Why Paul Wrote 2 Corinthians

by R. Kent Hughes, contributed by our Friends at Crossway
| Time: 6 Minutes

Americans with a sense of their own history should have no difficulty relating to the biblical city of Corinth because in many ways it parallels the bustling cities of the American West around the turn of the century—cities like Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco.

Classical Corinth had been destroyed in 146 BC by the Romans and had remained uninhabited for a hundred years, until 44 BC when Julius Caesar rebuilt it. So when Paul visited Corinth in AD 49–50, it was just over eighty years old with a population of some 80,000. Yet, during its short history Corinth had become the third most important city of the Roman Empire, behind Alexandria and Rome itself.[1] Situated on the isthmus of Greece, it was variously called the “master of harbors,” “the crossroads of Greece,” and “a passage for all mankind.”[2] Corinth embodied an economic miracle and was the envy of the lesser cities of the Empire.

The Corinthian Population

As with the cities of America’s so-called “Western Expansion,” the popu­lation of Corinth was largely immigrant and opportunist, filled with those seeking a better life. Corinth became the popular answer to Rome’s overpopu­lation—and especially its freedmen (those who had formerly been slaves), who became Corinth’s largest segment. Neo-Corinth also became a favorite venue for ex-Roman soldiers seeking a better life for their families. Corinth also attracted ethnic diversity from far and wide. Acts 18 reports of a substan­tial Jewish community that exercised self-governance (cf. Acts 18:8, 17).

The Corinthian Culture

In AD 50 Corinth was a young Roman city with shallow roots. Traditions were few, and thus society was relatively open. There was no city in the Empire more conducive to advancement.[3]

Because there was no landed aristocracy in Corinth, wealth became the sole factor for respect and ascendancy. New Testament scholar Scott Hafemann summarizes:

Corinth was a free-wheeling “boom town,” filled with materialism, pride, and the self-confidence that comes with having made it in a new place and with a new social identity. The “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-boot­straps” mentality that would become so characteristic of the American frontier filled the air.[4]

The parallels with modern Western life continue. Corinth was a sports and entertainment culture. Caesar had reinstituted the Isthmian games in Corinth (which were second only to the Olympics). The city’s theater held up to 18,000 and the concert hall some 3,000. Travel, tourism, sex, and religious pluralism were woven together in Corinth’s new culture.

Significantly, while Nero never visited Athens and Sparta, he spent con­siderable time in Corinth, enjoying the adulation of its voluptuous pop­ulace.[5] The similarities to modern Western culture are so striking that a California pastor, Ray Stedman, used to call Paul’s Corinthian letters “First and Second Californians”!

Second Californians or not, we all must understand that the self-made-man ethos, the “I-did-it-my-way” pride and individualism, the nouveau-riche worship of health and wealth, the religious pluralism of Corinth—these together presented a formidable challenge to Paul’s style, method, and mes­sage of presenting the simple gospel. The composite culture of Corinth does truly invite our calling this letter “Second Californians” or “Second Texans” or “Second Minnesotans” or “Second City.”

What Happened After Paul Wrote 1 Corinthians

Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church became stormy, to say the least. It began well enough when Paul, with the help of the godly couple Aquila and Priscilla and his faithful disciples Timothy and Silas, established the church in Corinth during a one-and-a-half-year visit (cf. Acts 18:1–17). There in Corinth, despite an outcry from his Jewish coun­trymen, Paul stood tall and preached the cross, leaving behind a remark­able church.

After Paul left Corinth, he traveled to Ephesus and from there to Jerusalem and then back to Ephesus, where he wrote 1 Corinthians—about three years after his initial founding visit. At the time of his writing that epistle, he planned to visit Corinth again to gather up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem. But in the interim he sent Timothy to visit the Corinthian believers (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1–11). What Timothy encountered was an incipient, growing apostasy, likely the work of Paul’s enemies who had recently come from Jerusalem. In a flash Paul decided to pay the Corinthians a visit, briefly tend to matters, and be on his way.

Why Paul Wrote 2 Corinthians

But what a shock awaited Paul—his infamous, “painful visit” (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:1)—seismic misery. The apostle’s authority, even his apos­tleship, was called into question. If Paul was for real, why was there so much suffering in his life? they asked. Also, why was his ministry so lack­luster when compared with the ministry of others? Why was his preach­ing so dull? And why did he change his travel plans if God was actually directing his life? Moreover, what lay behind his refusal to accept payment for his services, as most preachers did? Was he really collecting money for the poor? Why didn’t Paul have letters of recommendation like the others? Why didn’t he regale them with stories about God’s power in his ministry? Was it because there were none? Tragically, this attack on Paul’s ministry and person had led many of his Corinthian converts to reject him and his preaching for “a different gospel” (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:4).

Paul left Corinth wounded and devastated. In his own words, “I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you” (2 Corinthians 2:1 ESV). Still stung, back in Ephesus, Paul sent Titus to Corinth with a new and “severe” let­ter (2 Corinthians 2:5). It was a letter of great emotion. “For I wrote to you,” says Paul, “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4 ESV). Paul called for repentance. And, all glory to God, the Corinthian church did repent! As he would observe, “For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us” (2 Corinthians 7:8, 9 ESV). The majority came back to Paul and his gospel, but some still rejected his authority. Thus it was that Paul wrote the magnificent letter of Second Corinthians in AD 55 as he began to make plans to return for a third visit (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:14; 13:1).

Why We Want to Read 2 Corinthians

So today we can read and study this letter, the most emotional of all the apostle’s writings. Nowhere is Paul’s heart so torn and exposed as in this let­ter. Second Corinthians bears a fierce tone of injured love, of paradoxically wounded, relentless affection. Toward the letter’s end Paul will say, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (2 Corinthians 11:28, 29 ESV).

If you have ever invested your life in that of another, so that one turns to Christ (perhaps a child or a friend or a coworker or a relative) and then have had others lead that one astray, 2 Corinthians is for you. This book is about the nature of the gospel and authentic ministry. Those who really care about the gospel and the care of souls will find 2 Corinthians captivating. For those who don’t care, this is about what your heart ought to be—and about what you ought to be about!

As Paul conveys his brief two-verse greeting to the Corinthians, he leaves no uncertainty as to what he is about—namely, to preserve his apos­tleship and to preserve the church.

. . .


[1] Scott J. Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 23.

[2] Timothy B. Savage, Power Through Weakness, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 86 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 42.

[3] Ibid., p. 35.

[4] Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, p. 24.

[5] Savage, Power Through Weakness, p. 48.

Content taken from 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness by R. Kent Hughes, ©2012. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
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