The second letter to the Corinthians was written by Paul the same year as the first, around 55 AD. We know from 2 Cor. 2:13 and 7:5 that it was written from Macedonia. The main topic is about Paul establishing his credentials as having authority from Jesus, against accusers among the Corinthians. Paul will state clearly that his authority is not to command but to build up. That is, no one could claim better or closer faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus.
As with his first letter, Paul begins with the positive. He explains that the things we suffer are partially to make us sympathetic with others who suffer and to show them how we get through it. This is good to remember whenever we start thinking Christians aren’t supposed to suffer, or that being saved means a life of ease. Paul uses his own experiences as an example of this principle. The Corinthians had been generous with both monetary gifts and prayers.
Then Paul explains that he had intended to visit them previously but was unable. For this “crime” he was accused of not being reliable or honest. He appeals to their memory of his original presentation of the Gospel to them, which he did clearly and without confusion. This should dispel any accusations about his intentions.
The “how” and “why” of the security of the believer is stated in 1:22. We have been sealed and given the Holy Spirit as a down payment on what is to come. Both of these are legal terms: a seal is an official stamp of authenticity, and a down payment is a guarantee of the eventual completion of a transaction. So every true believer is stamped with the Seal of God, and has a Deposit to guarantee our inheritance, which is eternal life in heaven. Neither of these things depend upon us or have any kind of escape clause. We are not at liberty to revoke either. Remember that Paul had earlier spoken of how we will have our deeds tested, and here he gives further assurance that our deeds have nothing to do with our salvation, but only our rewards.
Paul says that he and other leaders did not consider themselves masters but co-workers. Many think that authority among believers is all about domination and control, but instead it is about people of varying gifts serving each other. He then explains that he had sent the earlier harsh letter for the purpose of showing how much he cared about them, and that he had no pleasure in having to write such a letter.
When Paul uses the singular (someone, a person, a woman) he means a specific individual. There is good support for this also in light of the fact that when Paul discusses a false teacher he names names, but a deceived or ignorant person doesn’t get named. This section seems to be addressing the situation of the man practicing incest that Paul had written about before. He is telling the Corinthians to now restore this repentant man publicly, since he had paid the due penalty for his sin and turned away from it. The devil would have loved nothing more than for this healing believer to be crushed and defeated, and for the others to be hard and proud.
After briefly mentioning his short visit to Troas, Paul gives an analogy of the believers’ effect on the world which parallels that of Jesus’ “salt and light” analogy. We are described as “smelling like God”. To those who are open to the Gospel we are a sweet aroma of life, but to those who are not we are the stench of death. This is good to remember when we witness, since by their reaction to this “smell” we have some idea of whether the lost person is open or not to hearing the Gospel. Further, he points out that we are to be sincere in our witnessing, not following the worldly model of marketing.
The idea of marketing the Gospel is a great blight on the churches today. Everything is packaged to sell to the masses and appeal to the emotions. The emphasis is on the experience, on the here and now, instead of on Jesus and his sacrifice for us. We have lost our “scent”, our saltiness, our light. People are no longer able to “smell God” in us, so they don’t react with revulsion even if they are not open to the true Gospel.
Apparently some at Corinth were demanding that Paul produce some credentials to prove his teaching authority. But he reminds them that they themselves are his “letter of recommendation”, one written by God. Everything comes from him, not any human, and the old ways are gone. We are under a new contract or Testament that brings life, as opposed to the old Law that brought death. Yet if even the old Law was to be honored, then the honor due the New Testament must be far greater. Paul is trying to express how much superior the new ways are to the old, and he uses it to explain his boldness in speech.
Paul makes the statement that the minds of people are still veiled whenever Moses is read, and some take that to mean they are incapable of accepting the Gospel message. But that notion is demolished in the very next statement: when someone turns to the Master, the veil is removed. Fatalism1 would say it exactly backwards: when the veil is removed, someone turns to the Master.
Paul again testifies to his motives and innocence in declaring the truth to them. But then he refers again to “veiling” and talks about unbelievers being blinded by “the god of this age”. Some would take this to mean that the devil overrides a person’s will so they cannot respond to the Gospel. But if this were true, Paul would be contradicting himself. The key is found in Romans 1, where we see that God only “gave them over” to depravity after they suppressed the truth (vs. 18). These people had known God but rejected him (vs. 21). Clearly, the Paul that wrote those words would not tell a different story to the Corinthians.
He again points out that it is not he or his fellow workers but Jesus that is being preached. The same One who said “Let there be light” was shedding light in their minds. Yet this amazing light is held in common pottery so to speak, mere mortals. As such, we are under constant pressure but we must endure it and be found faithful. But of course our strength comes only from God, not ourselves.
As further encouragement, Paul tells them that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead will raise us up too. Outwardly we appear to be wasting away, but inwardly we keep getting renewed. We keep our eyes fixed on the goal, on things we cannot yet see, which are the only things that last. We live in this “earthly house” temporarily, to be replaced by an “everlasting house”; we groan in our mortal bodies as we wait for our spiritual ones.
Paul makes the comment he has made elsewhere: we have the Spirit as a down payment for our immortal bodies; it is guaranteed. This gives us confidence, the assurance of our hope in the Master. But of course this hope is no license to sin; Paul has made that very clear in his writings. Yet neither is it right to constantly doubt our salvation, as this would be a lack of faith in the power of God to keep us safe (see 1 Peter 1:5).
Another point in this passage is that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Master. This contradicts the idea of “soul sleep”, which argues that when a believer dies they enter into an unconscious state until resurrected. There is no hint of any time gap between the two events (death and heaven), seeing that they are even written in the same sentence. Who looks forward to eons of sleep? There is no comfort in being in the Master’s presence if we are unaware of it.
Once again, Paul has to defend his motives and actions against the false teachers. He appeals to the Corinthians’ personal experience with him and the fact that his motives should be obvious. What matters is what is in the heart.
Paul writes once more against any idea of a license to sin, that we should no longer live for ourselves. We are a new creation that seeks to please the One who died for us. An important statement about what exactly Jesus did for us is brought out here: that he reconciled (restored to friendship) the world to God. This is the Gospel message we are to be spreading. We are ambassadors on Jesus’ behalf. He reconciled the world, so that all anyone has to do to be saved is accept Jesus and what he did.
But this is not Universalism,2 which doesn’t distinguish between reconciliation and salvation. What Jesus did was to reverse the separation between God and man that Adam caused, making salvation by faith possible (and “legal” concerning God’s holiness). The difference between a person’s spending eternity in either heaven or hell is based solely on faith in the risen Jesus, not on our deeds. So “judgment day” is not about salvation, but about payment for wages earned. John 3:18 says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
So the whole world was reconciled with God by Jesus’ sacrifice, and now we are to spread this Gospel to everyone, showing them that they can have salvation just by trusting in the Jesus who died for them and rose again. Reconciliation involves two parties, so even though God did his part in this, we still have to accept it to make the reconciliation complete. Those who are not reconciled to God have only themselves to blame. After explaining the Gospel message, Paul once again implores the believers to not receive God’s favor in vain but to “walk the walk”, to live like salvation matters.
Again Paul gives his credentials, listing the ways in which he and others have given themselves to the spreading of the Gospel. He shows by personal example the proper Christian life, and the perseverance required in the face of opposition. He contrasts appearances and outward treatment with the inner strength and purity of those who are truly disciples.
He appeals to the Corinthians to observe his openness and honesty. Any problems between them and him are laid at their feet, so he challenges them to return his openness.
Next is the famous passage about being in partnership with unbelievers (trad. “unequally yoked”). This is not between spouses of varying ethnicity or skin color, as has been popularly supposed, but between believers and unbelievers. Marriage isn’t even in view here. The language Paul uses is clearly about good and evil, light and darkness, God and Satan. He appeals to their knowledge of the old Law for the need to be separate from all evil.
Paul continues to implore the Corinthians to open up to him and stop the false accusations. He has done nothing to deserve their suspicion of his motives, since he has in fact bragged about them to others.
Paul regrets having had to grieve them over various issues, but at the same time he is convinced it was necessary. It fulfilled its purpose of changing the people’s minds about their wrong attitudes.
Paul abruptly changes to the subject of charity among believers of differing locations. He stresses that such giving cannot be coerced, demanded, or forced, but must be free and voluntary. Verses 8-9 make it even clearer that this is not any kind of divine command.
What Paul is telling the Corinthians is that they must follow through on their prior actions when it comes to giving; they must not only talk about it but do what they said they’d do. Notice that this is not to be a case of “giving beyond your means” as the popular saying goes, but from what we can afford. Many preachers like to insist that a Christian can’t really give until they have first “tithed”, and they lay a burden of guilt on any who disagree. But this flies in the face of what the Bible actually says to believers. God looks on the heart, not the bank account.
Further emphasis on the nature of true giving is spelled out for us: Giving is not so others will have relief while you will have hardship, but to produce equality. We give to those who are in need until they are back on their feet, and then if the tables are later turned, those who are then in need can expect help from others.
Notice also that there is no mention here of giving to “the Master’s work” or buying a building or paying salaries or anything else tradition has invented. This is about people with means helping people without means, and it only goes one way until the situation is remedied. It is not a perpetual, planned, legalistic obligation at all. When preachers try to shame people into “giving”, they remove any possibility of it being done Biblically, since paying out of fear or guilt is the wrong motivation.
Brief mention is made of Titus, whom Paul recommends to them and encourages them to respect. There is speculation that the unnamed believer traveling with him may be Onesimus who is mentioned in Philemon, but we really don’t know. But above all, Paul wants everything to be done with the utmost integrity, especially concerning the handling of money.
Paul continues with strongly encouraging the Corinthians to follow through on their intention to give generously, recommending that they don’t wait till the last minute to collect the money. Paul has stuck his neck out in boasting about them, so he doesn’t want to look like a liar if they don’t put their words into action.
Again, he makes it clear that any real giving is a matter of personal conscience, because “God loves a cheerful giver”. We can’t give cheerfully when we have fear or guilt. It is God, not any preacher, who will prompt the people’s hearts to give as he wills. Then as further incentive he reminds them of the Gift of Life they received.
Now we come to a lengthy passage in which Paul expresses his exasperation with the Corinthians regarding his standing as an Ambassador or missionary (trad. apostle, a transliteration of the Greek word for someone sent out on a mission).
Paul would much prefer to be gentle with the Corinthians, but he warns them that if he has to he will be more than the “paper tiger” he is accused of being. Of course he was meek in person, not wanting to draw attention to himself but to Jesus. But now, since they’ve been asking for it, he intends to take the gloves off at his next visit.
Some take Paul’s military analogy here as a sanction for the occult practice of ritual exorcism, all based on the phrase “pull down strongholds”. Specifically, they think we actually have to go to a “demonic” area and pray and do certain things to drive the demons away, and they go from city to city performing rituals. Yet nobody ever seems to notice that nothing changes; evil marches on. And there is no Biblical precedent for this. Instead, the context indicates an internal struggle, the one even Paul expressed frustration with in Romans 7.
If the Corinthians thought they belonged to Jesus, then certainly Paul could more easily make that claim. Yet the false teachers were apparently not only challenging his authority, but his very salvation. But he tells them where the line is drawn when it comes to boasting. And it is not their approval but the Master’s that really matters.
Now Paul launches a long rant about the Corinthians’ amazingly easy acceptance of any teacher that comes along while at the same time rejecting Paul and the others. They are easy prey for smooth talkers. With much sarcasm he tells them he was not like that, being humble and honest, but maybe he should have been harsh and domineering like these “super apostles”. And this is where we see the well-known statement that Satan pretends to be a “messenger of light”. The churches have pretty much forgotten this, following any and all who tickle their ears. Then Paul reluctantly lists the things he has suffered for the Gospel, and dares the false teachers to match his dedication in the face of hardship. If these things are seen as a weakness, then Paul is glad, because it honors the Master.
Here Paul gives his account of having been taken up to heaven to receive visions and revelations from the Master. Although he speaks of this in the third person, it seems obvious that he is really speaking about himself. He and the apostle John are the only two mentioned in the NT as having either gone into heaven or having seen a vision of heaven. But unlike John, and unlike many today who claim to have made multiple visits to heaven, Paul was not permitted to tell what he heard or saw there. It’s possible, but of course not known for sure, that this is when he was given the “secret” of the community of believers, which is salvation by faith alone as the hallmark of what we call the “church age”.
Next he tells of his “burr in the flesh”, another controversy. But the main point is that the purpose of this was to keep him humble after his visions (another hint that he was speaking of himself). There is debate about the nature of this irritation or suffering, over whether this was an actual physical infirmity or a spiritual harassment. Support for the spiritual view is from Paul calling it a “messenger of the Enemy”, while support for it being physical is by virtue of the word “flesh” and also his statement in Gal. 4:15 about them being willing to give their own eyes to him. Another possibility is that Paul is referring to the pagan practice of spitting three times to ward off a spell cast by “the evil eye”, making his reference to the Galatians’ willingness to “gouge out their own eyes” a play on words. Yet on the other hand, we remember that during his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was struck blind for three days, so it could also refer to a literal eye problem.
Paul sarcastically asks the Corinthians’ forgiveness for not being a burden to them like the false teachers, and for doing all those miraculous signs among them. In spite of miracles they still listened to those who challenged his right to speak with authority.
Twice in this passage Paul establishes the testimony of three witnesses in his lengthy defense. The Corinthians had accused Paul of treachery and deceit, yet he assures them that he will not change the way he relates to them, but will continue to live the example of a faithful servant of God. He wants to build them up, not tear them down, in spite of how they have treated him. Yet if he must, he will not come in humility the next time, but in boldness. He will give them the proof they demand that Jesus does indeed speak through him.
Paul warns them to test themselves before he comes, so he won’t have to make himself treat them harshly after all. He challenges them to make sure first of all that they are really saved.
And as was his custom, Paul ends the letter with a final plea for them to mend their ways, and a blessing.