2 Corinthians 10:1-6 – Bold Whether Absent or Present

The tone and intensity of 2 Corinthians 10-13 appears remarkably different from the early parts of the letter. The first section of the letter ends with Paul’s joy in his “complete confidence” in the Corinthians (7:16), and chapters 8-9 are filled with Paul’s confident expectation that the Corinthians will respond with generosity to his Jerusalem project. However, chapters 10-13 are rather confrontational as Paul responds to the intrusion of, what he calls, super-apostles into the Corinthian congregation.

Why does this shift in tone and topic occur? What accounts for this radical change in the letter?

Scholars debate the possibilities, and I will not detail them here except to offer a few perspectives. Since the late 18th century, quite a number of scholars have surmised that we are reading an earlier letter to Corinth than what we know as “2 Corinthians.” Some suggest that we are actually reading the “painful letter” (2 Corinthians 7:8) that has been attached to the end of what we call “2 Corinthians” (chapters 1-9). This is the letter that convinced the Corinthians to reconcile with Paul. This is a possible scenario since letters were often combined in publication in order to put them on one scroll.

However, I think it more likely 2 Corinthians, as we have it before us, is a single letter rather than the combination of two (or even three) letters. Clearly, the letter has three movements: (1) Paul explains his ministry of reconciliation (chapters 1-7), (2) Paul persuades the Corinthians to give (chapters 8-9), and (3) Paul confronts his opponents (chapters 10-13). There is a difference in tone within each as well as a significant difference in purpose.

In the first section of the letter Paul wants the Corinthians to understand his ministry of suffering for the sake of the gospel in more profound ways and not misinterpret his suffering as a sign of weakness or divine rejection. This explanation include some rather pointed statements about the Corinthian misunderstanding and mistaken expectations. His language was sometimes corrective as well as defensive (in a good sense).

In the second section of the letter Paul wants the Corinthians to keep their promise to contribute to the poor saints in Jerusalem. He brings on the charm but suggests their integrity is at stake—will they act on the gospel of grace that they claim to believe? His language is filled with grace, but it is pointed as he calls upon them to obey the gospel of Christ.

In this third and last major section of the letter Paul confronts those who oppose him and are stirring up trouble in Corinth. He is focused on how the presence of “super-apostles” (as he calls them) are disrupting the relationship he has with the Corinthians. Paul planted the church and is like a father to the Corinthians, but now these “super-apostles” have arrived to build on the foundation he laid. And their credentials and methods, according to Paul, exhibit a “different Jesus,” a “different spirit,” and a “different gospel” than he modeled and proclaimed (2 Corinthians 11:4). In other words, the health of the Corinthian congregation is at stake.

We don’t know exactly when these “super-apostles” arrived in Corinth. They are not mentioned in 1 Corinthians. They are, then, new arrivals. They may have arrived prior to Paul’s second visit and the “painful letter,” which would explain some of the intensity of that visit and letter. Or, they may have arrived about the same time Titus arrived or after. In any event, 2 Corinthians 10-13 identifies their presence.

It seems to me that Paul’s impending third visit to Corinth (2 Corinthians 13:1) provides the occasion for this confrontation. When Paul previously visited Corinth, he was rather deferential or mild in his response to Corinth, and this was perceived as weakness. The visit grieved Paul, and he wrote the “painful letter” in response to how he was treated on that second visit. However, this time (the third visit) Paul intends to be as bold in person as he was bold in previous letters. Too much is at stake, and Paul decides to prepare the Corinthians for such a bold visit with a bold letter.

The tone of 2 Corinthians 10-13 suits the situation: (1) to confront the “super-apostles” and (2) prepare Corinth for Paul’s bold intentions when he visits. But why don’t these themes appear earlier in the letter? The “super-apostles,” for example, are not named. However, Paul has alluded to these sorts of troubles—the misunderstanding of his ministry, for example—throughout the letter. We see from reading chapters 1-7 that there was trouble in paradise. Though Paul and Corinth was reconciled, everything was not calm or healed. The Corinthians need to more fully understand the nature of Paul’s ministry, which is why he pursued that theme for five chapters in the first half of the letter.

Paul’s boldness in chapters 10-13 is matched by his jealousy for the Corinthians as the bride of Christ. His tone is one of a protector, and his third visit will employ the same kind of boldness, if necessary, as these chapters exhibit.

His opening salvo employs military metaphors while, at the same time, characterizing his approach as rooted in the “meekness and gentleness of Christ.” Paul is going to do battle, even take captives, but he will do so with the character of Christ rather than according to worldly standards (literally, according to the flesh). Paul wants to win this battle—punish disobedience and confirm obedience, but he will do so in a godly way that reflects his commitment to the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah.

It appears that the Corinthians assessed Paul as poor, untrained, and ungifted in rhetoric when he was among them. He was, as Paul put it, “humble” (poor, which is often a derogatory term) when he was present with them. The Corinthians were perplexed by how “humble” Paul was in person but how “bold” he was in letters. This incongruity was probably something the “super-apostles” exploited for their own self-promotion.

But Paul is clear that he will boldly oppose those who act “according to human standards” (literally according to the flesh). There are two ways of battling in view here. One is “according to the flesh” or carnal ways, which probably include false accusations, deceit, pride, and potentially violence. The other is through the gospel which is the knowledge of God and leads to people to obey Christ.

Even though Paul lives “in the flesh” as a human being, he does not employ carnal or fleshly methods. His concern is the knowledge of God and how that knowledge demolishes “strongholds” and takes thoughts of people “captive to obey Christ.”

Paul draws a contrast between himself and the “super-apostles.” They minister according to fleshly standards, erect strongholds and obstacles through pride, and prey on “humble” servants to build their own empires. Paul, however, uses different kinds of weapons to destroy the strongholds and bring every thought captive to Christ. Paul claims he is engaged in a spiritual warfare where the gospel is at stake and the health of the Corinthian congregation lies in the balance.

Consequently, Paul will act with boldness if necessary when he visits Corinth for the third time. He is “ready to punish every disobedience,” though he hopes for and anticipates the obedience of the Corinthians. He will oppose the “super-apostles,” but he will welcome—with the “meekness and gentleness of Christ”—the obedient response of the Corinthians.

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