Background of 2 Corinthians
Author, Date, and Recipients
The apostle Paul wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia around AD 55/56. This was approximately a year after he wrote 1 Corinthians and a year before he wrote his letter to the Romans. This is the fourth letter he had written to the Corinthian church (in addition to 1 Corinthians, see the letters mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9 and 2 Corinthians 2:3–4).
The central theme of 2 Corinthians is the relationship between suffering and the power of the Spirit in Paul’s apostolic life, ministry, and message. Paul’s opponents had questioned his motives and his personal courage. They argued that he had suffered too much to be a Spirit-filled apostle of the risen Christ. But Paul argues that his suffering is the means God uses to reveal his glory (2 Corinthians 1:3–4, 11, 20).
Paul vindicates his apostolic ministry in order to (1) strengthen the faithful majority in Corinth (primarily ch. 1–7); (2) encourage them to contribute to the financial needs of other believers, as an expression of their repentance (primarily ch. 8–9); and (3) offer the rebellious minority in Corinth another chance to repent before he returns to judge those still rejecting him and his message (primarily ch. 10–13).
1. Paul’s suffering imitates the cross of Christ. Those who reject him because he suffers are “false apostles” and “servants of Satan” (2 Corinthians 11:13–15).
2. Paul is a servant of the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6). His ministry and message of the cross mediates the Spirit of the living God and God’s righteousness to believers (2 Corinthians 3:3, 6–9; 5:14–15, 21).
3. Endurance through difficulty and Christlike behavior are made possible by the grace of God and are modeled by Paul himself. These qualities are the greatest display of God’s presence, power, and glory in this fallen world (2 Corinthians 1:12–14; 6:14–7:1; 12:7–10; 13:4).
4. The Spirit transforms believers into the image of God, which is seen in Christ. This new creation is characterized by God’s righteousness. Believers therefore embody the new creation of the new covenant by living for the sake of others. This is made possible because believers are reconciled with God through the cross (2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:15, 17–21).
5. Repentance expresses itself in holiness. This is a purity-producing love for God and his church and a unity-creating love for one’s neighbor (2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1; ch. 8–9).
6. Christ, as Savior, is also the universal Judge. He will judge all people according to their deeds. The Spirit transforms those in whom he dwells as a guarantee of the “eternal weight of glory” to come for believers at the resurrection (2 Corinthians 1:22; 3:18; 5:5, 9–11).
I. Paul’s Defense of His Ministry as an Apostle (1:1–7:16)
II. Paul’s Appeal to the Repentant Church Regarding the Collection (8:1–9:15)
III. Paul’s Appeal to the Rebellious Minority in Corinth (10:1–13:10)
IV. Closing Greetings (13:11–14)
The Setting of 2 Corinthians
The Global Message of 2 Corinthians
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians unlocks one of the great secrets of Christian life and ministry to believers all around the globe: God’s power is channeled through human weakness.
Second Corinthians and Redemptive History
Throughout the Old Testament we see an ever-heightening anticipation of the coming Messiah—a Davidic king who was expected to wipe out God’s enemies once and for all, restore God’s people, and reign forevermore (2 Samuel 7:12–16; Psalm 110; Jeremiah 33:14 –18; Daniel 7:13–14; Zechariah 6:12–13). Mingled in with these hope-filled prophecies, however, are perplexing predictions of a coming one who would suffer on behalf of God’s people (Psalm 22; Isaiah 52:13–53:12).
At the pinnacle of world history, God brought about his long-promised restoration through the suffering of his own Son. God brought together these two strands—the triumphant king and the suffering victim— in one person.
The result is that believers all over the world are not required to qualify themselves with any kind of moral goodness or education or family background or anything else they might bring to the table. Rather, all it takes to qualify for God’s favor is to acknowledge that one does not qualify—and then look to Christ. As God’s triumphant Son, Jesus qualified for God’s favor in a way none of us ever can. Yet as God’s suffering servant he allowed himself to be treated as one who was disqualified. Consequently, all people around the world who trust in him, though condemned in themselves, can be counted as righteous in God’s sight.
Universal Themes in 2 Corinthians
Strength in Weakness
This is the central message of 2 Corinthians. Throughout the letter Paul turns upside down our natural expectations of the way life works. Contrary to the way the world and our own human hearts naturally function, God takes what is low, despised, and weak to accomplish his purposes. Second Corinthians tells us that comfort comes through affliction (2 Corinthians 1:3–7), sufficiency through insufficiency (2 Corinthians 3:1–6), life through death (2 Corinthians 4:7–15), blessing through suffering (2 Corinthians 6:3–10), salvation through grief (2 Corinthians 7:2–10), abundance through poverty (2 Corinthians 8:1–2, 9, 14), and boasting through hardship (2 Corinthians 11:16–30). Chapter 12 then gives the key principle: God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Weakness is not good in itself, yet it is God’s chosen means of displaying his grace and glory and power.
Weakness is not good in itself, yet it is God’s chosen means of displaying his grace and glory and power.
One of the main reasons Paul wrote 2 Corinthians was to emphasize the importance of reconciliation among believers. Paul addresses the need for the Corinthians to reconcile with an estranged brother (2 Corinthians 2:5–11) as well as with Paul himself (2 Corinthians 7:2–16). Indeed, to fail to reconcile is to be outwitted by Satan (2 Corinthians 2:11). As believers face divisions across the global church as well as broken relationships closer to home, Paul’s gentle exhortations to pursue restoration when possible are words worth remembering.
In both letters to the church at Corinth but especially in 2 Corinthians, Paul gives a powerful example of what it means to lead the body of Christ. Above all, Christian leaders are to do what Christ himself did: pour out their lives in self-giving love for the sake of others. While Christians in no way atone for sin as Christ did, we do spread the knowledge of that atonement in the way he did—through sacrificial love (2 Corinthians 4:10–12). “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation” (2 Corinthians 1:6). “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). Servant leadership is not optional for the global church. It is not for some regions of the world but not for others. It is the high calling of all who lead God’s people.
The Global Message of 2 Corinthians for Today
The letter of 2 Corinthians provides rich comfort and hope for believers today around the world.
God’s way of measuring success and significance is entirely different than the world’s way. In many places today the church is publicly marginalized because it is seen as silly, or it is persecuted because it is seen as threatening, or it is simply ignored because it is seen as irrelevant. Judged by the world’s standards of influence, the church seems powerless at such times. Viewed with heaven’s eyes, however, it is often precisely in such places of adversity that the Spirit is alive and well and the gospel is advancing (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
This is hope-giving, but also humbling. In those places around the world today where statistics would seem to indicate that the church is healthy, such health may be hollow. Where the numbers seem to indicate success in evangelism, who knows how many will turn out to have been “rocky ground” (see Mark 4:5)? Where significant financial resources have produced slick programs and impressive services, has dependence on the Holy Spirit been neglected? God will accomplish his work in the world, whether “by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6).
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is therefore both heartening and chastening. It encourages those who are struggling while cautioning those whose lives may be outwardly impressive. As the global church continues to pursue our sacred calling to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), may we do so in the glad knowledge that natural eloquence, impressive resumes, and sparkling educations are not required for the Spirit to move in power. Such things, while good, may even get in the way. All that is needed is sincere openness to the Lord who in Christ became weak himself (2 Corinthians 13:4) so that weak sinners can know true strength, by his grace.