acts 18:4) to Christ. When the Jews opposed him, he left the synagogue to begin to work primarily among the Gentiles (Acts 18:5-7). However, Crispus, a leader of the synagogue became a believer, along with his family (Acts 18:8), so it is clear that Paul did not turn his back on Jews.
During his 18 month stay, Paul built a strong church in Corinth. As is true of most churches, most of the people were quite ordinary. He said, “For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise” (1:26-27). Some, such as Erastus (Romans 16:3) and Chloe (1:11) were people of means.
The Jewish community continued its attack against Paul by preferring charges against him in civil court. The proconsul, Gallio, dismissed the charges as having nothing to do with Roman law. Gentile bystanders (not the Christian community) responded by beating Sosthenes, the synagogue leader (Acts 18:12-17).
PAUL ‘S DEFENSE AGAINST THE FALSE APOSTLES:
In chapters 10-13, Paul deals with the issue of hyperlian apostolon––arrogant apostles––super-apostles (11:5; 12:11) who have challenged Paul’s credentials and authority. They say that Paul’s “letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is despised” (10:10). Paul calls these opponents pseudapostolos––false apostles (11:13).
The usual way of dealing with that sort of situation would be to outline one’s credentials and achievements to demonstrate that the challenge is unfounded. Paul does that, saying:
“Seeing that many boast in the flesh, I will also boast…. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as one beside himself) I am more so; in labors more abundantly, in prisons more abundantly, in stripes above measure, in deaths often.
“Five times from the Jews I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I suffered shipwreck. I have been a night and a day in the deep. I have been in travels often, perils of rivers, perils of robbers, perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles, perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils among false brothers; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, and in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are outside, there is that which presses on me daily, anxiety for all the (churches)” (11:18, 22-28).
But then Paul turns the tables on his critics by saying, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that concern my weakness” (11:30). He tells of a thorn in his flesh that he asked God to remove. However God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). He goes on to remind the Corinthian Christians that Jesus “was crucified through weakness, yet he lives through the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we will live with him through the power of God toward you” (13:4). He goes on to challenge the Corinthian Christians to test themselves to see whether they are “in the faith…that Jesus Christ is in you” (13:5).
Paul’s purposes in these chapters, then, are:
- To answer the challenges of the “arrogant apostles.”
- To remind the Corinthian Christians that arrogance (as manifested by the “arrogant apostles”) is the opposite of the weakness through which God prefers to work (as manifested by the cross of Christ).
- And to call the Corinthian Christians to practice the soft-skills (rejoicing, being perfected, being comforted, being united, and living in peace) that will bring out the full potential of their discipleship (13:11).
LATER VISITS BY PAUL:
Paul wrote at least three and probably four letters to the Christians at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 5:9, he speaks of an earlier letter which has been lost to us. In 2 Corinthians 2:4, he speaks of another letter (often referred to as the Severe Letter) which has either been lost to us or has been incorporated into 2 Corinthians 10-13.
He made two later visits to Corinth (2 Corinthians 12:14; 13:1). He had sent Timothy to Corinth to remind them of Paul’s ways (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10-11). When Timothy returned with a report of problems in Corinth, Paul revised his travel schedule so that he could go immediately to Corinth. There, he found himself under attack (2:5), and the congregation did nothing to support him (2:3).
Upon returning to Ephesus, Paul wrote his Severe Letter to Corinth (2:4), telling the Corinthian believers to take action against the man who had opposed him so seriously (2:3-4; 7:12). Titus returned from Corinth with a good report, which caused Paul to rejoice (7:6-7). Paul responded by writing 2 Corinthians—possibly the whole letter or possibly only chapters 1-9—scholars differ.
• Paul speaks of a crushing affliction that caused him terrible despair (1:8-11). God comforted him, and the prayers of the Corinthians also sustained him.
• Paul decided not to pay the Corinthians another painful visit (1:12 – 2:4).
• He acknowledged that the man who had opposed him had been punished—prompting Paul to encourage the Corinthians to forgive him and to assure him of their love for him (2:5-11). “I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2:10b-11).
• Paul defends his integrity, saying, “We are not, as so many, peddling the word of God” (2:17). The Corinthians were aware that, while Paul was in Corinth, he provided his own financial support through his tent-making rather than taking money from them.
• He tells the Corinthians that he needs no letters of recommendation, because they and their faith serve as proof of his ministry. The Corinthian Christians serve as his credentials (3:1-2).
• He compares Moses’ lost glory with the glory made accessible in Christ (3:7-18). “Moses…put a veil on his face, (so) that the children of Israel wouldn’t look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away” (3:13)—but when people turn to Jesus, he (Jesus) takes away the veil (3:16).
• He continues to defend his ministry by saying that he has renounced shameful things and has manifested the truth (4:2).
• He acknowledges his humanity, saying, “We have this treasure (the Gospel) in clay vessels (our human bodies), that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves” (4:7).
• He accepts afflictions, so “that the life also of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal flesh” (4:11). He doesn’t faint, because “though our outward man is decaying, yet our inward man is renewed day by day” (4:16)—and he is focused on the spiritual and eternal rather than that which is worldly and temporal (4:18).
• He expresses his assurance that “if the earthly house of our tent is dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal, in the heavens” (5:1). This gives him strength to cope with the adversities of this world, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (5:7). We can be sure that “each one may receive the things in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (5:10).
• He says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new” (5:17).
• He speaks of being an ambassador for Christ, and begs the Corinthians to be “reconciled to God…so that in him (they) might become the righteousness of God” (5:20-21).
• He quotes a portion of Isaiah 49:8—”At an acceptable time I listened to you, in a day of salvation I helped you”—to remind the Corinthian Christians that God had extended his grace to them. Paul entreats them “not (to) receive the grace of God in vain” (6:1-2).
• He defends his integrity. Paul and his co-workers have not given occasion to stumbling, and have served God faithfully through numerous hardships (6:3-10). They have a deep affection for the Corinthians, who are suffering self-imposed restrictions, i.e. the inclination of some of them to submit to the provisions of Jewish law (6:11-13).
• In a passage that we especially need to hear in today’s pluralistic world, Paul entreats the Corinthian Christians not to “be unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what fellowship has light with darkness” (6:14-18; see also 1 Corinthians 7:12-15). From the beginning, Israelites were tempted to marry people from neighboring tribes, in spite of prohibitions against that practice (Deuteronomy 7:3-4; Joshua 23:12; Ezra 9:1-4; Nehemiah 13:23-31). King Solomon “loved many foreign women” who “turned away his heart,” causing him to pursue other gods, so that “his heart was not perfect with Yahweh his God.” He “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh,” building places of worship to foreign gods. Therefore, God determined to tear away the majority of the kingdom from Solomon’s son (1 Kings 11:1-13).
Jewish rabbis taught that a good woman might marry a bad man and hope to reform him, but a good man should not marry a bad woman lest she drag him down. The truth is that neither a bad man nor a bad woman is any bargain.
• Again, Paul defends his ministry to the Corinthians, saying “We wronged no one. We corrupted no one. We took advantage of no one” (7:1-4). He is comforted by the good report brought by Titus concerning the Corinthians (7:5-7).
• He speaks of the severe letter he had written to Corinth. While it brought him distress, it also motivated them to repent (7:8-16).
• He commends the Macedonian Christians who, in spite of their poverty, gave generously to the offering for the Jerusalem Christians. He encouraged the Corinthians to do likewise (8:1-15).
• He commends Titus, “my partner and fellow worker” (8:16-24).
• He speaks again of the offering for Jerusalem, entreating them to “arrange ahead of time the generous gift that you promised before”—and reminding them that the person “who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully”—and that “God loves a cheerful giver” (9:1-15).
• He defends himself against those “who consider (Paul and his co-workers) to be walking according to the flesh…. For though we walk in the flesh, we don’t wage war according to the flesh” (10:1-6).
• He defends himself against those who admit that his letters are strong, “but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is despised.” Paul claims to be the same whether in letters or when present with them (10:7-11).
• He emphasizes that he and his co-workers are not like those “who commend themselves.” He says, “We will not boast beyond proper limits…. For it isn’t he who commends himself who is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (10:12-18).
• He speaks of having married them to Christ, and being distressed that they have submitted so easily to those who preach a different Jesus or convey a different spirit or preach a different Gospel (11:1-6).
• He defends his practice of providing for his own support by his tent-making business, saying, “I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and I will continue to do so” (11:7-11).
• He warns against those who boast that they are like Paul, calling those people “false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as Christ’s apostles” (11:12-15).
• He again defends his ministry, citing in detail the various persecutions and hardships that he has endured in the course of his ministry as evidence of his integrity and seriousness of purpose (11:16-33).
• Speaking in the third person, he recounts being caught up into the third heaven and hearing unspeakable words. But he also experienced a thorn in the flesh so that he might not be tempted by ego. He prayed for relief from the thorn, but God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”—so Paul determined to glory in his weakness—”for when I am weak, then am I strong” (12:1-12)
• He once again notes that he had not burdened them for financial support—even though some had criticized him for making them inferior. He says, “Forgive me this wrong…. for I seek not your possessions, but you” (12:13-18).
• He expresses his concern that, when he comes to them for the third time, he will find them guilty of “strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, whisperings, proud thoughts, riots”—which would cause him to mourn their lack of repentance (12:19-21).
• He quotes Deuteronomy 19:15, which provides that two or three witnesses are required to convict a person—a requirement that Jesus confirmed in Matthew 18:16. His meaning is ambiguous. Did he see his third visit as an opportunity to convict them—or is he saying that his critics must provide two or three witnesses to convict him—probably the former given his warning to sinners “that, if I come again, I will not spare…. Test your own selves, whether you are in the faith” (13:1-6).
• He says, “Now I pray to God that you do no evil; not that we may appear approved, but that you may do that which is honorable”—and prays for their perfecting, that he “may not deal sharply when present, according to the authority which the Lord gave me for building up, and not for tearing down” (13:7-10).
• He closes by saying, “Finally, brothers, rejoice. Be perfected, be comforted, be of the same mind, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you” (13:11-13).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barrett, C.K., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993)
Barnett, Paul, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997)
Best, Ernest, Interpretation: Second Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987)
Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
Garland, David E., The New American Commentary: 2 Corinthians, Vol. 29 (Broadman Press, 1999)
Harris, Murray J., The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005)
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MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 2004)
Martin, Ralph P., Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Corinthians, Vol. 40 (Dallas: Word Books, 1986)
Minor, Mitzi L., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2009
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome, “Corinth,” Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: A-C, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006)
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Sampley, J. Paul, The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Shillington, V. George, Believers Church Bible Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1998)
Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan