The book of 2 Corinthians reveals the apostle Paul’s profound concern for members of the Corinthian church. Its lessons are vitally important for each of us.
Soon after Paul sent the letter we call 1 Corinthians, he departed from Ephesus and traveled to Troas and then on to Macedonia. While he was there, Titus brought good news of the positive response of the congregation in Corinth to Paul’s admonitions and correction (2 Corinthians 7:6-16).
Unfortunately, not all was good news.
“From him Paul learned that his faithful reproofs had awakened in the minds of the Corinthian Christians a godly sorrow, and a practical regard for the proper discipline of the Church. But there were also symptoms of a painful kind. The faction connected with the false teachers was still depreciating his apostolic authority, and misrepresenting his motives and conduct; even using his former letter to bring new charges against him” (The Universal Bible Dictionary, p. 112).
Paul writes another letter to Corinth
On hearing about these problems and allegations, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians and again sent the letter with Titus. His main purpose was to encourage the faithful members and warn them against being led astray by false teachers. He also prepared them for his intended visit. He hoped to find the mind-set of the disorderly element changed (12:20-21; 13:1-2).
Referring to this second epistle as “the pastoral epistle par excellence,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says, “In this epistle we can see beautiful examples of the tenderness of a spiritual shepherd sensitive to the needs of his flock … ; the pleading of a spiritual father jealous of his children’s affections, purity and unity” (Vol. 11, revised edition, p. 434).
The Lion Handbook to the Bible states, “2 Corinthians is perhaps the most intensely personal of all Paul’s letters. We feel for ourselves the weight of his burden of care for all the churches (11:28): the depth of his love for them and his anguished concern for their spiritual progress. … Paul writes in defence of his ministry and his God-given authority as an apostle” (David and Pat Alexander, p. 596).
Accusations leveled at Paul
Paul had been very concerned about the Corinthians: “For indeed, when we came to Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears. Nevertheless God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Corinthians 7:5-6). It was Titus who brought the good news about the positive reaction of the Corinthian members to Paul’s previous epistle. Paul was elated and overjoyed!
The majority of the Corinthian Church had complied and submitted to Paul’s admonitions. Unfortunately a small group continued with their opposition and accusations against the apostle.
“The same opponents accused him likewise of egregious vanity, and of cowardly weakness; they declared that he was continually threatening without striking, and promising without performing; always on his way to Corinth, but never venturing to come; and that he was as vacillating in his teaching as in his practice” (W.J. Conybeare and J.S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, p. 439).
Sections of 2 Corinthians are devoted to countering the opposition stemming from these would-be teachers.
Cultural context of the city of Corinth
The members in Corinth faced many negative influences from the society around them. As the capital of the Roman province of Achaia in the southern part of Greece, Corinth was a large port city. It was the center of extensive commerce and attracted many strangers from all over the world. Corinth was also where the Isthmian Games were held.
It was known for its wealth, luxury and licentious living. The worship of Aphrodite formed an important part of the religious life of the inhabitants. It became known as the most corrupt and profligate city in Greece.
Outline of 2 Corinthians
The following is an outline of the subjects covered in 2 Corinthians:
Paul explained how God comforted him during severe trials. He acknowledged the prayerful support of the Corinthian members. He explained why he had to change his plans to visit them.
Paul encouraged the members to forgive and accept the wayward person mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5. He described his distress and anguish of heart and God’s merciful intervention (2 Corinthians 2:4-5).
Paul explained the ministry of the New Covenant and contrasted it with the administration of the Old Covenant. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the “veil” (lack of understanding of God’s ways) is removed from those called during this age: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image [of Christ] from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (3:18).
Paul explained how “the god of this age” (Satan) has blinded the minds of unbelievers “lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ … should shine on them” (4:4). Paul referred to his sufferings and how at times he faced the prospect of death (4:7-15).
However, Paul received encouragement by focusing on the future promises, rather than only on his present circumstances. He said, “Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (4:16). His focus was firmly fixed on “the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (4:18, emphasis added throughout).
Paul gave assurance of the resurrection and the joy of appearing in Christ’s presence at His return (5:1-11). He continued to illustrate what true conversion is and how Christians are brought into harmony (reconciled) with Christ: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is [let him be] a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new” (5:17).
Paul provided proof that he was a minister of Jesus Christ, a fact that had been called into question by the would-be teachers (6:1-10). He warned the members against compromising with society, since they were now children of God: “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty” (6:18).
Paul was overjoyed by the genuine repentance of the members of the Church of God at Corinth. He explained the difference between a worldly sorrow that “leads to death” and godly sorrow that leads to eternal life. He listed the qualities of godly sorrow to reassure them they were “clear in this matter” (7:9-12). These characteristics can be very helpful to us in analyzing our own level of repentance when we have sinned.
These chapters contain instruction on the importance of developing a giving attitude, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (9:7). The churches of Macedonia set a wonderful example of giving under the most difficult circumstances—they had a “willing mind” to support and care for others in need (8:12; 9:6-9).
Paul mentioned the relief fund for the poor saints in Jerusalem and encouraged them to complete the collection of goods for the fund (8:16-9:15).
Our Creator is a great giver. He was willing to give us the greatest gift of all, His Son, who died in our stead because of our sins (Romans 6:23; John 3:16). He expects us to develop the attitude of giving as well.
The Bible extols the virtues of giving. Two of the 10 Commandments, the eighth and the 10th, contrast the two ways of life: getting and giving. For further information, download and read our booklet God’s 10 Commandments: Still Relevant Today.
Paul warned the Corinthians against the deceptive devices of Satan and the daily spiritual warfare Christians are engaged in (2 Corinthians 10:1-6). He then turned his attention to his critics who had attacked him on a number of fronts. He categorically proved that he was not lacking in any of the qualities of a true apostle of Jesus Christ and answered the charges leveled against him (10:7-11).
As further proof that he was not a second-rate apostle, he listed the many incidents of suffering and hardships he had endured in order to serve the churches and preach the gospel (11:22-33).
Paul described “visions and revelations of the Lord” when one (Paul) was “caught up to the third heaven” (12:1-6). But he was given “a thorn in the flesh” in order to keep him humble. He asked God to remove it, but instead God said He would give Paul the strength to endure the trial (12:7-10). Despite the affliction, God would demonstrate His power in his life.
Here Paul takes a slightly different approach to those questioning his authority. Paul’s accusers questioned his legitimacy as an apostle, but he admonished them to examine themselves: “Examine [put to the test] yourselves [not Paul] as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (13:5). They were to take stock of their own (not others’) spiritual condition. The likely result of this examination was that his accusers would then understand that he, Paul, and his fellow ministers were “not disqualified” (13:6).
Repentance is a vital part of our Christian growth, and it is a requirement in order for us to receive the power of the Holy Spirit—and ultimately eternal life.Paul warns them that on his return he will not hesitate to use his apostolic authority if necessary (13:1-10).
In conclusion, Paul encouraged them: “Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete [strive for perfection]. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (13:11).
Repentance: the foundation on which we build our lives
The subject of repentance is one of the main themes of 2 Corinthians.
How important is repentance?
Christ said that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Repentance is a vital part of our Christian growth, and it is a requirement in order for us to receive the power of the Holy Spirit—and ultimately eternal life. During the process of repentance, we come to understand how much we have lived contrary to the will and the laws of God. That is when the true Christian life really begins. It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
What is repentance?
Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary defines the Greek word for repentance as “‘to change one’s mind or purpose,’ always in the NT, involving change for the better, an amendment, and always, except in Luke 17:3, 4 , of ‘repentance’ from sin” (“Repent, Repentance”).
With the understanding that repentance is the foundation upon which we build our Christian lives, 20th-century Church leader Herbert W. Armstrong defined repentance as follows: “Repentance is a change of mind and ATTITUDE. It is a change from this carnal attitude of hostility toward God—of rebellion against God’s Law, to the opposite attitude of love, submission, obedience, and worship of God, and reliance on Him. It is an ‘about-face’ in attitude and intent, to the way of God’s righteousness. …
“It means to be so SORRY, not only for what you have done, but also for WHAT YOU ARE! … It means wanting to be made righteous” (What Do You Mean … “The Unpardonable Sin”?).
Why did the apostle Paul express such delight and elation at the Corinthians’ repentance?
The previous letter produced the right result. It moved most of the members to genuine godly repentance. Paul stated: “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner. … For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).
In verse 11 Paul explained the formula for genuine and godly repentance. (Read more about this in our article “Godly Sorrow.”)
Each of us should be willing to acknowledge that our own ways do not always please God. Unless we truly repent, we will miss out on the inheritance God has planned for those who love Him—those who have repented of their own carnal ways (1 Corinthians 2:9-10; 1 Peter 1:3-5).
May we never lose sight of the incredible promises God has given us in the Bible.
Read more about Paul and his letters in the section “Epistles of Paul.”
For a quick link to all the other books of the Bible, see “Books of the Bible” on the Learning Center.