2 Corinthians - A Personal and Pastoral Letter
"When I am weak, then I am strong." These are words destined to be discovered by every heart traversing the spiritual road of life. There are no short-cuts, and there is no hope of making it on our own. We set out confident in our own abilities then stumble at the first obstacle. We soon realize that this journey is far too long, far too perilous, and our endurance too readily spent, to trust in our own strength. Then our eyes turn upward and find our Savior near at hand, a trustworthy companion, who knows the way through the roughest parts of the journey. St. Paul was led by God down one of the harshest roads of life; and 2 Corinthians speaks powerfully to the fighting Christian in that it contains the most intimate and intense expressions of the personal struggles endured by our great Apostle.
Affliction is the keyword of the epistle. "Outside were conflicts, inside were fears."1 There was hardly a moment when he could rest from the outward challenges he faced followed by inward struggles. He includes in this letter an impressive catalogue of the woes he had endured for the gospel (11:23–29). The very papyrus on which he wrote was wetted by his tears while he poured forth his anguished thoughts to the Corinthians.2 To add to it all there was a peculiar "thorn in the flesh" given to him—a mysterious ailment which was severe enough to bring the unbreakable Paul to his knees—which was the conclusive guarantee that in himself he possessed no strength, but that all power and sufficiency were God's.3
Yet one of the remarkable traits of the Pauline writings is that combined with the apostle's constant afflictions are the definite belltones of comfort and victory. He often felt hard-pressed but never crushed,4 as dying but always alive,5 sorrowful but ever rejoicing.6 The first chapter speaks of his Savior's comfort in tribulation. "As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our comfort also abounds through Christ."7 There probably can be found no other writing in history which at once relates such personal agonies of the writer while glowing with the brightest expressions of hope and joy.
Titus and Corinth
When St. Paul left Ephesus (from where he wrote 1 Corinthians c. 55 AD) he went straight to a city called Troas, where he announced the good news and "a door was opened to him by the Lord."8 He could not stay there long, however, for a certain anxiety was constantly gnawing at him due to a deeply beloved friend—Titus. Titus was serving in Corinth, and St. Paul sent orders to meet him at Troas. But as he remained in waiting, week after week passed, and Titus did not show. "I had no rest in my spirit, because I did not find Titus my brother."9 St. Paul was in urgent need of the news that Titus would bring—of whether or not the Corinthians heeded the rebukes in his first letter and cleansed their ways.
St. Paul then went to Macedonia (northern Greece), where to his great relief Titus had finally come, bearing with him news from Corinth which was even better than expected.10 Titus reported that St. Paul's first letter had caused the Corinthian church to grieve for their sins, and that grief led them to repentance and self-cleansing.11 The brother guilty of incest was also dealt with.12 Titus himself had been very warmly received by the church,13 and so St. Paul thought it best to send him back to continue the good work which he had begun.14 Shortly after this happy meeting, he decided to send a second letter to the faltering church.
Of all St. Paul's epistles, 2 Corinthians is the most spontaneous and least systematic. The words we read are not the result of a careful and designed thought pattern but issue forth from a heart undergoing immense upheavals. It is impossible to subdue the rapidly-moving ideas of the epistle into a neat outline. The sentences in chapter 11, for example, which describe his afflictions are spontaneously lashed across the page like the scars on his back. Every word seems to leap from St. Paul's pen. The epistle is the furthest thing from an ordered theological essay. It is the profound utterance of a spirit "caught up to the third heaven" yet working within the realm of this world.
The only hint of order we may find in this epistle is in the three different "tones" in which it is written.
St. Paul speaks in the first portion of the letter (chs 1–7) about the character of his ministry to the Corinthian church. The "tone of affliction" of this section reveals that he must have written it while undergoing great hardships in Macedonia. We sense a heavy heart in the opening words "God...who comforts us in all our tribulation."15 A particular grief was due to a party in the Corinthian church which accused St. Paul of power-grasping.
"All his preaching is for self-gain," they said; "...ulterior motives underly his false apostleship." And so he labors to clear himself of all self-credit and self-flattery while ascribing all success to God. He never produced, he says, letters of recommendation to show off his apostleship; for they were his recommendation letter, written not on stone but on his heart.16 Furthermore, what type of personal benefit was there since he had not even asked for their financial support?17 He had not accepted wealth, but calamities, for their sakes.18 There was only one thing that compelled him to preach: the love of Christ.19
The tone of the second portion (chs 8 & 9) is much more mild and restrained. These two chapter are devoted to a major collection of alms which St. Paul was organizing among the churches to help the poor believers in Jerusalem, a service he had vowed to the other apostles to fulfill long before.20 The Corinthians had begun their offering a year ago; but they had grown slack, and now St. Paul was urging them to continue their efforts.21 For it was only right that as they had partaken of the Jerusalem's spiritual gifts, so Jerusalem ought to partake of the Corinthians' material gifts.22 And not only did the offering supply the needs of the poor brethren in Jerusalem, but it was also a proof to the them of the reality of the Corinthians' obedience to the Gospel.23
The tone of the last portion (chs 10–13) changes completely. Some believe that after writing chapter nine, St. Paul received news of a great attack that was being directed against him by some who were trying to take over the church; and so his words take on a singularly stern and authoritative tone. Some among them had said that his physical presence was quite shabby and his speech fumbling, and that he was strong only by letters at a distance.24 They repulsively claimed that he walked "according to the flesh"25 and that he was worthy not of the title apostle but of fool.26 In response he says that he will present himself quite boldly to them at his next visit;27 and considering all the afflictions he had endured on their behalf, he was more worthy of title minister of Christ than any of them.28 Indeed, he felt compelled to "boast" that he was not inferior to even the most famous apostles.29 However, there was ultimately nothing worth boasting of but his infirmities.30 For as the Lord had told him—and this is the great theme of the entire epistle—"My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (12:9).
17 1 Cor 9:18
20 Gal 2:10