Main Themes of 2 Corinthians

The background to 2 Corinthians is complicated by letters from Paul we do not have as well as visits to Corinth by Paul, Timothy and Titus. An additional problem is 2 Corinthians is a compilation of several other letters. Perhaps parts of 2 Corinthians contain other letters sent by Paul (the so-called “tearful letter”). Some suggest chapters 8 and 9 are separate letters dealing with the collection, and chapters 10-12 are yet another letter dealing with the super-apostles. I would recommend any serious commentary on 2 Corinthians for an overview of these suggestions or an introduction to the New Testament such as Raymond Brown. Combining letters around a similar theme is not surprising, but it is also not necessary to understand the overall theme of the whole letter: the need for reconciliation between Paul and the church.

First, Paul must deal with the damage in his relationship the Corinthian church (2 Corinthians 1-7). The church did not receive the letter of 1 Corinthians well and Paul’s attempts to deal with the tensions seem to have created more problems. The reason Paul did not return to Corinth is to spare them from another difficult visit (1:23-2:1). Paul admits he has caused the church a great deal of pain, but (with God as his witness), he did not intend it that way. Although he does admit he may have caused the pain the church felt after 1 Corinthians, the “tearful letter” and the painful visit.

Paul wanted to gladden those he had pained, but the pain was ultimately necessary. His tough letter was written to make it possible for him to have a “joyful visit” the next time he came to Corinth (2:3). Paul was confident the church world respond to his tearful letter, even if there was come fear it might cause them pain. But not all grief and pain is bad, in fact godly grief produces a great deal of positive virtues. If Paul had upset them with his strong challenge, that pain is a positive benefit if they are reconciled to him

Second, Paul must encourage the Corinthian church to make good on their promise to participate in the collection he has made for the poor saints in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8-9). Paul’s collection would have looked very suspicious to a resident of a Roman city like Corinth. Public works were not funded through taxation or public fundraising, but through wealthy people who want to gain honor from public benefaction. There is no honor in putting money into general fund and sending it off to distant (non-Roman) city to be used to help poor people. It is no surprise at all the Corinth church was slow to participate in the Collection. But it is remarkable (from a modern Christian perspective) this wealthy Christian church refused to participate in Paul’s collection to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem. But now that Paul and the church have reconciled, it is now time for the church to participate in this important ministry Paul initiated. In fact, for Paul, participating in this gracious gift is an opportunity to render a service to God.

Third, Paul must deal with some competition in the church, the so-called “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 10-13). Paul probably coined this sarcastic description of his opponents, but it may be based on the attitude of the opponents themselves. They consider themselves to be superior to Paul in terms of honor, use of rhetoric, and perhaps even blessings from God. Some have argued this is a reference to the apostles in Jerusalem, but it seems unlikely Paul would refer the Twelve with this snarky title. More likely the super apostles are Greeks in Corinth who have accepted the Gospel but are now behaving like Greek intellectuals. Like many of the other issues in Corinth, Paul is dealing with a pagan worldview in the church. The opponents appear to be trained communicators (v. 6) and accepted patronage from the church (v. 7-9). This would be consistent with any other Greco-Roman philosopher or teach and more or less expected by the Corinthian congregation. Rather than superior apostles, the opponents are like Satan, masquerading true apostles (11:12-15). Rather than boast in his accomplishments, Paul choose to boast in his suffering as a servant of Jesus Christ. Boasting in beatings and arrests is an outrageous reversal of what the super-apostles consider to be indicators of divine favor. Paul claims in these final chapters of the book that the follower of Christ can expect to suffer as Christ himself did.

Paul’s Sorrow for Corinth – 2 Corinthians 7:5–9

After sending the tearful letter with Titus, Paul planned to meet with Titus in Troas for a report. When this meeting did not happen, Paul grew concerned the Corinthian church was upset with him. Titus was a Greek co-worker of Paul mentioned in several letters, including a short letter written to him while he was working with churches in Crete. Titus is a long-time co-worker, since Paul had taken Titus to Jerusalem before Acts 15 to show that God was working among the Gentiles (Gal 2:3).

Image result for apostle Paul weepingPaul said in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11 he was in “deadly peril in Asia,” probably indicating a time of suffering in Ephesus. This may have included an arrest although it is not mentioned directly in Acts, Philippians may imply Paul was arrested and placed in custody in Ephesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:32 he refers to “fighting the wild beasts in Ephesus,” which could refer to literal animals, or vicious opponents who behaved like animals. Paul listed many afflictions described in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, and perhaps even his “thorn in the flesh” (12:7) is in mind here.

“Fightings without and fears within” implies he had considerable internal fear concerning this persecution or even the success of his mission in Ephesus and later in Troas. Why world Paul be afraid? “It probably seemed to Paul that from the human point of view his whole future as apostle to the Gentiles was related to the Corinthians’ reaction to his assertion of authority in the letter delivered by Titus. And now the non-arrival of Titus tended to confirm his worst fears.” (Garland, 351, citing Harris).

Paul’s missed connection with Titus may have aroused fears for Titus’s own safety, since many thing could have happened to him when he traveled to Troas. This tends to be human nature, if someone is very late arriving we tend to create a worst case scenario and worry about that (perhaps unlikely) possibility.

Another aspect of this fear may have been a result of the attacks he faced in Corinth. What if his opponents convinced the church to reject Paul as an apostle and no longer listen to him as the Lord’s appointed representative? The very fact he is being challenged by someone in the congregation was humiliating to him personally, he has lost honor and been humbled by his challengers in the church.

Titus was not sent to the church to attack them or forcibly get them back in line with Paul’s orders. He was sent to deal with a serious spiritual challenge, there was real sin in the church that needed to be confronted and excised from the congregation. Paul is not like a medieval bishop who imposes an unwelcome order on a fearful congregation!

Paul describes his time of uncertainty as “mourning,” but the news from Titus was a cause for rejoicing. The church was not upset from the tearful letter, they were in fact comforted, Titus was comforted by their response, and finally Paul himself was comforted by the news from the church. This church was on grief over the letter, but the grief is “contrition over their past behavior or a sense of loss from Paul’s decision to continue to stay clear of Corinth” (Garland, 353).

In summary, the “tearful letter” was a necessary thing, but now that they have responded positively, Paul apologizes for the pain he caused the church. Paul was confident the church world respond to his tearful letter, even if there was come fear it might cause them pain. But not all grief and pain is bad, in fact godly grief produces a great deal of positive virtues. If Paul had upset them with his strong challenge, that pain is a positive benefit if they are reconciled to him.

 

Make Room in Your Hearts – 2 Corinthians 7:2–4

In 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 Paul says he went to Troas and after a long digression he picks up that thread again in 7:5. If we were reading the letter straight through, or hearing the letter read to us for the first time, we might have expected Paul’s response to meeting Titus and hearing the report that of a favorable response to the tearful letter.

Paul seems a little defensive in this verse, he claims to have wronged no one.

  • “We wronged no one.” To “wrong” someone (ἀδικέω) can refer to physically mistreating someone, but can also refer to a legal injury, with the sense of doing an injustice to someone. Perhaps Paul’s opponents in the Corinthian church accused Paul of being too harsh in dealing with the incestuous man, perhaps treating him in a way that damaged his honor in the city of Corinth.
  • “We have corrupted no one.” The verb φθείρω can mean either “ruin financially” or “corrupt” in the matter of doctrine or morals” (Harris, 517). This accusation has the connotation of ruining someone financially. It is true Paul has told his congregations to be wary of business relationships with the unsaved. If some in the church followed that recommendation, then his opponents could accuse Paul of intentionally ruining people financially.
  • “We have taken advantage of no one.” The verb (πλεονεκτέω) has the sense of cheating someone financially. This might be a hint of some accusation about the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem, a topic Paul will shift to after this section of the book. Paul’s opponents may have been suspicious of this collection since it was not at all common for someone to collect money and even less common to give collected money to another city.

Since he has behaved properly toward the church, Paul asks the church to open up to him so that he may be reconciled with the church. This is a common metaphor even in contemporary English, to be “in someone’s heart” is to have a close personal relationship; “openheartedness” implies such a close relationship that being completely transparent is possible.

Image result for open heartPaul had already opened his heart to them when he confronted them about their sin and what they needed to do to deal with that sin. Paul is now hopeful the church would also find some room for him so reconciliation can happen.

Paul’s love for the congregation leads to a level of frankness which could be understood as offensive. Since Paul had to correct obvious sins, the church could potentially be hurt by his words (v. 3-4).

The tone of the tearful letter could be interpreted as “putting them in their place.” Tone is almost impossible to convey in writing, and after the Paul’s last visit to the church it would have been easy to read the tearful letter as a harsh condemnation.

A factor modern readers may overlook is the social status of Paul and the church at Corinth. By speaking frankly, Paul could be interpreted as asserting his higher social status, perhaps “pulling rank” on the Corinthians. This was not the relationship Paul wanted to have with his churches. Paul and the Corinthians are “fellow-servants” of Christ and Paul regularly calls them “brothers.” Paul’s love is so deep for the Corinthian believers that he is willing to “live or die with them (v. 3). Some might think of this as a rhetorical flourish, but Paul was genuinely willing to lay his life down on behalf of the church, something he often demonstrated in ministry.

In summary, at the beginning of the letter Paul was concerned the tearful letter had caused the church sorrow, and perhaps caused the rift between himself and the church. After 2:14 he drops this feeling, only now expressing joy in the positive response from the church. But there was a long, tense period of time when Paul was unsure how the letter would be received, so in this next section he describes the depth of his sorrow and how that sorrow turned to joy when he finally heard from Titus the good news from the church.

Paul’s Conscience is Clear – 2 Corinthians 1:12-14

Paul does not think the church at Corinth is maturing as they should. First Corinthians outlines several problems which were due to not fully applying their status in Christ (factions, sinful behavior, questions about key doctrines). In 1 Corinthians Paul was straightforward and confrontational, to the point that some in the church were offended. He therefore wrote another “tearful letter” and made what he calls “a painful visit” to the church in order to deal with these sins. This correction left many in the church with raw feelings, and Paul himself was angry and perhaps humiliated by the audacity of the church and their challenges to his authority.

Image result for godly sincerityIn this opening section of 2 Corinthians, Paul tries to explain where his heart was during these difficult times. He claims to have acted with pure motives for the good of the church, even if the church was offended by Paul. Ultimately, his goal was to “help the Corinthians make the necessary corrections themselves” (Garland, 2 Corinthians, 111).

Although it seems strange from a modern perspective, Paul boasts he has acted in good conscience (1:12). It is possible Paul could be accused of acting rashly in the way he attacked the church for the treatment of the sinful member of in 1 Corinthians 5. Later in the letter Paul will defend himself against people in the Corinthian church who are attacking his authority as an apostle. This boast at the beginning of the letter sets the tone for his later defense, he has acted properly and does not have anything weighing on his conscience as a result of previous confrontations through letters and visits.

First, Paul acted with integrity, or simplicity in the ESV. The word he uses here (ἁπλότης) is very flexible, which is why there more difference in the translations than usual. It is used in the New Testament for “personal integrity expressed in word or action” (BDAG), for behaving properly, without ulterior motives, or “without ambiguity,” or “simple goodness…‘without strings attached’, ‘without hidden agendas’” (BDAG). For example, it appears in Eph 6:5 and Col 3:22 in the context of how slaves ought to obey their masters. They ought to act sincerely, not simply to curry favor with their master.

Second, Paul’s relationship with Corinth is based on godly sincerity. This word (εἰλικρίνεια) is rare in the New Testament, it only appears in 1 Cor 5:8 to describe sincerity of worship (in contrast to the sinful man) and again in 2 Cor 2:17, sincere motives in contrast to certain “peddlers of the word of God.”  The word connotes purity, and can be used to describe something that is “unmixed” (“a pure and clear air” in Hippocrates, Vict. 2.38.5, for example). Spicq contends that the word does not connote “so much an absence of duplicity or hypocrisy as a fundamental integrity and transparency; it can be compared to innocence”(TLNT 1:423).

Was there an accusation of inconsistency from the Corinthian church? Perhaps someone said Paul “passes himself off as strong in his letters but comes off as weak in person (10:1–11; 13:2, 10). He threatens the rod (1 Cor 4:21) but runs away when discipline is necessary (2:1–4).” As a modern analogy, people tend to be much more bold and aggressive on the internet than in real life, especially if they are in some sort of anonymous forum. People say things in an email they might not say face-to-face!

Third, he did not act according to earthly wisdom. “Earthly” can be translated “fleshly” since the noun (σαρκικός) has the sense of human frailty. In the New Testament the word usually has a negative connotation, as it does here in contrast to the grace of God. This “mediocre, transitory, or sinful” human way of thinking is a theme which comes up often in 2 Corinthians. In this context, Paul is saying the way he treated the church was not the way people in the secular would have done it.

Perhaps he implies his condemnation could have been far more painful, or that his attack could have caused them a great deal more pain. He may simply mean his extension of grace to the church was unexpected—most would have written off the church as utterly corrupt and sinful, no longer able to be corrected and restored to fellowship. If a major theme of the letter is reconciliation, then “conventional human wisdom” would be reconciliation is impossible in this case, why even try?

It is possible someone in the church accused Paul of writing obscure, difficult letters, as if he was trying to display his “worldly wisdom.” Think of a young pastor who tries to demonstrate his theological education by referring to the Greek too often, or quoting obscure intellectuals (“as Kierkegaard says…”)

On the other hand, Paul was indeed sensitive to how his letters were interpreted. As Furnish comments, Paul was concerned someone “in Corinth was deliberately trying to turn Paul’s letters to the apostle’s own disadvantage” (II Corinthians, 130). Perhaps the charge against Paul was that he intentionally preached an unclear gospel out of impure motives. If a teaching could be interpreted in a favorable way, then Paul stands to gain honor. Like a modern political speech, maybe Paul was being evasive and vague to be “all things to all men” and gain favor of all men.

In contrast to the flawed way humans think and behave, Paul was motivated by the grace of God. Despite the sins of the church and Paul’s anger and humiliation over their behavior, they are still people who God has saved by grace. Paul acted to restore them to fellowship, even if he treated the sin boldly and hurt some people along the way.

It is always difficult to use Paul’s difficult relationship with Corinth as a “model for ministry.” But Paul’s claim here is that whatever happened, he was motivated by a sincere desire to extend God’s grace to the congregation. How would this attitude change the way we “do church”?

Logos Free Book – Craig Keener, Romans (Cascade Commentary)

PrintLogos Bible Software is offering Craig Keener’s Cascade Commentary on Romans for free during the month of October. This is one of the best resources Logos has offered in a while. I already have both books in my Logos library (and Fee as a physical book).

Unlike some of Keener’s other commentaries, this book is a rather slender 211 pages plus indices. But do not let the size of the book fool you, Keener’s commentary is an excellent exegetical commentary which is extremely useful for preaching and teaching the book of Romans. As he says in the introduction, Keener has included “only a fraction of my research documentation in the notes for interested readers to follow up” (xi).

I overlooked this short commentary when I offered my Top Five Romans Commentaries several years ago, but have read most of it while preparing for my Romans course this fall and would certainly consider this a highly recommended commentary for pastors or laymen interested in the important exegetical discussions for key passages in Romans. For more in depth work on Romans, I recommend Douglas Moo (NICNT) and Richard Longenecker (NIGTC).

Fee RevelationFor only $1.99 you can add Gordon Fee’s Cascade Commentary on Revelation. I reviewed this commentary when it was first published, you can read the details here, but I said at that time “Fee’s commentary is an exegetical commentary and his goal is to read the text in order to determine the author’s original intent. . . Fee’s commentary is useful and can be used by pastor and layman alike, although the specialist will find it lacking in the sorts of details we have come to expect from the mammoth exegetical commentaries of Aune or Beale.”

As always Logos is giving away the other four published Cascade Commentaries in the Logos library. Both of these books are excellent additions to your Logos library, so make sure to add them to your library before the end of the month.

Logos Free Book – What is a Healthy Church Member?

Logos-Free-Book-of-the-monthAs they do every month, Logos Bible Software is offering a free book for your Logos library. This month Logos partners with 9Marks to offer you a free copy of Thabiti M. Anyabwile, What Is a Healthy Church Member?   Anyabwile is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands and a contributor at The Gospel Coalition. And he tweets, @ThabitiAnyabwil.

From the Logos description of the series,

“This remarkable series is a must-read for Christians of all levels. Those who are young in the faith will be propelled forward in their spiritual growth with these accessible guides to important topics and significant doctrines. Mature Christians, students, and pastors will reach new depths in their understanding of Scripture and the Christian life with these succinct, yet profound volumes. This series organically weds theory and practice through clear explanation of key theological themes coupled with practical application in the church and from the pulpit.”

Logos-Free-BookFor $1.99 you can add What Is a Healthy Church? by Mark Dever. Dever is the senior pastor of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and the president of 9Marks. He has published many books on both theology and church practice as well as articles for Ligonier and Tabletalk Magazine.

Both of these books are excellent additions to your Logos library, so make sure to add them to your library before the end of the month.

As always Logos is giving away a set of books related to the free book. This month they are giving an eleven book set from 9Marks, including:

  • Am I Really a Christian?
  • Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry
  • Church Planting Is for Wimps
  • Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons
  • It Is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement
  • The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love
  • The Gospel and Personal Evangelism
  • What Does God Want of Us Anyway?: A Quick Overview of the Whole Book
  • What Is a Healthy Church Member?
  • What Is a Healthy Church?
  • What Is the Gospel?

There are several ways to enter the contest, so visit the Logos Free Book of the Month site and enter the contest early and often.

Book Review: Mark A. Seifrid, The Second Letter to the Corinthians

Seifrid, Mark A. The Second Letter to the Corinthians. PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 569 pp. Hb; $50.   Link to Eerdmans

Seifrid’s new commentary on Second Corinthians arrived about the same time as the second edition of Ralph Martin’s classic WBC commentary from Zondervan. Seifrid is known for his work on Pauline theology and more specifically Justification in the Pauline literature. His Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification (IVP 2001) built on the foundation of his Justification by Faith: The Origin and Development of a Central Pauline Theme (Brill, 1992). As one of the editors of Justification and Variegated Nomism (Baker, 2004), Seifrid is also well-known as a defender of the traditional view of Paul over against the New Perspective. This theological background often comes through clearly in his commentary on 2 Corinthians.

Seifrid CorinthiansIn the brief twelve-page introduction to the commentary, Seifrid first discusses the situation both before and after the writing of the second letter to the Corinthian church. Here he traces the sometimes confusing period after the reception of 1 Corinthians, a brief time which included a “painful visit” and later “tearful letter” delivered by Titus.

Second, the introduction examines the various suggestions for the identity of Paul’s opponents in the letter, which naturally leads Seifrid to the purpose of the letter. He advocates a minimal “mirror-reading,” resulting in a Jewish-Christian opponent who appeared in Corinth between the two canonical letters. Since these new arrivals were considered apostles by the Corinthian church, they have made a bad situation worse. But for Seifrid, there is nothing in the letter which can be used to clearly describe a theology of the opponents. They preach another Jesus (2 Cor 11:4) and for Paul, this is the real threat to the church.

Since there are a number of complex theories regarding the composition of 2 Corinthians, the third section of the introduction deals with the integrity of the letter. After a short synopsis of the usual divisions suggested in scholarship, Seifrid concludes the alleged incoherence and inconsistency is “more apparent than real (xxxi). Paul’s defense of his mission “constitutes the thematic unity” for the letter.

Finally, Seifrid offers a few comments on the theology of the letter. Despite the fact 2 Corinthians is a deeply personal letter, Paul’s concern is to lay out clearly the marks of a true apostle. For the Corinthians, there is “jarring contrast between his powerful letters and his pitiful presence” (xxxii). Seifrid sees this as a hermenutical problem, and the whole of Scripture is at stake. For those who are outsiders, a veil covers their face and prevents them from seeing God and his saving work. The opponents have been blinded by the god of this world and are therefore “unbelievers” by definition. Only those who are “in Christ” are free in see the truth of the Gospel as revealed now by Paul, God’s representative.

In my view, Seifrid’s introduction is too brief. While I agree there is little or no merit to many of the partition theories for the letter, I would have liked more engagement with contemporary scholarship on the literary issues, whether in the introduction or the appropriate places in the commentary. While I thought his section on 6:14-7:1 was excellent, there is no hint this section is sometimes seen as a non-Pauline insertion. There is no interaction with Betz’s theory that chapters 8-9 are administrative letters, he simply states that chapters 8-9 are “integral to Paul’s larger purpose in the letter of binding the Corinthians to the other churches and to Christ” (317). Perhaps including a detailed discussion of these literary issues would have distracted from Seifrid’s overall goal of explaining the text of the letter as we have it, but given the strong objections to the unity of the letter in New Testament scholarship, I am surprised the issue is not addressed.

The commentary follows the same pattern the other Pillar commentaries. After a translation of the text, Seifrid briefly introduces the pericope, usually setting the section into the context of the letter as a whole. The commentary proper proceeds verse by verse, commenting primarily on the English text, although occasionally he comments on a transliterated Greek word. Greek and Hebrew untransliterated in the footnotes. There are less exegetical comments on the Greek text than other PNTC commentaries. In fact only rarely does he comment on the text. Comparing this to D. A. Carson’s Matthew or Colin Kruse’s Romans in the same series, there is very little exegetical material indeed.

Seifrid’s comments on 1 Cor 5:21 are an example of the more theological nature of the commentary. For Seifrid, “not reckoning the trespasses of the world” is a “forensic event” and reconciliation and justification refer to the same event, the cross and resurrection (260-261, and note 539). This verse offers Seifrid the opportunity to write more than eight pages on justification from a decidedly Lutheran perspective (citing Luther and Melanchton at length in the notes). His discussion is excellent and the theology presented in this section certainly reflects the “traditional view” of Paul and justification, but there is little discussion of the exegetical details in the text itself. For example, a discussion of the meaning of γενώμεθα in the ἵνα-clause is missing. Nor does Seifrid discuss the potentially rich allusion to Isaiah 53. But this is the style of the commentary and this criticism should not detract from the value of the commentary.

Interaction with other commentaries is minimal in the body of the commentary, but Seifrid is obviously well-informed by a broad spectrum of scholarship. It is not surprising that Luther is one of the most cited commentaries in the notes (according to the index), but only one reference to Ralph Martin’s WBC commentary is strange. (Ironically, Barack Obama is also cited one time as well!) Another difference between this commentary and others in the PNTC series is Seifrid use of German scholarship. Seifrid often cites the work of the Lutheran systematic theologian Oswald Bayer.

There are three excurses embedded in the commentary. For example, after Paul’s reference to himself as a “minister of the New Covenant” in 2 Cor 3:6, Seifrid offers 4 pages on “Paul’s Understanding of ‘Covenant.’” This brief overview of a monograph-worthy topic is a kind of biblical theology of Covenant,” beginning with Galatians and concluding with Hebrews. Seifrid concludes Paul’s contrast between the New and Old Covenants in 3:6 and 3:14 is consistent with both Galatians and Hebrews.

Conclusion. Seifrid’s commentary on 2 Corinthians is another excellent contribution to the study of this oft-neglected letter of Paul. While it is certainly more theological than exegetical, it will nevertheless be a valuable resource for Bible teachers and pastors for many years.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.