Here is a short summary of 2 Corinthians: 2 Corinthians is actually the fourth letter from Paul to the church in Corinth. There had been a serious breakdown in the relationship between Paul and members of the church, a lot of which was motivated by some traveling preachers who ran down Paul and promoted themselves. Paul had made a difficult visit to Corinth and sent a hard letter to them, calling them to repent. And thankfully most of them did. So he writes 2 Corinthians to restore the relationship and to urge those who still oppose his ministry to mend their ways.
A large part of this is explaining the nature of authentic gospel ministry as demonstrated by himself and his ministry team, showing that the weakness and suffering they endure is part of living out the gospel. Paul also encourages the church to resume collecting funds for the Jerusalem Christians as part of their return to supporting Paul’s ministry.
Backstory to 2 Corinthians
By the time Paul writes the letter we call 2 Corinthians, there has been a lot of back and forth between Paul and the church in Corinth, so much so that it can be hard to sort it all out. Their relationship has gone through a severe rough patch (to put it mildly) and now is beginning to come out the other side. Second Corinthians is written to restore that broken relationship with the majority of the church and to challenge those who still question Paul’s credentials as an apostle by calling them to repentance. The story that lies behind all of that goes something like this.
Paul started the church in Corinth A.D. 51 and stayed there for 18 months (Acts 18:1-22). Sometime later, Paul heard about a serious issue of immorality in the church in Corinth and wrote them a letter (which we don’t have access to) about how to handle it (1 Cor. 5:9).
A little while after that while he was in Ephesus on his third missionary journey, Paul received news from Corinth, both by word of mouth (1 Cor. 1:11) and in a letter (1 Cor. 7:1), raising questions and reporting some serious problems within the church.
In response to that communication, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.
Summary of 2 Corinthians: “Second Corinthians is written to restore that broken relationship with the majority of the church and to challenge those who still question Paul’s credentials as an apostle by calling them to repentance.”
Paul planned to visit Corinth himself in a little while, but before coming he planned on sending Timothy to Corinth. So he urged the Corinthians to treat Timothy with kindness when he comes. Shortly thereafter, Paul sent out Timothy and Erastus (Acts 19:21-22; 1 Cor. 16:10-11).
Not long after that, Paul received word that the problems in Corinth had gone from bad to worse. In addition to the Corinthians’ own issues, they had welcomed in some traveling preachers who had impressive letters of recommendation. These newcomers ran down Paul, questioning his legitimacy as an apostle and his entire approach to ministry. The church turned on Paul and things were a mess. So Paul decided to deal with the situation in person rather than send another letter.
Paul sailed from Ephesus to Corinth for a brief visit. It didn’t go well at all. Paul was publicly shamed and sailed back to Ephesus with a completely broken relationship to the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 2:1).
Once back in Ephesus, Paul wrote what he called a “sorrowful” letter, since his visit to Corinth hadn’t accomplished all he had hoped it would. This letter apparently was a very direct rebuke and call to repentance. Paul sent Titus to them with this letter (2 Cor. 2:3, 9) and resolved not to visit them again until he heard how they responded to this letter.
“These newcomers ran down Paul, questioning his legitimacy as an apostle and his entire approach to ministry.”
This was a change of plans on Paul’s part. He had originally planned to sail from Ephesus to Corinth, then travel north from Corinth through Macedonia, and then back to Corinth, and from there sail to Judea (2 Cor. 1:16). This change of plans was used against Paul by those who opposed him in Corinth.
Titus was supposed to deliver the “sorrowful” letter and urge the Corinthians to return to a good relationship with Paul. After that, he was to meet Paul in Troas to report how the Corinthian church responded (2 Cor. 2:12-13).
So at the approximate time they were supposed to meet up, Paul left Ephesus and traveled to Troas. He waited for a while, but Titus never showed. And Paul was deeply concerned. So he left Troas and sailed to Macedonia, hoping to find Titus there (Acts 20:1, 2 Cor. 2:12-13; 7:5).
By the grace of God, Titus and Paul connected in Macedonia (2 Cor. 7:6-7, 13). Titus brought a mixed report from Corinth: there was a spirit of repentance among the majority (2 Cor. 2:5ff.; 7:6-16), but some were still ridiculing Paul and holding him in contempt (2 Cor. 10:1-2, 7-18; 11:4ff.).
“Titus brought a mixed report from Corinth: there was a spirit of repentance among the majority (2 Cor. 2:5ff.; 7:6-16), but some were still ridiculing Paul and holding him in contempt.”
Paul determined to restore the relationship at least with the majority. So Paul wrote the letter we call 2 Corinthians (which is actually the fourth letter we know of that he wrote to them but only the second one passed on to us).
Paul sent Titus back to Corinth along with two others to deliver 2 Corinthians and prepare the Corinthians for Paul to visit (2 Cor. 8:18-19; 9:5). In addition to delivering 2 Corinthians, Titus and the others were also supposed to help the Corinthians resume the collection for the Jerusalem Christians that they had started the year before (2 Cor. 9:1-5; Rom. 15:25-32; 1 Cor. 16:1-4).
While they were delivering the letter and working to get things sorted out, Paul himself continued preaching in Macedonia, probably for close to a year, likely going west into Illyricum (Acts 20:2; Rom. 15:19). Finally, Paul traveled south to Corinth, reunited with the church, and spent the three winter months there (Acts 20:2-3).
Trying to keep in mind all of this backstory can make 2 Corinthians hard to understand. We are reading somebody else’s mail about a fight they’ve had and how they are now working to restore the relationship.
“We are reading somebody else’s mail about a fight they’ve had and how they are now working to restore the relationship.”
Paul writes 2 Corinthians to reaffirm his commitment to the church in Corinth and urge full reconciliation with him by those who have repented. As part of that, Paul has to explain his theology of ministry and why his ministry looks the way it does, even though it is very counter-cultural and looks so weak. He also needs to call out the unrepentant to mend their ways, and to challenge them to reject those who have come into the church (whom Paul pejoratively calls “super-apostles”) and who turned them against Paul.
It’s this complex web of relationships that makes 2 Corinthians feel a bit erratic. Paul is writing fully aware of his position under God as an apostle. He’s thinking of the majority who have pledged their support of him and his ministry. But he’s also aware of those who still oppose him. All of those relationships affect what he says and how he says it.
An Overview of 2 Corinthians
The letter of 2 Corinthians has three main sections: chs. 1-7, chs. 8-9, and chs. 10-13. These sections are very distinct, and each has its own focus and tone.
Chapters 1-7: The Nature of Paul’s Ministry and the Corinthians
These chapters focus on restoring the relationship with those who have renewed their support of Paul and his ministry, but not without occasional glances at those who still reject Paul’s leadership. The heart of this section is Paul’s theology of ministry which shapes everything he does in life and ministry.
After the introduction and greetings in 1:1-2, Paul begins the letter in 1:3-11 by praising God for the comfort and strength he regularly gives them in all the affliction they endure in service to God on behalf of others. God comforts Paul and his team so they can comfort others. Paul even recounts a recent episode where the affliction was so bad that he thought he might die, but God delivered him. This opening paragraph introduces a key theme of the letter that has been a large part of the problem between the Corinthians and Paul, namely all of Paul’s sufferings which make him look very weak and dishonorable.
Summary of 2 Corinthians: “These chapters focus on restoring the relationship with those who have renewed their support of Paul and his ministry.”
Before Paul addresses the matter of his sufferings, he acknowledges another issue that has been used against him in the Corinthian church, namely the matter of his travel plans and his integrity. In 1:12-22, Paul assures the church that he is not self-serving or wishy-washy but his choices and behavior even in something as minor as his itinerary are in accordance with God’s faithfulness as seen in Jesus.
So it was actually for their sake that he changed his plans and decided not to come back to Corinth for a while (1:23-2:4). He even encourages the church (since most of them have repented and returned to Paul) to reaffirm their love for the person(s) who stirred up the trouble and have now repented, as well (2:5-11).
Then Paul recounts his trip to meet up with Titus who had taken the sorrowful letter to Corinth (2:12-13). He breaks off the story rather than telling us all that happened (he’ll pick it back up in 7:5ff). He does summarize, however, his grateful reaction upon finding Titus, and describes his ministry in terms of a Roman triumphal procession in 2:14-17. This becomes the springboard for Paul’s extended exploration of his theology of ministry, especially in relation to suffering and weakness, which takes up the next several chapters.
“Paul assures the church that he is not self-serving or wishy-washy but his choices and behavior even in something as minor as his itinerary are in accordance with God’s faithfulness as seen in Jesus.”
In 3:1-3, Paul tells the Corinthians that unlike those who have shown up in Corinth credentialing themselves with letters of recommendations, Paul and his team don’t need such letters because the Corinthian believers are themselves Paul’s letter of recommendation, commending his ministry. Paul’s ministry is a ministry of the Spirit in keeping with the new covenant promises, and in 3:4-18, Paul’s argues that this new covenant ministry has greater glory than the old covenant ministry of Moses. It leads to an unveiled relationship with God.
Therefore, Paul rejects trickery and self-promotion, and instead straightforwardly imparts the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ (4:1-5). In 4:6-15, Paul explains that to do this entails embodying Christ, not just proclaiming him. So he and his team suffer because they are carrying about in their bodies (which he compares to a fragile jar of clay) the very death of Jesus, so that they can also display the resurrection of Jesus.
And Paul doesn’t lose heart in all of this and the affliction it involves, because he’s confident of the resurrection and focuses on the things of eternity (4:16-18). In 5:1-10, Paul explains that this focus on eternal things causes him to desire his heavenly body and being with the Lord, and this hope gives him great courage.
“Paul explains that this focus on eternal things causes him to desire his heavenly body and being with the Lord, and this hope gives him great courage.”
Paul then explains in 5:11-21 that because he knows that his life and ministry are accountable to God, he is constrained by the love of Christ to be his ambassador. Paul has been reconciled to God and given the ministry of reconciliation, so he seeks to pass on the righteousness of God.
In view of this, Paul appeals for the Corinthians to return to God (6:1-2) and restates that his weaknesses and suffering actually commend his ministry rather than undermine it (6:3-13).
This leads to a call for full restoration of their relationship in 6:14-7:4. He urges them to open their heart fully to him and not to be bound with unbelievers, since they are the temple of God.
Then Paul resumes the story about searching for and finding Titus in 7:5-16. Paul was deeply comforted by the news Titus brought about how the Corinthians had responded. So even though the letter Paul had sent caused them sorrow, he rejoices that it led to repentance.
“Even though the letter Paul had sent caused them sorrow, he rejoices that it led to repentance.”
Chapters 8-9: The Collection for the Jerusalem Christians
For about a year, Paul has been working on collecting funds to deliver to the Christians in Jerusalem, and the Corinthians were early adopters of this project. So in these chapters, Paul reminds the Corinthians of their commitment to give to this work and he calls them to have their offering ready when he comes. This is a very tangible way they can demonstrate their renewed support of Paul’s ministry.
So in 8:1-7, Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to abound in giving to the Jerusalem Christians, just as the churches of Macedonia are doing. Since they were one of the first churches to commit to this project over a year ago, they should complete the offering (8:8-15).
Organizing and completing this project is actually one of the reasons Paul sent Titus back. Titus was eager to return, and Paul sent two others with him to ensure integrity in this generous work (8:16-24). In 9:1-5, Paul further explains that he has sent Titus and the others so that neither Paul nor the Corinthians will have any cause to be ashamed due to lack of preparation when he arrives with the rest of the delegates from the other churches involved in the project.
“Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to abound in giving to the Jerusalem Christians, just as the churches of Macedonia are doing.”
Paul concludes this section in 9:6-15 by assuring them that their generosity depends on God who will graciously provide for them so they can give (sow) bountifully and cheerfully.
Chapters 10-13: Paul’s Ministry and a Call for the Rest of the Corinthians to Repent
In this final section, Paul calls out the vocal minority who remain opposed to him and his ministry, announcing his intention to confront them directly when he comes if they don’t change their ways. Because of this, the tone changes in these chapters but the theology of ministry from chapters 1-7 shines through at every turn.
In 10:1-11, Paul says he carries out his ministry with divine power in order to take every thought captive to Christ. Therefore, he has the authority to punish them if necessary but would prefer to use his authority to build them up.
Paul then explains that in contrast to the so-called “super apostles” who came into their church from the outside, they are actually his sphere of ministry because he was the first to bring them the gospel (10:12-18). This is why, Paul continues in 11:1-5, he is so jealous for them. He loves them like a father betrothing them to Christ. Therefore he urges them to reject the false apostles.
Summary of 2 Corinthians: “He loves them like a father betrothing them to Christ.”
Those false apostles have shown up and boasted in their credentials. They shamed Paul for his suffering, weakness, and lack of such credentials as theirs. So Paul decides to entertain their challenge for him to boast just like they boast. But in keeping with his theology of ministry as embodying the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul turns boasting on its head. In 11:16-33, Paul “boasts” in his weaknesses and sufferings. According to 12:1-13, even though Paul has had incredible spiritual experiences that he could boast in, he boasts in his weaknesses because God showed him that his grace is sufficient and that his power is perfected in weakness.
Then Paul returns to his relationship with the Corinthians and what he expects of them. In 12:14-21, Paul challenges them to recognize that he has demonstrated his love for them by expending himself on their behalf, like a parent for his children. He asks them to be honest: has he taken advantage of them? No, he hasn’t, and none of those he’s sent to them have done so. His aim has always been to build them up, but he’s uncertain what kind of behavior he’ll find when he comes to them.
So when he comes, he’ll spare no one if need be (13:1-4). Therefore, they should examine themselves to make sure they are in Christ so that they’ll be made complete and Paul won’t need to confront anyone when he comes. The Lord gave him his authority for building up, not tearing down (13:5-10).
“They should examine themselves to make sure they are in Christ so that they’ll be made complete and Paul won’t need to confront anyone when he comes.”
Paul then signs off the letter in 13:11-14 by urging them to work at unity and promises that if they do, God will be with them. His final words are a prayer-wish for the grace, love, and fellowship of the triune God to be with them.
2 Corinthians in 10 Passages
1. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer.
—2 Corinthians 1:6
2. But as God is faithful, our word to you is not yes and no. For the Son of God, Christ Jesus, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silvanus and Timothy—was not yes and no, but has been yes in Him. For as many as the promises of God are, in Him they are yes; therefore through Him also is our Amen to the glory of God through us.
—2 Corinthians 1:18-20
3. But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us reveals the fragrance of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.
—2 Corinthians 2:14-15
Summary of 2 Corinthians: “We are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”
4. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. But we all, with unveiled faces, looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:17-18
5. For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen containers, so that the extraordinary greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.
—2 Corinthians 4:6-7
6. Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer person is decaying, yet our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.
—2 Corinthians 4:16-17
Summary of 2 Corinthians: “Our momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.”
7. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin in our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
—2 Corinthians 5:20-21
8. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.
—2 Corinthians 7:10
9. Now I say this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows generously will also reap generously. Each one must do just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
—2 Corinthians 9:6-7
Summary of 2 Corinthians: “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.”
10. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in distresses, in persecutions, in difficulties, in behalf of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
—2 Corinthians 12:9-10
 All Scripture references are from the NASB
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