This commentary explores Paul’s message in his second letter to the Corinthians and challenges us to likewise live counterculturally, depending on God’s power in the midst of our weakness. Part of the popular Preaching the Word series.
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About the Author
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and former professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
2 CORINTHIANS 1:1, 2
Americans with a sense of their own history should have no difficulty relating to the biblical city of Corinth because in many ways it parallels the bustling cities of the American West around the turn of the century — cities like Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco.
Classical Corinth had been destroyed in 146 B.C. by the Romans and had remained uninhabited for a hundred years, until 44 B.C. when Julius Caesar rebuilt it. So when Paul visited Corinth in A.D. 49-50, it was just over eighty years old with a population of some 80,000. Yet, during its short history Corinth had become the third most important city of the Roman Empire, behind Alexandria and Rome itself. Situated on the isthmus of Greece, it was variously called the "master of harbors," "the crossroads of Greece," and "a passage for all mankind." Corinth embodied an economic miracle and was the envy of the lesser cities of the Empire.
As with the cities of America's so-called "Western Expansion," the population of Corinth was largely immigrant and opportunist, filled with those seeking a better life. Corinth became the popular answer to Rome's overpopulation — and especially its freedmen (those who had formerly been slaves), who became Corinth's largest segment. Neo-Corinth also became a favorite venue for ex-Roman soldiers seeking a better life for their families. Corinth also attracted ethnic diversity from far and wide. Acts 18 reports of a substantial Jewish community that exercised self-governance (cf. vv. 8, 17).
In A.D. 50 Corinth was a young Roman city with shallow roots. Traditions were few, and thus society was relatively open. There was no city in the Empire more conducive to advancement.
Because there was no landed aristocracy in Corinth, wealth became the sole factor for respect and ascendancy. New Testament scholar Scott Hafemann summarizes:
Corinth was a free-wheeling "boom town," filled with materialism, pride, and the self-confidence that comes with having made it in a new place and with a new social identity. The "pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-boot-straps" mentality that would become so characteristic of the American frontier filled the air.
The parallels with modern Western life continue. Corinth was a sports and entertainment culture. Caesar had reinstituted the Isthmian games in Corinth (which were second only to the Olympics). The city's theater held up to 18,000 and the concert hall some 3,000. Travel, tourism, sex, and religious pluralism were woven together in Corinth's new culture. Significantly, while Nero never visited Athens and Sparta, he spent considerable time in Corinth, enjoying the adulation of its voluptuous populace. The similarities to modern Western culture are so striking that a California pastor, Ray Stedman, used to call Paul's Corinthian letters "First and Second Californians"!
Second Californians or not, we all must understand that the self-made-man ethos, the "I-did-it-my-way" pride and individualism, the nouveauriche worship of health and wealth, the religious pluralism of Corinth — these together presented a formidable challenge to Paul's style, method, and message of presenting the simple gospel. The composite culture of Corinth does truly invite our calling this letter "Second Californians" or "Second Texans" or "Second Minnesotans" or "Second City."
Paul's relationship with the Corinthian church became stormy, to say the least. It began well enough when Paul, with the help of the godly couple Aquila and Priscilla and his faithful disciples Timothy and Silas, established the church in Corinth during a one-and-a-half-year visit (cf. Acts 18:1-17). There in Corinth, despite an outcry from his Jewish country-men, Paul stood tall and preached the cross, leaving behind a remarkable church.
After Paul left Corinth, he traveled to Ephesus and from there to Jerusalem and then back to Ephesus, where he wrote 1 Corinthians — about three years after his initial founding visit. At the time of his writing that epistle, he planned to visit Corinth again to gather up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem. But in the interim he sent Timothy to visit the Corinthian believers (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1-11). What Timothy encountered was an incipient, growing apostasy, likely the work of Paul's enemies who had recently come from Jerusalem. In a flash Paul decided to pay the Corinthians a visit, briefly tend to matters, and be on his way.
But what a shock awaited Paul — his infamous, "painful visit" (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:1) — seismic misery. The apostle's authority, even his apostleship, was called into question. If Paul was for real, why was there so much suffering in his life? they asked. Also, why was his ministry so lackluster when compared with the ministry of others? Why was his preaching so dull? And why did he change his travel plans if God was actually directing his life? Moreover, what lay behind his refusal to accept payment for his services, as most preachers did? Was he really collecting money for the poor? Why didn't Paul have letters of recommendation like the others? Why didn't he regale them with stories about God's power in his ministry? Was it because there were none? Tragically, this attack on Paul's ministry and per-son had led many of his Corinthian converts to reject him and his preaching for "a different gospel" (cf. 11:4).
Paul left Corinth wounded and devastated. In his own words, "I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you" (2:1). Still stung, back in Ephesus, Paul sent Titus to Corinth with a new and "severe" letter (2:5). It was a letter of great emotion. "For I wrote to you," says Paul, "out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you" (2:4). Paul called for repentance. And, all glory to God, the Corinthian church did repent! As he would observe, "For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it — though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us" (7:8, 9). The majority came back to Paul and his gospel, but some still rejected his authority. Thus it was that Paul wrote the magnificent letter of Second Corinthians in A.D. 55 as he began to make plans to return for a third visit (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:14; 13:1).
So today we can read and study this letter, the most emotional of all the apostle's writings. Nowhere is Paul's heart so torn and exposed as in this letter. Second Corinthians bears a fierce tone of injured love, of paradoxically wounded, relentless affection. Toward the letter's end Paul will say, "And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?" (11:28, 29).
If you have ever invested your life in that of another, so that one turns to Christ (perhaps a child or a friend or a coworker or a relative) and then have had others lead that one astray, 2 Corinthians is for you. This book is about the nature of the gospel and authentic ministry. Those who really care about the gospel and the care of souls will find 2 Corinthians captivating. For those who don't care, this is about what your heart ought to be — and about what you ought to be about!
As Paul conveys his brief two-verse greeting to the Corinthians, he leaves no uncertainty as to what he is about — namely, to preserve his apostleship and to preserve the church.
PAUL'S SALUTATION (vv. 1, 2)
We see the purpose of Paul's writing in the two clauses of verse 1 with their distinct emphases on apostle and church: "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia."
Paul's high authority. From the distance of two millennia, it is easy to miss the uniquely high claims that Paul makes about his authority. By his disregarding the customary thanksgiving of a traditional greeting, Paul cut right to the quick, declaring that he was "an apostle of Christ Jesus" — thereby emphasizing that his call had come from the risen Christ on the Damascus road. Furthermore, Paul's explicit declaration that he was "an apostle of Christ Jesus" (rather than the more customary "of Jesus Christ") was care-fully crafted to emphasize that he was a sent one from the Messiah Jesus, who was himself the unique Apostle sent from Heaven, in whom all the hopes and promises of the Old Testament found their fulfillment. And still more, as Messiah he was "Jesus" ("Jehovah is salvation") — God saving his people from their sins.
The significance of Paul's being an apostle of Messiah Jesus is that Paul bore the apostleship of the Apostle-Messiah who personally commissioned him and his message. He was an apostle "by the will of God" in that the very "will of God that sent Jesus is the same will that Christ enacts in sending Paul to represent him as his 'Apostle'" (Hafemann). Therefore, to reject the authority of the one who is an apostle of "Messiah Jesus by the will of God" is to reject the authority of God himself! Further, anyone who would dare to buck Paul's authority had, in effect, challenged God. This is awesome, terrifying authority.
The church's high position. The complement to Paul's exalted position is the exalted position of the church that he lifts up as he addresses it as "the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia" (v. 1b). The interchangeable designations "saints" and "church of God" states the astonishing high truth about the believers of Corinth. But the terms are freighted with irony. "The saints," these holy ones, had sinned greatly against Paul. Clearly they were not saints because of their recent behavior, but solely because they were in Christ, the Holy One of God. Christ Jesus was their sanctification (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30). And as to their designation as "the church of God," how ironic that was! They had treated Paul like dirt, but he called them the church of God!
The ironies were penetrating, but sweetly so, due to the grace of God. And these exalted truths about the Corinthians formed the ground for Paul's appeal, as we will see.
Paul's calling the Corinthians "the church of God that is at Corinth," or literally "the church of God that has its being in Corinth," suggests their continuity with God's people of the past when they assembled in God's presence to hear his Word from leaders like Moses. And now, in holy continuity with their forefathers, they were to hear and obey God's Word from his apostle.
The power of Paul's argument would penetrate their souls precisely because they were God's church and not Paul's church! Though I have pastored College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, for a quarter of a century, it is not my church — it is the church of God that has its being in Chicago. The church is God's alone. And when we understand it as we should, we also understand that our mutual God-ordained function is to be an assembly of God's people in God's presence to hear and obey God's Word.
In respect to our application of 2 Corinthians, we must remember that this is God's Word for the church of God that has its being where we are planted. True, our culture is different from the first century, but it is our identity as "the church of God" that supplies the continuity and relevance of Paul's words. We share the same Father and the same Lord — we are brothers and sisters "with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia."
Second Corinthians is for us! From here on, Paul's passionate letter rides on two elevated designations — that of himself and that of the church. "The church of God" must listen to the "apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God."
Paul's high hopes. Paul's salutation concludes with appropriately high hopes (his prayer-wish) for the Corinthian church: "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 2). It is impossible for us today to hear the word play here — Paul always replaced the Greek word for "Hello" (charein) with the Christian term for "grace" (charis). So when Paul's readers expected "Hello," Paul wished them "Grace."
And, of course, the greeting was "Grace ... and peace" because peace/shalom always follows the loving favor of God.
It was a lovely wish, but as has been pointed out, "Paul's ... wish takes on from the beginning an added sense of poignancy, and pain. Only those who accept Paul's greeting as an expression of his genuine apostolic authority will receive what 'God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ' desire for them."
PAUL'S LETTER: EXALTED THEMES
The letter's character. The letter that ensues for the next 257 verses is passionate and uneven, and sometimes explosive. The most compelling defense of Paul's apostolate and ministry in all his letters extends from the middle of Chapter 2 and continues to the beginning of Chapter 7 (2:12 — 7:1). Then chapters 7 — 9 lay out the implications for the repentant Corinthians, while chapters 10 — 13 describe the implications for the unrepentant.
The entire text of the letter is dotted with magnificent expressions, from which I have listed a select few of my favorites to raise your anticipation.
2:15, 16: For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
3:5: Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.
4:17, 18: For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
5:10: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
5:17: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
5:21: For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
8:9: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
9:7: Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
10:3, 4: For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
11:28, 29: And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
13:14: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
As you can see, 2 Corinthians provides us with passionate, living theology.
The letter's theme. The theme or melodic line of 2 Corinthians concerns the nature of ministry under the new covenant of Christ. The new covenant must be read against the backdrop of Exodus 32 — 34 and the Old Testament promises of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 11, 36. Paul's use of these Scriptures and many other Old Testament texts trumpets his conviction that the new-covenant ministry has been inaugurated in Christ. Here, in no uncertain terms, is the pattern for all authentic ministry. Paul provides the litmus test for the real thing.
The letter's motif. The motif that keeps emerging throughout this epistle is that weakness is the source of strength and that suffering is the vehicle for God's power and glory. In 4:7-12 Paul describes gospel ministry in these terms: But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "2 Corinthians"
Copyright © 2006 R. Kent Hughes.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word 11
1 Exalted Identities (1:1, 2) 13
2 The Comfort of God (1:3-7) 21
3 Affiction and Resurrection (1:8-11) 29
4 Integrity and Ministry (1:12-2:4) 37
5 Forgiveness and Ministry (2:5-11) 47
6 Triumphal Procession in Christ (2:12-17) 53
7 Credentials of Ministry (3:1-3) 61
8 Sufficient for Ministry (3:4-6) 67
9 A More Glorious Ministry (3:7-18) 75
10 Doing Ministry (4:1-6) 81
11 The Power of New-Covenant Ministry (4:7-12) 89
12 "Futures" and Steadfastness (4:13-18) 95
13 More Beyond (5:1-10) 103
14 Paul's Driving Motivations (5:11-15) 111
15 Gospel Regard (5:16, 17) 117
16 God's Reconciliation (5:18-6:2) 123
17 Ministry That Commends (6:3-13) 131
18 Bringing Holiness to Completion (6:14-7:1) 139
19 Comfort and Joy for a Caring Heart (7:2-16) 147
20 The Grace of Giving (8:1-15) 155
21 Integrity and Giving (8:16-24) 163
22 Ready, Willing, Generous Giving (9:1-15) 171
23 Call to Church Discipline (10:1-6) 179
24 Boasting in the Lord (10:7-18) 185
25 Apologia for Boasting (11:1-15) 193
26 Paul's Boasting (11:16-33) 201
27 Paul's Greatest Boast (12:1-10) 209
28 Authenticating Apostleship (12:11-21) 217
29 Final Warnings and Exhortations (13:1-10) 225
30 Apostolic Optimism (13:11-14) 231
Scripture Index 257
General Index 264
Index of Sermon Illustrations 268