On Reading 2 Corinthians

Reading 2 Corinthians, we find ourselves in the middle of a conversation about which we are largely ignorant.

The Conversation

We were not there when Paul founded the congregation at Corinth or his subsequent two visits. We don’t have access to two other letters Paul wrote to Corinth; we only have two of four (and we don’t know if there were any others). We don’t know the discussions that took place between Paul and Timothy upon Timothy’s return from Corinth, between Paul and Titus upon Titus’s return from Corinth, or between visitors from Corinth and Paul in Ephesus. And we certainly don’t know what happened in Corinth in the aftermath of Paul’s final (third) visit to Corinth. There are so many things we don’t know about Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth.

There are so many swirling interactions that it feels like we have dropped into the middle of an ongoing family quarrel. As we read 2 Corinthians, we are keenly aware that we lack lots of background information about this squabble.

At the same time, the focus of 2 Corinthians is apparent: Paul is defending his apostolic ministry and integrity against opponents. This defense requires Paul to explain his travelogue, describe his reconciling ministry as an apostle, encourage Corinth to fulfill their commitment to the collection he is gathering for the poor in Jerusalem, and defend his integrity in response to the arrival of challengers in Corinth.

In essence, 2 Corinthians is an exploration of the nature and integrity of Christian ministry. While the focus, of course, lies on Paul’s own ministry, he also lays the ground for how all believers may reflect on their own lives as servants of Jesus the Messiah. How do we pursue lives of service in the wake of opposition, tribulation, personal attacks, and disruptions of health and safety? How do we minister amidst crisis? What theology, convictions, and practices give life to ministry in such dire circumstances? These questions are not just for paid staff (Paul was not paid!), but address every disciple of Jesus as they become servants to all people.

Whether we ever understand the intricacies of Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians (we never will!), Paul’s second letter (as we call it) to the Corinthians provides a rich theological and pastoral resource for this exhortation: don’t give up!

Perhaps this is a particularly important message for COVID and/or Post-COVID communities of faith: don’t give up! In this series, we will overhear Paul’s stormy relationship with Corinth to glean what grounded him, encouraged him, and motivated him to continue his ministry even when the struggle was acute and painful.

A Possible Scenario:  The Conversation between Paul and Corinth.

Scholars disagree about the sequence of events, the number of letters and their content, and the exact nature of the problem in Corinth. Below is one way to construe this relationship, though little is absolutely certain about the chronology. Nevertheless, we may enjoy a fair confidence in the gist of the following scenario.

  1. Founding Visit (51-52 AD). Paul, later joined by Timothy and Silas, established a congregation in Corinth while staying with Priscilla and Aquila who had recently come to Corinth from Rome. Paul stayed 18 months in Corinth. Acts 18:1-17; 2 Corinthians 1:19.
  2. Conclusion of 2nd Missionary Journey. After stopping in Ephesus and leaving Priscilla and Aquila there, Paul returned to Antioch. Acts 18:18-23.
  3. Beginning of the 3rd Missionary Journey. Paul, then, returned to Ephesus through Galatia and Phrygia where he stayed for three years (53-56 AD). Acts 18:23-19:41.
  4. First Letter to Corinth. While in Ephesus, Paul sent a letter to warn them against sexual immorality. We do not have a copy of this letter. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11.
  5. Corinthian Response. Paul received some communication, probably both by personal messengers and letter, from Corinth which reported divisions within the congregation as well as raising some specific questions about theology and practice.  1 Corinthians 1:11; 16:17.
  6. Second Letter to Corinth (54-55 AD). Paul responded to Corinth in what we call 1 Corinthians. He dispatched Timothy with the letter to address the problems. Paul intended to visit Corinth by way of Macedonia in the near future. 1 Corinthians 4:17-21; 16:10-11.
  7. Timothy’s Report. Timothy probably returns with a mixed report—some problems corrected but new problems have arisen (possibly the arrival of the “super-apostles” described in 2 Corinthians 12). Timothy is with Paul when he writes 2 Corinthians (cf. 1:1, 19).
  8. Second Visit to Corinth. Paul changed his plans to visit Corinth by way of Macedonia due to an immediate need to deal with the new problems in Corinth. Consequently, he made an emergency visit to Corinth which he called “painful.” 2 Corinthians 2:1; 12:14; 13:1-2.
  9. Third Letter to Corinth. Paul, disturbed by the experience of his visit, sends a tearful and severe third letter to Corinth. Apparently, it directly confronted problems in the Corinthian church. He sends this letter with Titus. 2 Corinthians 2:3-4; 7:8-12.
  10. Travel to Macedonia. Paul anxiously awaits a response from the Corinthian congregation through Titus. Paul travels to Troas and then Macedonia looking for Titus. They finally meet in Macedonia (Philippi). 2 Corinthians 7:5-7.
  11. Fourth Letter to Corinth (56-57 AD).  Paul writes a fourth letter to Corinth from Macedonia, now called 2 Corinthians. Titus carries the letter to Corinth. 2 Corinthians 8:16-19.
  12. Third (Last) Visit to Corinth (Spring 57 AD). Paul, then, visits Corinth for the third time after they had received 2 Corinthians. He spent three months in “Greece” (presumably Corinth). During this visit, Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. 2 Corinthians 12:14; 13:1-2; Acts 20:1-3; Romans 15:26. As far as we know, Paul never returned to Corinth again.

4 Responses to “On Reading 2 Corinthians”

  1.   Gayle Crowe Says:

    Thanks for last night. We’re so much out of the Wednesday night routine that we almost forgot. Glad we didn’t! You are such a gifted teacher–we are honored that you devote your Wednesday nights to Woodmont!

  2.   Laura Oldenburg Says:

    Brother Mark
    Thank you for making me think and I relish more classes . I miss Wed Bible classes and scholars like you. We live in Traverse City Michigan and Rochester is the closest Bible school and it is 4 hours away. Look forward to more teaching

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