Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians seems to have been written shortly after the first letter was sent to Corinth. After reading through the second letter to the Corinthians has a far different tone and purpose than Paul’s first letter.
Structure of New Testament Letters
Knowing the form of a typical letter will help us find the key themes and key purpose for the writing of the book. The form of a first century letter had this look typically:
- Author and rank
- Body of letter
Let us examine Paul’s second letter and determine the overall message of the letter.
Structure of 2 Corinthians
Paul begins by stating that he is the author of this letter to the Corinthians and his rank is an apostles of Christ Jesus by God’s will. With Paul as he writes this letter is Timothy. Recall that in the first letter to the Corinthians Paul identified Sosthenes as the other Christian writing that letter with him. Now Paul says that he has Timothy with him as they write this letter to the Corinthians. The second half of verse 1 declares the recipients of the letter as, “the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia.” Therefore, this letter would not merely remain with the Christians at the Corinthians church, but its message was to be copied and given to all the Christians who lived in the region of Achaia. This letter would have also included the major city of Achaia, which is Athens. In Acts 17 we read of Paul going to Athens and preaching the gospel. This letter would have found its way to the saints who were in that city. Another important city in the region of Achaia is Cenchrea, where we read about a church in that city in Romans 16:1. Cenchrea was just down the road from Corinth and so the church in Cenchrea would have also had this letter copied to them. After the author, rank, and recipients are listed in a letter, the salutation would come next, which is what we see in 2 Corinthians: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” If you have read the other lessons you know that this was a typical greeting for Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews.
The next part of the letter we would expect is a form of thanksgiving. Consider the first letter to the Corinthians: “I always thank my God for you because of God’s grace given to you in Christ Jesus…” (1 Corinthians 1:4). But a section for thanksgiving is missing for Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and this omission would have been noted by the recipients. Rather than have a letter of thanksgiving, Paul gives thanks to God in the form of a benediction. This benediction is contained in verses 3-7. The benediction sets forth the theme and purpose of Paul’s second letter. As you read those verses there are two key recurring words in those five verses. First, the word “comfort” appears ten times in these five verses. Second, the word “affliction” or “suffering” appears seven times in these five verses. Comfort through afflictions is clearly the purpose of this letter for how often uses these words. While it seems that Paul is admitting the Corinthians have shared in affliction, verse 6 seems to be the key verse offering direction for this letter.
“If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in the endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer” (1:6). This sets the tone for the letter as Paul is going to explain the sufferings he has endured and why that should be a comfort to the Corinthians. From reading the letter it seems that the Corinthians had complaints against Paul. It seems the Corinthians did not know what is going with Paul and why Paul had not arrived as he said he would in the first letter. Because Paul had not arrived as he intended, it seems this has been an opportunity for some of the Corinthians to attack Paul’s actions and Paul’s character. Paul is going to take the opportunity in this letter to explain to the Corinthians what has been going on. This also explains why 2 Corinthians is a more emotional letter than 1 Corinthians. While the first letter is systematically dealing with the problems in the Corinthian church, the second letter reads more as an impassioned plea to the Corinthians about his own circumstances and how hurt he is that the Corinthians would think in this way about him.
The first five chapters are Paul’s explanation about what has happened to Paul since the first letter. Verse 8 kicks off the body of the letter with “We do not want you to be uninformed….” Specifically, Paul is going to inform the Corinthians about the afflictions they suffered in Asia. “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (1:8-9). Paul further elaborates that God “has delivered us from such a terrible death” (1:10).
Paul goes on to defend himself in his declaration and desire to come to Corinth. In verses 12-14 Paul says that we (Paul and Timothy) have conducted themselves toward them in sincerity and purity. In verse 15 Paul says that he planned to come to Corinth. Paul says that he did not make these plans lightly nor with duplicity. Paul was going to be faithful to his word. However, in verse 23 Paul says it was good that he did not come so as to spare them. He did not want to come to Corinth on another painful visit (2:1). He did not want to cause pain but to show his abundant love for them and that they would correct themselves.
Paul explains that he experienced more pain when he came to Troas and was unable to find Titus. So he left for Macedonia. But rather than elaborate about what has happened, Paul breaks away from this discussion, noting that the glory of God had been put on display through them (2:14). In chapter 3 Paul continues by describing how the gospel is the glory of God. Paul is by no means trying to bring glory to himself or need some sort of validation from the Corinthians. As Paul says in 3:5, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.” Consider in verses 7-18 of chapter 3 Paul’s intention is not to give a teaching about the old and new covenants. Paul is relating the glory of God and the glory of the covenant which compels Paul and his companions because they have received this ministry and calling from God (4:1). Paul continues this argument in 4:5, “For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves because of Jesus.”
But, Paul says that they have gone through great difficulty and only by God’s power are able to continue. “Now we have this treasure in clay jar, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us. We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (4:7-10). Paul is continuing to try to get the Corinthians to understand the great amount of turmoil they have experienced. “Therefore we do not give up; even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day” (4:16). Paul cannot but emphasize how near death they are and how much suffering they have endured. “For we know that if our earthly house, a tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (5:1). Everything that Paul is doing is in effort to be found pleasing to God (5:9). Paul does not say these things to receive the commending and approval of the Corinthians but to give an explanation as to why they have not been able to make their plans of coming to Corinth (5:12). All of Paul’s work and words were so that the Corinthians would be reconciled to God (5:20).
Chapters 6-9 seem to be a new section of the body of this letter to the Corinthians. “Working together with Him, we also appeal to you…” (6:1). This seems to set the tone of this section as Paul now makes an appeal to the Corinthians after making an explanation about his activities.
The first key appeal is that the Corinthians open their hearts to them. “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us” (6:11-12; NIV). What proceeds in the letter is Paul’s call to the Corinthians to bind their hearts to Paul and Timothy and not to those who have questioned them. Typically 6:14 has been taken out of context to refer to a teaching that Christians are not to marry non-Christians. But this is not at all the message of this verse and has been ripped far out of its context. Paul is asking the Corinthians to be joined to Paul, Timothy, and the apostles. This can be seen if we continue reading Paul’s words in this section. “Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you” (7:2-3).
This appeal is further presented to Corinthians because of the comfort Paul has received from the Corinthians (7:4). Paul has heard word from Titus and has received comfort from the Corinthians through Titus. Paul is rejoicing that the grief the Corinthians experienced has led to repentance. “For this reason we have been comforted. In addition to our comfort, we are made to rejoice even more over the joy Titus had, because his spirit was refreshed by all of you” (7:13).
Paul’s second appeal to the Corinthians is that they financially give for the relief of others and serving the saints. This is another grace that we are afforded in our ability to give to others (8:7). Paul points out if we are doing well and see another saint in need that we have an obligation to help (8:14-15). Paul uses some other principles to encourage the Corinthians to give to this cause. In verses 6-7 Paul says, “Remember this: the person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not out of regret or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Paul goes further to argue that we need to give in this way because it shows our thanksgiving to God for our prosperity. “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many acts of thanksgiving to God” (9:12).
The final section of this letter is Paul vindicating his actions along with the apostles. Chapter 10 begins, “Now I, Paul, make a personal appeal to you….” The key to how Paul is going to speak is found in 10:7, “You are looking at things as they are outwardly” (NASU). The problem is evident as he quotes some of the complaints of the Corinthians. “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible” (10:10). Since the Corinthians are looking at things outwardly, Paul is going to base his arguments on physical, outward things. This is also seen in 11:1 where Paul asks the Corinthians to put up with a little foolishness from him.
Therefore, Paul goes into arguing that he is not inferior to the “super-apostles.” Though his outward appearances and speech are not impressive, he has the knowledge and truth of Christ. If we are going to boast in the outward things, Paul says he has much that he could boast about. In verses 22-33 Paul gives his resume showing how he could boast in all of these external things. Paul adds that he was caught up into the third heaven where Paul spoke with the Lord about his weaknesses. Does this not make Paul a “super-apostle” since he had this experience? Paul says he will boast in his weaknesses so that the power of Christ may be displayed (12:9). Paul declares that he performed the signs of apostle with wonders and miracles (12:12). How did Paul mistreat them?
But now Paul is ready to come to them. Paul hopes that the Corinthians get themselves in order so he will not find them committing the sins of the flesh (12:20-21). Christ’s power has been displayed through the apostles, particularly Paul himself. Notice how verse 9 of chapter 13 reverts back to the original theme of the letter: “In fact, we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong.” This letter has been about the suffering of Paul and the comfort of the Corinthians. Paul has made great sacrifices for the Corinthians and hope the Corinthians will see that they have a deep love for them and have worked at great lengths on their behalf.
In verse 11 we read Paul’s closing to the Corinthians. In verses 12-13 Paul gives a brief greeting that they should greet one another and that all the saints greet them.