The letter we have as Second Corinthians is not as simple as the title suggests. We have already mentioned that Paul had written a letter to the Corinthian Christian community, the Corinthian Jesus community, prior to First Corinthians. First Corinthians, then, is Paul’s second letter to this church he had founded. Second Corinthians mentions yet another letter that Paul wrote, one that is now lost or only partially preserved in our current Second Corinthians. Second Corinthians itself appears to be a composite letter, splicing together pieces of other letters. There is disagreement about this, however, and no consensus on where pieces of the letter may have been spliced. No scholar seriously doubts that Paul is the author of the material in this book, however it is constructed. Most also date the material after First Corinthians. In the introduction to First Corinthians, I shared some details about the church and community. In the following paragraphs, I offer some assessments of the contents of the book we are now approaching.
[Second Corinthians] contains some of the strongest and most appealing themes of Pauline theology: e.g. consolation, reconciliation, theology of weakness. It also gives us the stuff of real life in the apostolic generation: e.g. painful conflicts between Paul and the community. In this letter, we see Paul figuratively with his back against the wall. The small cracks in the unity of the Corinthian community that were apparent in I Corinthians have here widened into large fissures, and the people’s animosity seems aimed not at one another but at Paul. (New Interpreters Study Bible).
While I Corinthians deals with issues of how the Christian relates to the world and culture outside the church, II Corinthians deals almost entirely with an internal issue – the meaning of apostleship. Some in the Corinthian church had challenged Paul’s standing as an authentic apostle. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
What caused Paul to write his second letter to the Corinthians was that they had attacked his leadership… attacked his character, questioned his motives, and wondered out loud what gave Paul the right to act like their leader…. So Paul was forced to defend his leadership. (The Message)
Grappling with the Corinthians was for [Paul] a harrowing struggle, one that makes for heady reading, even in the jumbled record it left behind (Gary Wills, What Paul Meant)
Are you ready to begin this next chapter in the written relationship between Paul and this early Jesus community?
II Corinthians 1:1-11: Paul brings greetings from he and Timothy and identifies himself as an apostle, “by the will of God” and wishes those to whom he writes grace and peace from God and from “the Lord Jesus Christ.” He goes on to say more about this God – a “Father of mercies” and “the God of all consolation.” God consoles us in our difficulties not simply so we can feel better (though God is not unconcerned with that), but so that we can continue to endure hardship that might come our way and so that we can offer consolation to others. Paul evokes the suffering of Jesus to describe something he has experienced as an apostle, and which the Corinthian Christians might also experience. Paul tells the church that his own sufferings and consolations work toward the good of the Corinthian Jesus community. He wants to encourage them in their sufferings.
Paul then gets more specific, sharing with the Corinthians that he suffered in Asia, and suffered in such a way that he was “utterly, unbearably crushed” and “despaired of life itself.” Paul may have been imprisoned in Ephesus during the time this letter was written and may have feared a death sentence. Whatever the exact nature of the trouble, Paul expressed confidence in God, and thanked the Corinthians for their prayers.
II Corinthians 1:12-23: Paul had made changes to plans to visit the Corinthian Christians, but those plans had to be changed. Some in Corinth did not take that well, and Paul feels he need to defend himself. He begins by claiming that, in good conscience, he has “behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity” by the grace of God. They should celebrate each other as people engaged in the shared ministry of Jesus Christ. God has put God’s Spirit into their hearts, and that, too, is cause for celebration and a point at which Paul and the Corinthian Christians should be united. God has said “Yes” in a big way to all of them. Paul is here playing on words as he tries to encourage an understanding of their shared identity in Jesus Christ while moving toward defending a change in his plans to visit.
Some are accusing Paul of not keeping his promises. Paul tells them that he had hoped to visit, but could not. “Are you now going to accuse me of being flip with my promises because it didn’t work out?” (The Message) Whatever the entire range of reasons Paul had for not visiting, here he asserts that a significant reason for his failure to visit was to avoid a painful visit.
II Corinthians 2:1-11: The language here implies that there has already been one “painful visit” and Paul changed further plans to avoid another painful visit. In response to some difficult encounter Paul had written what must have been a challenging letter, a letter written out of “much distress and anguish of heart, and with many tears.” He did not want his letter to cause pain but to reassure them of his “abundant love” for them. Loving a community can involve calling it to be more loving, and that is not always easy.
All of this is a little cryptic, and we wish we had more detail on all that has gone on between Paul and this community. We get a little more here. Some person had confronted Paul in a painful way on his last visit, but Paul sees the pain as the community's pain, not just his own. Apparently, then, this confrontational person was chastised by the majority of the community, and now Paul wants the community to forgive and console the person who caused all this trouble. All that stuff about love Paul wrote about in I Corinthians has a practical application here! Love and forgiveness are to be hallmarks of the community of Jesus Christ. This has never been an easy ideal to live with and live by. Paul uses strong language to describe the Jesus community that fails to try and live lovingly – they are trapped in the designs of Satan!
II Corinthians 2:12-17: Paul returns more directly to the reason he was not able to visit Corinth as planned – his ministry was successful in Troas, though he was anxious to get a report on Corinth from Titus. As Paul describes some of the changes in his plans, he writes a beautiful, poetic piece of praise to the God he sees at work even in the midst of changed plans and confusing events. “But thanks be to God, who, in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” The image evokes the Temple worship wherein offerings were made that emitted fragrant smells. Now to some, this “fragrance” seemed foul smelling, but to those who understood about God’s love, this was the very perfume of life. There is a resonance here with other religious traditions. The scent of flowers – sandalwood, jasmine, rosebay – doesn’t go against the wind. But the scent of a virtuous person does travel against the wind; it spreads in all directions. The scent of virtue is unsurpassed even by sandalwood, rosebay, water lily, and jasmine. Slight is the scent of rosebay or sandalwood, but the scent of the virtuous is supreme, drifting even to the gods. (The Dhammapada, 54-56). Paul then asks who really is able to measure up to such a task, to be such a fragrance in the world? It is a rhetorical question, really, for Paul understands that while persons may not be “worthy” (that language is probably not even appropriate), this is exactly who he has been. He has been this fragrance of God, this aroma of Christ, because he has spoken as a person of sincerity, as a person sent from God and as one standing in God’s presence. He has not been a teacher who has expected money for his teaching – he has not been a peddler of God’s word, a “huckster” (Cotton Patch Version). Our lives are intended to be the perfume of God in the world as we share our gifts with sincere hearts, as we share out of our own relationship with God.