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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

2 Corinthians

- 2 Corinthians

by Charles John Ellicott

THE SECOND EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE CORINTHIANS.

The Second Epistle to the Corinthians

BY
THE VERY REV. E. H. PLUMPTRE, D.D.


INTRODUCTION
TO
THE SECOND EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE CORINTHIANS.

IT is not without some reluctance that I have undertaken to treat of an Epistle which stands in such close connection with that which precedes it that it can scarcely be dealt with by a different hand without some risk of want of unity of treatment.

I have, however, kept on the same main lines of thought and method of interpretation which have been followed in the Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and have been glad to find myself on all important points of one mind with the commentator.
Of the genuineness of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians there has never been a moment’s doubt, even among critics who allow themselves the widest range in their attacks on the canon of New Testament writings. External evidence is in itself adequate. The Epistle is quoted by Irenæus (Hær. iii. 7, § 1), by Athenagoras (De resurr. Mort), by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. iii. 94, iv. 101), and by Tertullian (De Pudicitiâ, c. 13). Testimony of this kind is, however, hardly needed. The Epistle speaks for itself. In its intense personality, its peculiarities of style, its manifold coincidences with the Acts and with other Epistles (especially with 1 Corinthians,. Romans, and Galatians), its vehement emotions, it may fairly be said to present phenomena beyond the attainment of any later writer wishing to claim for what he wrote the authority of a great name. Pseudonymous authorship is, in this case, simply out of the question.

In order to understand the Epistle we must throw ourselves, as by a mental effort, into the mind and heart of the writer at the moment when he wrote or, more probably, dictated it. Much that is necessary for that purpose has been already said in the Notes to the First Epistle, and it is not necessary to repeat it. Of the sins and disorders of the Corinthians as reported to him by successive informants—the household of Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11), and by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Corinthians 16:17); of his treatment of the topics then brought before him; of the probable effect of what he wrote upon the several parties in the Corinthian Church, we need not now speak. It will be sufficient to note that he had sent Timotheus before he wrote the First Epistle; that he had then sent the First Epistle by Stephanas, his companion; that when they were gone (or possibly with them[58]) he despatched Titus to complete the work, perhaps as trusting more to his energy than that of the other messengers. Timotheus had returned to him. It is not certain that he reached Corinth. If he did, he came and left before the Epistle had arrived, and was unable to report what had been its result. His timid and shrinking character probably unfitted him for coping with the many difficulties which presented themselves. (See Note on 1 Corinthians 4:17.) His coming, therefore, however welcome it might be, brought no relief to the Apostle’s anxiety. He started from Ephesus, whether before or after the arrival of Timotheus we do not know, and, in pursuance of his plan, went to Troas. But there, too, great as the opportunities for mission-work were (2 Corinthians 2:12), he had no strength or heart to use them. A restless, feverish anxiety devoured him night and day, and he sailed for Macedonia, probably for Philippi. And there, at last, after a time of expectation and anxiety, Titus came to him (2 Corinthians 7:6). His report was evidently more full and satisfactory than that which had been brought by Timotheus. He was able to report, what the latter had not reported—the effect of the First Epistle; and this was, in part, at least, full of comfort. The majority at a meeting of the Church had acted as he had told them to act, in the punishment of the incestuous offender (2 Corinthians 2:6), they had shown generally a desire to clear themselves from the reproach of sensual impurity (2 Corinthians 7:11), and had manifested warm feelings of attachment to the Apostle personally (2 Corinthians 7:7). They had obeyed Titus as the Apostle’s delegate, and had made the work which he had undertaken in much anxiety, a labour of love and joy (2 Corinthians 7:13-16). They had taken up the collection for the saints with an eager interest, and had not only accepted the idea, but had begun to act on the suggestion of 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, as to the weekly payments, and to the alms-box of the house (2 Corinthians 9:13). So far all was well, and had this been all, the Second Epistle to the Corinthians would probably have been as full of thankfulness, and joy, and comfort, as that to the Philippians. But it was not all Wisely or unwisely, Titus thought it right to tell him of the words and acts of the two parties in the Church of Corinth, who, at opposite extremes, were agreed in resisting his authority. There were some, the party of license, who needed sharp words of censure, and had given no proof of repentance for the foul evils of their former life (chap 2 Corinthians 12:21). There was the Judaising party, claiming to belong to Christ in a sense in which St. Paul did not belong to Him, boasting of their Hebrew descent (2 Corinthians 10:7; 2 Corinthians 11:4; 2 Corinthians 11:22), arrogating to themselves a special apostolic authority (2 Corinthians 11:5), insolently lording it over their abject followers (2 Corinthians 11:20). And from one or other of these rival parties, probably in some cases from both, there had come—so Titus reported—taunts, sneers, and insinuations against the Apostle’s character. He had shown feebleness in his change of plan (2 Corinthians 1:17); his personal appearance, feeble and infirm, did not match the authoritative tone of his letters; his speech had nothing in it to command admiration (2 Corinthians 10:10); he threatened supernatural punishments, but he did not dare to put his threats to the proof (2 Corinthians 13:3). What right had he to claim the authority of an Apostle, when he had never seen the Christ in the flesh? Was it certain that he was a Hebrew, a Jew of the pure blood of Palestine, or even that he was of the seed of Abraham? (2 Corinthians 11:22.) They turned into a reproach the fact that he had worked for his maintenance at Corinth, and yet had received gifts from the Macedonian churches, as though he had been too proud to put himself under obligations to any but his favourites (2 Corinthians 11:2-10). They insinuated that what he would not do directly he meant to do indirectly, through the collection for the poor of Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 12:16). How could they tell that the fund so secured would find its way to those who were ostensibly its objects? Who was this Paul who came without credentials (2 Corinthians 3:1), and expected to be received on the strength of his everlasting self-assertions? (2 Corinthians 3:1; 2 Corinthians 5:12; 2 Corinthians 10:8; 2 Corinthians 10:12; 2 Corinthians 12:11.) Was there not a touch of madness in his visions and revelations? Could he claim more than the tolerance which men were ready to extend to the insane? (2 Corinthians 5:13; 2 Corinthians 11:16-19.)

[58] See Introduction to the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Conceive all these barbed arrows of sarcasm falling on the ears, and through them piercing the very soul, of a man of singularly sensitive nature, passionately craving for affection, and proportionately feeling the bitterness of loving with no adequate return (2 Corinthians 12:15), and we may form some estimate of the whirl and storm of emotion in which St. Paul began to dictate the Epistle on which we are about to enter. Joy, affection, tenderness, fiery indignation, self-vindication, profound thoughts as to the mysteries of the kingdom of God which flashed upon his soul as he spoke—all these elements were there, craving to find expression. They hindered any formal plan and method in the structure of the Epistle. They led to episodes, and side-glances, and allusive references without number.

It follows from this that an analysis of such an Epistle is not a very easy matter, and that which follows must be received only as an approximately complete one, helping the student to follow the manifold oscillations of thought and feeling.

1.—St. Paul wishes the Corinthians to know his troubles and sufferings before the return of Titus (2 Corinthians 1:1-14).

2.—He tells them of his first plan of coming to them, and defends himself against the charge of fickleness in changing it (2 Corinthians 1:15 to 2 Corinthians 2:1).

3.—He is glad that he did change his plans, for thus there was time for the repentance on the part of the incestuous offender of 1 Corinthians 5:1. Such a one now needed sympathy and pardon (2 Corinthians 2:2-11).

4.—He is about to tell them of his meeting with Titus, but the remembrance of the triumphant joy of that moment overpowers him, and fills him with a profound sense of the issues of life and death which hang upon his words (2 Corinthians 2:12-17).

5.—Will this be called the self-assertion of one who has no credentials? His thoughts pass rapidly to the true credentials of effective preaching, and so to the new covenant of which he is the preacher, and so to the contrast between that covenant and the old (2 Corinthians 3:1-18).

6.—The sense of the tremendous responsibility of the work thus committed to him, leads him to dwell on his own fitness and unfitness for it. On the one side there is nothing but infirmity and disease, on the other there is the life of Jesus working in his life (2 Corinthians 4:1-18), and the hope of a life after death, in which all that is spiritual in us now shall find itself emancipated from the flesh and clothed with a new spiritual organism (2 Corinthians 5:1-9).

7.—That hope does not, however, exclude the fear of the judgment through which all must pass. At the risk of seeming mad he must dwell on that fear. Only so can he lead men to estimate rightly the preciousness of the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:10-21).

8.—Will those to whom he writes receive that message in vain? He pleads with them by all he has done and suffered for them to give him a place in their affections, above all to give Christ the supreme place in them. Only so can they be indeed God’s children (2 Corinthians 6:1-18). They cannot serve Him and the lust-demon, Belial.

9.—His thoughts turn from the party of license, whom he had in view in the previous section, to those who had shown themselves zealous against impurity. Now he can tell these, and such as these, why meeting Titus had given him matter for such warm rejoicing; why he feels that he can trust them (2 Corinthians 7:1-16).

10.—A new topic begins, apparently after a pause. He is about to show that he trusts them, by asking them to let their performance in the matter of the collection for the saints be equal to their readiness of will. He tells them of the arrangements he has made for it, and stirs them up by the example of the Macedonians, by appeals to their own self; by the hope of God’s favour (2 Corinthians 8:1 to 2 Corinthians 9:15).

11.—As if by the association of contrast, he turns from what he viewed with satisfaction and hope to the sarcasm and insinuations which had caused such acute pain (2 Corinthians 10:1-18). He charges his opponents, the Judaising teachers, with intruding into his province, defends himself against some of their special accusations, and challenges them to a comparison of their labours and sufferings with his own (2 Corinthians 11:1-29). Even the infirmities with which they taunted him are for those who understand them rightly, a ground of confidence and strength (2 Corinthians 11:30 to 2 Corinthians 12:18).

12.—Having thus defended himself, his thoughts travel on to the time of his projected visit. He looks forward, not without anxiety, to the possibility of having to exercise his apostolic authority in punishing the offenders both of the party of license and that of the Judaisers. But he hopes that that necessity will not arise. His wish and prayer is that they may be restored to completeness without it. The agitation of his own spirit is calmed, and he ends with words of peace and blessing for them (2 Corinthians 12:19 to 2 Corinthians 13:14).

Of the immediate results of the Epistle, and of the after-history of the Church of Corinth, we know but little. Within a few months he paid his promised visit, and was received with hospitality by one of the chief members of the Church (Romans 16:23). Titus and the unnamed brethren of 2 Corinthians 8:18; 2 Corinthians 8:22, probably Luke and Tychicus, had done their work effectually, and he could tell the Romans to whom he wrote of the collection for the saints which had been made in Achaia as well as in Macedonia (Romans 15:26). They apparently had so far gained the confidence of the Corinthians that they did not think it necessary to choose any delegates of their own to watch over the appropriation of the funds collected (Acts 20:4). The malignant enmity of the Jews, however, had not abated. His life was endangered by a plot to attack him as he was embarking at Cenchreæ, and he had to change his plans and return through Macedonia (Acts 20:3). After this we lose sight of the Corinthian Church altogether, and the one glimpse which we get, accepting the Pastoral Epistles as genuine, and as coming after St. Paul’s first imprisonment at Rome, is that on his return to his former labours, Erastus, who seems to have travelled with him, stopped at the city in which he held a municipal position of authority (Romans 16:23; 2 Timothy 4:20). The Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, written, probably, about A.D. 95—some thirty-five years, therefore, after the date of this Epistle—shows, however, that the character of the Church had not altered, and that the old evils had re-appeared. A few rash and self-confident persons, putting themselves at the head of a factious party, had brought discredit on the Church’s name. It was necessary to exhort them once more to submit to their rulers and to follow after peace (Clem. Rom. i. 1), to remind them of the self-denying labours of the two Apostles, Peter and Paul, whose names they professed to honour (i. 2), of the examples of faith and humility presented by Christ Himself and by the saints of the Old Testament (i. 16-18). The old doubts as to the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:0) had re-appeared, and Clement, over and above the teaching of Scripture and of the Apostles on this subject, presses on them the analogy of the stories then current as to the death and revival of the Phœnix[59] (1:24, 25). The authority of the legitimate pastors of the Church (he names bishops or deacons only, as St. Paul had done in Philippians 1:1) was disputed, and he urges submission, and quotes the Epistle—the first of the two which St. Paul had addressed to them (Clem. Rom. i. 47)—paraphrasing the section in which he had set forth the excellence of charity (i. :49) The letter was sent by messengers, among whom we find one, Fortunatus, who may have been among the survivors who knew the Apostle’s work, and had been the bearer of the Epistle of which Clement has just reminded them. The name, however, like its synonyms, Felix, Eutychus, and the like, was not an uncommon one, and the identification cannot, therefore, be regarded as more than probable.

[59] The elaborate note in Dr. Lightfoot’s edition of St. Clement shows that a fresh prominence had recently been given to the phœnix-legend, which may account for the stress thus laid on it. It was said to have re-appeared in Egypt in the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 34-36) (Tacit. Ann. vi. 28). In A.D. 47 a live phœnix was actually exhibited in the comitium of Rome (Plin. Nat. Hist. x. 2). Historians and savans, though they might think the particular instance an imposture, accepted the tradition with hardly a question.

Somewhat later on, about A.D. 135, the Church of Corinth was visited by Hegesippus, the historian of the Jewish Church, to whom we owe the narrative of the death of James, the Bishop of Jerusalem. He touched at that city on his voyage to Rome, and remained there for several days. He found the Church faithful to the truth under its bishop Primus (Euseb. Hist. iv. 22). Dionysius, who succeeded Primus in his episcopate, brought out all that was good in the Church over which he ruled, and extended his activity to the Macedonians, the Athenians, the people of Nicomedia, of Crete, and of the coast of Pontus. He bears his testimony to the liberality of the Church of Corinth in relieving the poverty of other churches, to the traditional liberality which it had, in its turn, experienced at the hand of the Roman churches. The teaching of 2 Corinthians 8:9, had, it would seem, done its work effectually. He records the fact that the Epistle of Clement was read, from time to time, on the Lord’s Day. A female disciple named Chrysophora, apparently of the same type of character as Dorcas and Priscilla, was conspicuous both for her good works and her spiritual discernment (Euseb. Hist. iv. 23). With this glimpse into the latest traceable influence of St. Paul’s teaching, our survey of the history of the Church of Corinth may well close.