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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 2

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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1. The postponement of the intended visit 1:12-2:4

In the present section (2 Corinthians 1:12 to 2 Corinthians 2:4) Paul sought to clarify the motives that led him to change his plans to visit the Corinthians. He did so to refute false accusations concerning him that were circulating in Corinth.

Verses 12-17

A. Defense of Paul’s conduct with regard to his promised visit and the offender 1:12-2:17

In 2 Corinthians Paul was addressing a situation in which his own children in the faith doubted his sincerity and motives. He, too, had doubts about their commitment to Jesus Christ and to himself as the Lord’s apostle. Nevertheless Paul also voiced some strong convictions in this epistle and sought to move his doubting readers to a condition of greater faith. This section of the epistle introduces this tension.

"Part of the achievement of effective communicators lies in their persuading their audiences that stepping-stones (warrants) do exist by which they can move from doubt to conviction." [Note: David M. Hay, "The Shaping of Theology in 2 Corinthians: Convictions, Doubts, Warrants," in Pauline Theology. Vol. II: 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 137.]

The loving motivation of Paul’s conduct 1:23-2:4

Verse 1

The chapter division is artificial. Paul now clarified what he did mean in 2 Corinthians 1:23. When had Paul come to them in sorrow? There is no valid basis for describing his first visit to Corinth, during which he established the church, as a sorrowful one. He had experienced some hard times during the 18 months (Acts 18:11) he was there, but generally this visit was pleasant. Paul later referred to his next visit to Corinth as his third (2 Corinthians 12:14; 2 Corinthians 13:1). Consequently we have reference here to a second visit not recorded in the Book of Acts. The commentators disagree over whether it took place before or after the writing of 1 Corinthians. I believe the evidence indicates it took place after that writing. [Note: Cf. F. F. Bruce, ed., 1 and 2 Corinthians, pp. 183-84.]

Note that Paul "determined" not to come again in sorrow. This is not the language of a vacillator.

Verse 2

Who could make Paul glad if he came to them and made them sorrowful? No one could. The Corinthians certainly could not since he would have made them sorrowful. Paul’s point was that if he came to them and made them sorrowful again he himself would be sorrowful since they were his source of joy. Consequently he decided to postpone his visit. Evidently if Paul had come to them as originally planned he would have had to rebuke or discipline them for some situation that existed in the church. Instead of doing this and producing sorrow he decided to wait and give them an opportunity to deal with the problem themselves.

Verse 3

Now Paul referred to a previous letter in which he said he told them he would not come to them again in sorrow. Is this a reference to 1 Corinthians? Some commentators believe it is. [Note: E.g., Hughes, Alford, Denney, Lightfoot, Bernard, Sanday, Zahn, Lenski, et al.] Nevertheless the lack of an explicit reference to not coming to them again in sorrow in that epistle throws some doubt on this interpretation. Consequently other commentators have posited the existence of another letter. They believe it was similar to the former letter referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:9 in that it is no longer extant, and that Paul spoke of it here. [Note: E.g., Guthrie, Kent, Barrett, Harris, Plummer, Tasker, Leitzmann, Bachmann, Windisch, Allo, Lowery, myself, et al.] This letter is a fairly recent suggestion by the commentators. Traditionally interpreters have understood the reference to be to 1 Corinthians. However the problem with that view, as mentioned above, is significant (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:8).

The identification of the letter referred to here does not affect the interpretation of Paul’s words here, however important it may be for other reasons. His reference to this former letter simply strengthens his point made in 2 Corinthians 2:2 that when he came to visit them again he wished to be a source of joy, not sorrow. He wanted them to make him joyful too.

"This does not mean merely that it would give them pleasure to see him happy, but also that obedience on their part, and the consequent purity and prosperity of the church, were as necessary to their happiness as to his." [Note: Hodge, p. 33.]

Verse 4

Paul’s affliction was probably the one referred to above (2 Corinthians 1:8-11). His anguish of heart doubtless arose both from his affliction and the condition of the Corinthian church. This verse is one of several in this epistle that gives us a window into the heart of the great apostle. Second Corinthians is one of the most personal of Paul’s epistles.

"The chief element of value in this ep. [epistle] is the revelation it gives of the apostle himself." [Note: Shaw, 2:720.]

Clearly Paul claimed that love for the Corinthians moved him to write the severe letter. He wanted to make them repentant and consequently joyful, not oppressed and sorrowful. He wept over them. Doubtless he wept again when he learned that his readers had misunderstood his best intentions.

"This passage, as Denney says, ’reveals, more clearly perhaps than any passage in the New Testament, the essential qualification of the Christian minister-a heart pledged to his brethren in the love of Christ. . . . ’Depend upon it,’ he counsels, ’we shall not make others weep for that for which we have not wept; we shall not make that touch the hearts of others which has not first touched our own.’" [Note: Hughes, p. 54.]

"When the offender is made to feel that, while his sin is punished, he himself is loved; and that the end aimed at is not his suffering but his good, he is the more likely to be brought to repentance. Every pastor must see in the apostle’s love for the Corinthians, and in the extreme sorrow with which he exercised discipline, in the case of offenders, an instructive example for his imitation." [Note: Hodge, p. 33.]

"In a manner that calls to mind Jesus’ forgiveness of those who caused him pain at the time of the crucifixion (Luke 23:34), Paul responded with a deep expression of overflowing love for those who had failed him." [Note: Barnett, p. 122.]

Paul had a special affection for the Corinthian believers.

"His love for them was more abundant, or greater, than that which he had for any other church. This view is borne out by numerous other passages in these two epistles, which go to show that Paul’s love for the Corinthian church was, for some reason, peculiarly strong." [Note: Hodge, p. 34.]

Paul’s example helps Christian leaders learn how to rebuke when we must. He used severity and rebukes very reluctantly. When he did rebuke, he did it without domineering. He did it with love in his heart and desire to see the best in those whom he rebuked. Nonetheless he did it when it was necessary. [Note: Cf. Barclay, pp. 199-200.]

It is often difficult to give up our plans, especially if much prayer and deliberation have gone into the planning. What makes this even harder is the possibility of our being misunderstood by others when we make changes. Notwithstanding, God often leads us just one step at a time. We must be willing to alter our plans if it is in the best interests of others and the gospel to do so.

"If you live to please people, misunderstandings will depress you; but if you live to please God, you can face misunderstandings with faith and courage." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:634.]

Verse 5

The person who caused sorrow to Paul and the Corinthians seems to have done so by insulting Paul either when Paul had been in Corinth last or since then. He was probably either the incestuous person referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:1-8. [Note: Hughes, pp. 63-64, 70; et al.] Or he may have been someone who had been rude to Paul, probably by challenging his apostolic authority. [Note: Harris, p. 328; Tasker, p. 52; Barnett, p. 124; et al.]

Verses 5-11

The treatment of the offender 2:5-11

"Particularly apparent here is Paul’s sensitivity as a pastor: He avoids naming the culprit (2 Corinthians 2:5-8); he recognizes that Christian discipline is not simply retributive but also remedial (2 Corinthians 2:6-7); he understands the feelings and psychological needs of the penitent wrongdoer (2 Corinthians 2:6-8); he appeals to his own conduct as an example for the Corinthians to follow (2 Corinthians 2:10); and he is aware of the divisive operation of Satan within the Christian community (2 Corinthians 2:11)." [Note: Harris, p. 328.]

Verses 5-17

2. The treatment of the offender and the result of the severe letter 2:5-17

Paul in this pericope explained his perspective on the encouraging and discouraging experiences of his recent ministry. He did so to let the Corinthians know how he felt about them and to encourage his readers to adopt his attitude toward ministry. "Ministry" was a favorite term of Paul’s. He used it 51 times in its verb and noun forms, and 20 of these occur in 2 Corinthians. Its six appearances in chapters 8 and 9 refer to the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem, a particular form of ministry. So its meaning is not uniform.

Verses 6-8

Paul commended his readers for disciplining the offender, warned them against over-reacting, and urged them to convince him of their love for him. He "urged" this action, not ordered it, because true Christian love must be spontaneous and unforced or it ceases to be what it professes to be. The "majority" may refer to the whole church (Gr. hoi pleiones). The minority apparently held out for more severe discipline of this person. Thus Paul threw the whole weight of his apostolic authority behind forgiving as he had previously thrown it behind disciplining.

By accepting the offender, after he repented, the church would be confirming the Lord’s forgiveness of him (cf. Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18; Luke 17:3; John 20:23).

"Discipline which is so inflexible as to leave no place for repentance and reconciliation has ceased to be truly Christian; for it is no less a scandal to cut off the penitent sinner from all hope of re-entry into the comfort and security of the fellowship of the redeemed community than it is to permit flagrant wickedness to continue unpunished in the Body of Christ." [Note: Hughes, pp. 66-67.]

Verse 9

This action would also show that the church accepted Paul’s apostolic authority. This was a test of its obedience to his authority. The reference to a previous letter seems to be another allusion to the severe letter (2 Corinthians 2:3-4).

Verses 10-11

Paul united in spirit with his readers. Indeed he had taken the initiative and forgiven the offending Corinthian before the other Corinthian Christians had. Paul deliberately understated the seriousness of the offense so no one would imagine that he considered himself virtuous for granting forgiveness readily. [Note: Harris, p. 329.] This is the strongest evidence that the offense was not incest.

Paul had forgiven the offender in the presence of Christ, namely, with the awareness that Jesus Christ was observing him. Jesus had taught that forgiveness of one another is a condition for receiving family forgiveness from the heavenly Father (Matthew 6:12; Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 18:23-35; cf. Colossians 3:13; Ephesians 4:32). The apostle had also forgiven to preserve the unity that he enjoyed with this church. Third, he had forgiven the offender to frustrate Satan’s desire to create discord in the church and between the church and Paul. The major emphases in these verses are on unity, moderation, and encouragement in the face of this problem.

Verses 12-13

Paul’s recent journey to Macedonia 2:12-13

The reason Paul included the information in these transitional verses appears to have been to help his readers appreciate his anxious concern for their welfare, which Titus was to report to him. It was, further, to explain the reason for his movements. Paul did not leave Troas because he was acting on the emotions of the moment but because he had a deep concern for the Corinthians. This is the last of Paul’s explanations of his recent conduct in this epistle.

Paul had returned to Ephesus from Corinth following his "painful visit" to the Corinthian church. He then dispatched Titus to Corinth with the "severe letter." Paul may have left for Troas because of the riot that Demetrius provoked in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41). Evidently he had planned to leave Ephesus anyway since he had arranged to meet Titus in Troas or Macedonia. The apostle left Troas and moved west into the province of Macedonia because he felt distressed because of opposition in Ephesus, the situation in Corinth, and his concern for Titus (2 Corinthians 7:5-7).

Verse 14

This outburst of praise sprang from Paul’s deep-seated conviction that God’s working in and through him, regardless of the appearance of the set-back just mentioned, proceeded on triumphantly. This viewpoint is one of the great emphases of this epistle. Jesus Christ is without exception continuing to advance in His work. He is building His church and the gates of hell are not prevailing against it (Matthew 16:18). Because Paul and the Corinthians were in Christ they shared in this triumph.

"The major objection to the hypothesis that 2 Corinthians 2:14 is the beginning of a new letter, one of several said to have been combined to create 2 Corinthians, is the fact that such a letter has no clearly defined ending. . . .

"The thesis of this article is that it was the resonances of the term ’Macedonia’ in 2.13 that switched Paul’s thoughts into the channel evidenced in 2.14-17." [Note: Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, "Paul and Macedonia: The Connection Between 2 Corinthians 2:13-14," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25 (October 1985):99, 100.]

Paul compared the irresistible advance of the gospel, in spite of temporary setbacks, to a Roman triumph.

"Christ undertook a battle not rightly his; we share in a triumph not rightly ours." [Note: Harris, p. 332.]

Paul compared the wafting of fragrant incense, as the triumph proceeded through the streets of Rome, to God disseminating the knowledge of Himself through the apostles.

"The metaphor is at the same time triumphal and antitriumphal. It is as God leads his servants as prisoners of war in a victory parade that God spreads the knowledge of Christ everywhere through them. Whereas in such victory processions the prisoners would be dejected and embittered, from this captive’s lips comes only thanksgiving to God, his captor. Here is restated the power-in-weakness theme (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11) that pervades the letter." [Note: Barnett, p. 150.]

Verses 14-17

Thanksgiving for a share in Christ’s triumph 2:14-17

"The passage that follows (2 Corinthians 2:14 to 2 Corinthians 7:4) is the longest coherent section within 2 Corinthians and is, arguably, the centerpiece of the entire letter. Nonetheless, it is not freestanding, but continuous with what precedes it." [Note: Barnett, p. 137. See also Carson and Moo, pp. 436-38.]

Paul’s recollection of his happy reunion with Titus in Macedonia and the good news his friend brought from Corinth triggered the following "great digression." The Corinthians, Paul learned, had responded favorably to the "severe letter." The apostle viewed their response as a divine vindication of his apostleship and a triumph of divine grace in the Corinthians’ hearts.

". . . 2.14-7.4 is a lengthy digression on Paul’s part, caused by the contrast between the agitation of mind which he has just described and his present sense of relief and rejoicing." [Note: Bruce, p. 187.]

". . . one thought leads on to another in an outpouring of spiritual wealth unsurpassed in any other of his epistles." [Note: Hughes, p. 77.]

Verses 15-16

Paul also compared the apostles to the aroma of the incense. Those who preach the gospel are pleasing to God regardless of the response of those who hear it. "From death to death" probably means from the death of Christ that the apostles preached in the gospel to the eternal death of those who reject it. "From life to life" probably means from the resurrection of Christ that they preached in the gospel to the eternal life of those who believe. [Note: Ibid., p. 154.] The role of herald of Christ is a high calling, and no one is sufficient in himself or herself for the task. We all need the grace of God.

"Verses 14 to 16 are difficult to understand by themselves, but when they are set against the background which was in Paul’s thoughts they become a vivid picture. Paul speaks of being led in the train of the triumph of Christ; and then he goes on to speak of being the sweet scent of Christ to men, a perfume which to some is the perfume of death and to others the perfume of life.

"In Paul’s mind there is the picture of a Roman Triumph and of Christ as a universal conqueror. The highest honour which could be given to a victorious Roman general was a Triumph. Before he could win it he must satisfy certain conditions. He must have been the actual commander-in-chief in the field. The campaign must have been completely finished, the region pacified and the victorious troops brought home. Five thousand of the enemy at least must have fallen in one engagement. A positive extension of territory must have been gained, and not merely a disaster retrieved or an attack repelled. And the victory must have been won over a foreign foe and not in a civil war. In an actual Triumph the procession of the victorious general marched through the streets of Rome to the Capitol in the following order. First, there came the state officials and the senate. Then there came the trumpeters. Then there were carried the spoils taken from the conquered land. For instance, when Titus conquered Jerusalem the seven-branched candlestick, the golden table of the shew-bread and the golden trumpets were carried through the streets of Rome. Then there came pictures of the conquered land and models of conquered citadels and ships. There followed the white bull for sacrifice which would be made. Then there walked the wretched captives, the enemy princes, leaders and generals in chains, shortly to be flung into prison and in all probability almost immediately to be executed. Then there came the lictors [minor judicial officials] bearing their rods, followed by the musicians with their lyres. Then there came the priests swinging their censers with the sweet-smelling incense burning in them. And then there came the general himself. He stood in a chariot drawn by four horses. He was clad in a purple tunic embroidered with golden palm leaves, and over it a purple toga marked out with golden stars. In his hand he held an ivory sceptre with the Roman eagle at the top of it, and over his head a slave held the crown of Jupiter. After him there rode his family, and finally there came the army wearing all their decorations and shouting Io triumphe! their cry of triumph. As the procession moved through the streets, all decorated and garlanded, amid the shouting, cheering crowds, it was a tremendous day, a day which might happen only once in a lifetime. That is the picture that is in Paul’s mind. He sees the conquering Christ marching in triumph throughout the world, and himself in that conquering train. It is a triumph which, Paul is certain nothing can stop. We have seen how in that procession there were the priests swinging the incense-filled censers. Now to the general and to the victors the perfume from the censers would be the perfume of joy and triumph and life; but to the wretched captives who walked so short a distance ahead it was the perfume of death, for it stood for the past defeat and their coming execution. So Paul thinks of himself and his fellow apostles preaching the gospel of the triumphant Christ. To those who will accept it, it is the perfume of life, as it was to the victors; to those who refuse it, it is the perfume of death as it was to the vanquished. Of one thing Paul was certain-not all the world could defeat Christ. He lived not in pessimistic fear, but in the glorious optimism which knew the unconquerable majesty of Christ." [Note: Barclay, pp. 204-6.]

The day of Christ’s triumph that Paul envisioned was His return to the earth at His second coming. After the Roman Republic ended and the Roman Empire began, in 27 B.C., only emperors received triumphs. [Note: Keener, p. 164.]

Verse 17

Many itinerant teachers and philosophers in Paul’s day adulterated the Word of God. All was not well in Corinth in this respect. Nevertheless Paul claimed absolute sincerity (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:12). His only desire was the glory of God, the advancement of the gospel, and the progress of His people. The proofs of his sincerity were his divine commission, his sense of divine dependence and responsibility, and his divine authority and power. As a spiritual physician, Paul did not dilute or add other ingredients to the medicine that brings life, the Word of God. [Note: Harris, p. 332.]

"How is Paul able confidently to attribute such negative motives to these men, while expecting his own claim ’of sincerity’ to be accepted? It appears that he is appealing to the known fact that these men have received some material benefit from the Corinthians (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:20), whereas Paul deliberately refused payment from them (2 Corinthians 11:7-12; 2 Corinthians 12:13-16)." [Note: Barnett, p. 157.]

We must grasp Paul’s perspective on the unfailing success of God’s work in the world today and of those of us who participate in it. We must do so to see life as it really is and to avoid discouragement because of the apparent failure of many of our best intended activities (cf. Isaiah 55:10-11).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/2-corinthians-2.html. 2012.
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