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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 2

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

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Verses 1-3

‘But I determined this for myself, that I would not come again to you with sorrow. For if I make you sorry, who then is he who makes me glad but he who is made sorry by me? And I wrote this very thing, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from those of whom I ought to rejoice, having confidence in you all, that my joy is the joy of you all.’

Paul’s desire was to bring them joy, not sorrow. Thus he had determined that after his previous hurtful visit he would not again visit them until he could come in joy. For how could he make sorrowful face to face those who should rather be bringing gladness to his heart had they been in the right frame of mind to receive his words, those whom he loved? That is why he had written his severe letter, confident that what they really wanted was in fact what he wanted, and that therefore to come and bring them sorrow by his presence unnecessarily, when he should be rejoicing in them, was not to be considered. For he was confident that in the end what brought him joy would bring them joy and thus they would accept his letter and resolve the situation.

This again does not mean simply that Paul could not bear people thinking ill of him, and that all that he thought of was his own joy. His concern was rather not to cause any friction which might be lasting. So that those whom he should in the future be helping and over whom he would then rejoice, should not be so put off that he could not in future help them, with the result that neither would rejoice. He was thinking of them and their futures, and the harmony and growth of the church not of himself.

Verses 1-11

Paul Explains His Reasons For What He Has Done And Calls For Leniency On The One Who Had Sinned And Has Now Repented (2 Corinthians 1:23 to 2 Corinthians 2:11 ).

Paul now explains why he had changed his travel plans after his hurtful visit and then explains the subsequent severe letter he had had to send to them. Both these events had seemingly happened after he had written 1 Corinthians. And then he gives further instructions because of how great had been the effect of his severe letter. He did not want anything to be taken too far.

In 1 Corinthians, while he had had to rebuke, it had been in expectation of things being put right without too much difficulty, so that he had not anticipated that it would put a barrier in the way of his visiting them for a goodly period. But when he had subsequently paid them a quick visit it had turned out to be a very hurtful one, for someone had raised the church up in opposition against him, so much so that he had felt it best to leave Corinth immediately and deal with the matter by a severe and strong letter, rather than by having an open and possibly permanently damaging confrontation.

What the further trouble was is open to interpretation. What seems clear is that one person was mainly behind it all (2 Corinthians 1:5-7), and that somehow he had managed temporarily to get a good proportion of the church (or of one particular house church which Paul visited) on his side. The result was that when Paul had made his surprise visit to Corinth, that person, supported by other members of the church, had made hurtful and spiteful accusations against him, presumably with ‘here, here’ being heard in the background along with a lot of scowling faces, and had roused so much ill feeling that Paul had felt it best to withdraw quickly in order to preserve the peace and unity of the church.

The accusations presumably included the fact of his supposed fickleness in not visiting them when he had promised to, probably stirred up by clever manipulation, and possibly included the fact that now he had come it was only for a quick visit, and not the long stay he had promised. The suggestion was therefore probably made that it demonstrated that he was both unreliable and dishonest. This might have especially affected those who had seen themselves as the primary targets of 1 Corinthians.

The main person who had opposed him might well have been someone who was concerned to gain pre-eminence, and had won some adherents, and did not want Paul’s interference. Possibly it was he, along with some of those who saw themselves as super-spiritual, who stressed that Paul’s weakness, and appearance, and sufferings, demonstrated that he was not really an Apostle of God. But even the less antagonistic members might well have been upset that now that he had come he had said that it was only for a short visit, and thus have joined in the dissatisfaction against Paul.

A less sensitive Apostle might, after consideration of what was happening, have remained so as to demonstrate that his authority could not be questioned, without having regard for the long term effects, concerned more for their own reputation than the food of the church. But Paul was not like that. He was not concerned about his hurt pride, or his position for its own sake. All he took into account was the long term benefit of the church. And he had therefore immediately left Corinth because he had felt that that could not be achieved at this time by harsh personal action, or fighting his corner in person, leaving long term hurt all round. He had recognised that it must be dealt with in another way. Present feeling was running too high.

At which point he had sent a severe letter, the severe letter which he will now refer to, which turned out to be so successful that he has to advise leniency towards the person involved.

Verse 4

‘For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears, not that you should be made sorry, but that you might know the love that I have more abundantly to you.’

For the truth was that he loved them dearly, so much so that the severe letter had cause him much anguish of heart. Composing it had not been easy. It had been a great burden to him. And his prime intention had not been to make them sorry, although that had been necessary, but in order to show that he really cared about them, and that what he was requiring as an Apostle was really for their benefit, and was because of his concern and love for them.

This statement would seem to confirm that the letter referred to is not 1 Corinthians, but an unknown letter, because while he had been firm in 1 Corinthians, there is nothing about it that suggests tears of anguish.

Verse 5

‘But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow, not to me, but in some measure (so that I do not press the case too heavily) to you all.’

Indeed the reason that he dealt with the offender so strongly in his letter is not because of the sorrow the man has caused him, he does not think of that, but the sorrow he has caused, (up to a certain point, for he does not want to overexaggerate), to the whole Corinthian church. However he stresses that he does not want to overstate the case. The sorrow that they have experienced is probably not equal to his own. (This very concern not to overstate the case stresses that when he speaks of the depths of his own sorrow he means every word of it).

‘But in some measure (in part).’ To a certain measure, to a certain level.

Verses 6-8

‘Sufficient to such a one is this punishment (‘censure, reproof, reprimand’) which was inflicted by the many, so that, in contrast to that, you should rather forgive him and comfort him, lest by any means such a one should be swallowed up with his overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you to confirm your love towards him.’

It appears that in response to his severe letter the church has repented and meted out quite severe punishment on the offender, possibly in the form of a severe public reprimand and even exclusion from some of the benefits of the church, for example from the love feasts or from taking part in the services. Now therefore he feels that it is time for them to forgive him and reinstate him. The punishment inflicted by the majority of the church has been quite sufficient. It has resulted in his repentance. Now they must show forgiveness and come alongside to help him and comfort him, in case his sorrow and remorse becomes so overwhelming that it devastates him. So, says Paul, I beg you (or ‘urge you’) to ‘confirm’ your love towards him. ‘Confirm’ has legal significance and suggests a specific act of restoration by which the man is assured of their love.

Most old commentaries identify this man with the man in 1 Corinthians 5:0 who was to be committed to Satan (cast out of the church). The main reason why this is unlikely is the personal hurt that this one has caused to Paul. While the man in question in 1 Corinthians sinned deeply, even though it distressed Paul it was not particularly against him. There was no reason there why Paul’s forgiveness should especially be sought, whereas the man in view here has acted in such a way as to require precisely that. Nor is it clear how even such a dreadful kind of adultery should cause Paul the distress described in 2 Corinthians 2:4. The only way in which it could be so is if the same man had obtained sway over the whole church, and had led the attack on Paul. And would such a man have repented at Paul’s letter if previously he had been so obdurate?

It is far more likely that this man was one who had sought to usurp Paul’s place in the hearts of the Corinthians, possibly entering among them as a newcomer with letters of commendation from someone of importance, and had done it in a particularly obnoxious manner, with false insinuation and accusations, and a show of strength, probably assisted by special cronies. He had done it in such a subtle way that he had influenced many of the church sufficiently to cause them to side with him against Paul when Paul paid his unexpected visit. But he must have been to some extent genuine for him to be so repentant. He appears to have been a dupe of Satan rather than an evil man.

Verse 9

‘Because for this purpose also I wrote, that I might know the proof of you, whether you are obedient in all things.’

He assures them that the main reason that he had written the severe letter to them was not in order to obtain punishment for the man, but so that he could test out their own obedience to him as an Apostle, ‘in all things’, not just what they chose to accept. That was what really mattered. He was not out for revenge. Rather he had wanted to find out if they would again respond to his authority and follow his instructions about everything he had written. And it had turned out well.

Verses 10-11

‘But to whom you forgive anything, I forgive also: for what I also have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, it is for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan. For we are not ignorant of his devices.’

So now he was ready to completely forgive, because the man had truly repented and was in a state to receive forgiveness, and this was so that Satan might not gain advantage out of the situation. It was good that the man had had to humble himself. But it would not be good if that led to him losing faith and hope. And they had to keep in mind Satan’s wiles and devices, which they were surely fully aware of.

He therefore assures them that when they forgive the man, as he has exhorted, he will forgive him as well. (Note that he still leaves the decision in their hands. A pastor who forces his people to accept his will is no pastor). Indeed that for their sakes he has already forgiven the man ‘in the presence of Christ’, (probably signifying in prayer before Him), if indeed his forgiveness was necessary, for what mattered most was Christ’s forgiveness, and their forgiveness, so that Satan might not have any opportunity to gain any advantage over them.

Paul Demonstrates How Concerned He Had Been But Rejoices That His Ministry Has Been Thoroughly Vindicated (2 Corinthians 2:12-17).

Having dealt with the question as to why he had failed to visit them as he had promised, and what had happened subsequently, Paul brings home to them the relief that had been his when he learned that they had responded positively to his letter. Together with an unexpected opportunity at Troas where God had worked abundantly it had made him recognise that even in the darkest hour God continually leads His people in triumph. God is not defeated by circumstances. They are but stepping stones leading to His further glory.

Verses 12-13

‘Now when I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ, and when a door was opened to me in the Lord, I had no relief for my spirit, because I did not find Titus my brother, but taking my leave of them, I went forth into Macedonia.’

He first describes the great concern that he had had about the situation in Corinth. He had been so upset that when he arrived in the port of Troas with a view to crossing to Macedonia, and had found there a great opportunity for the Gospel, he had nevertheless cut it short because he was so eager to get to Macedonia to hear Titus’ report.

‘When I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ.’ This may mean that the reason why he was in Troas was his concern for the Gospel of Christ, either because of his desire to learn from Titus as quickly as possible what the Corinthian response had been, or because he had been driven out of Ephesus for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. But more likely it means that whatever had been his intention, God had had different intentions. God’s intention had been the furtherance of the Gospel of Christ in Troas, and that was why he found himself there at that particular time. He was there for the Gospel of Christ. Whichever it was the main point is that the purpose of his being there was in one way or another the furthering of the Gospel. And God rewarded him by opening for him a door of opportunity in Troas.

For while he had hoped to meet Titus there, coming to him from Corinth via Macedonia, and had been disappointed, he had found that meanwhile there were those in Troas ready to receive the Gospel, which was an encouragement in a dark hour.

‘And when a door was opened to me in the Lord.’ We do not know exactly what this involved, but clearly Troas presented a welcome break and positive opportunity after the trials of Ephesus and in view of the equal pressures of the Corinthian situation. We may assume that he found people ready and willing to hear him and his fellow-workers. Compare here Acts 14:27. How it must have lightened his heart. And knowing Paul we need not doubt that he took the opportunity as best he could, given the short time available, even though he now felt urged to go to Macedonia in order to meet Titus.

Yet even though things were opening up at Troas he was so pressed in his spirit that he had felt that the latter had to have precedence. So having ministered there in Troas for a short while, (how else did he know that there was an open door?), possibly while awaiting ship, (and we may assume having made arrangements for the work to be carried on), he determined to move on, and he took his leave of the people in Troas and took ship for Macedonia, almost certainly leaving others behind to continue the ministry (how else could he justify leaving a manifest work of God?).

One question we must therefore ask is, why does he mention this brief interlude when he describes almost nothing of the success he had there? One reason may well have been that it was because he wanted the Corinthians to know just how eager he had been to learn of their response, so much so that he had cut short his work in a place where he was welcome in order to learn about the response of people who, when he had visited them, had not made him welcome. That may have included the fact that he wanted them to recognise that others recognised him even if some of them did not.

But another may well be because, in his present state, now that he had learned the good news about the Corinthian response to his letter and of the success of Titus’ visit, and was more settled in his spirit, he remembered that when he had been most hard pressed, and had had other things on his mind, God had still worked through him in power, demonstrating that he was still His chosen Apostle, and that God was at work through him still, causing him to triumph. It is probably that glorious thought that partly causes the digression that now takes place in order to give thanks to God for the wonderful way He had worked even when all seemed dark and gloomy. For now he had the opportunity to think of it that had been what had helped to sustain him at that time.

That would help to explain why at this point he breaks off the narrative, which he will resume in 2 Corinthians 7:5. The connection there seems at first sight to be so good that some have thought that 2 Corinthians 2:14 to 2 Corinthians 7:4 was introduced into the narrative later. However, there is no manuscript evidence to support that idea at all, and the change of person from singular to plural in 2 Corinthians 7:4 would seem to be decisively against it.

Much more likely is it that the digression occurred because of another of Paul’s flights of imagination (as we have noted briefly in 2 Corinthians 1:10), which this time then continued in what would prove to be true Pauline fashion (compare for example Ephesians 3:1 with 2 Corinthians 4:1).

But what was it that sparked off the triumphant declaration of thanksgiving and triumph in the next verse? Was it that on mentioning Macedonia Paul was suddenly flooded with the realisation of what had followed, his learning of the repentance and restoration at Corinth which the mention of arrival in Macedonia brings home to him? Or was it the remembrance of the fact that when he was at his most pessimistic God had opened a new door of opportunity at Troas, showing that all was not lost after all. Or was it both? For suddenly it dawned on him, even as he was writing, that whatever his state of mind, and however dark things seemed, God was constantly triumphing and leading His servants in a triumphant march of victory

(The incident at Troas would also reinforce to the Corinthians that even when opposition was greatest God was always with him in power and that there were always those to whom God would speak through him as the Apostle to the Gentiles, and who would listen).

Verses 14-16

‘But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and is making known through us the fragrance of his knowledge in every place. For we are a sweet fragrance of Christ to God, in those who are saved, and in those who perish. To the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. And who is sufficient for these things?’

The memory of his reception in Troas at such a dark hour, combined with the Corinthian turn around, reminds him again of how God has His own ways of going about things ‘in every place’. How easy it was in the dark days and the bad times to forget that God was the One Who triumphed against all difficulties. He had been too weighed down to think about it at the time but now that he thinks back on it he realises what the triumph in Troas, along with the triumph in respect of Corinth, had actually meant to him. And his mind switches from those triumphs to all his other times of triumph, and he bursts out in grateful thanks to God. He had been in despair at the time but God had not. And God had reminded him that He was still in command. And his heart overflows with the memory.

He remembers what a relief it had been at the time of his utmost constraint, that he had found himself like a victor, (or alternately a prisoner of Christ), marching in the train of God the triumphant General, as he saw the work that God was ready to accomplish through him in Troas, and had done even in such a short stay. And thinking about it he cannot help but give voice to his gratitude. Even in a place like Troas, (which he had intended merely to be a port of embarkation), and in the concerned state that he was in with all his thoughts set on the Corinthians, he had found that God made open to men the fragrance of His knowledge through him, just as He had in so many other places. It was a reminder that God could work everywhere, and had, and that he had really had no need to despair. And when he had arrived in Macedonia and had heard the good news from Corinth it was the icing on the cake. He realised that God was triumphant everywhere.

The Roman Triumph was a glorious affair. It was a public display in honour of a triumphant general returning from a wholly victorious campaign which had added greatly to the prestige of the Empire. In that glorious procession, led by the highest authorities in Rome, would be found captive prisoners in chains, trophies of war, the priests with their censers of incense, and the general himself in his chariot, resplendently dressed, followed by his victorious troops, and surrounded by the massed and cheering crowds.

Paul elsewhere used the picture of the captives so led in chains to depict Christ’s triumph at the cross (Colossians 2:15; Ephesians 4:8; 1 Corinthians 4:9), depicting Him as having defeated the power of the Enemy, and the thought here may be that Paul saw God as leading him as His captive in triumphant victory, bringing Himself glory through him (1 Corinthians 4:9).

But more likely in view of what immediately follows is that Paul saw himself as a part of the triumphant procession led by the triumphant God, with himself one of those who swung the censers, the dispensers of incense, giving off a savour which spelled a future life of glory to the General’s army and miserable deaths to the enemy captives. (There are numerous possible variations of the theme, but it is the significance that matters rather than the exact detail).

‘‘But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ.’ The Triumph was a once in a lifetime experience, a testimony to victory, but for those who serve God, says Paul, it is a constant experience, for victory goes on and on. The picture begins with him describing God as the triumphant general, leading in triumph his adherents and followers, in this case those who are ‘in Christ’. It is only those who are in Christ who enjoy the Triumph. And now that the Corinthian issue is largely settled he has time to remember, along with this triumph, all God’s past triumphs, summed up in what had happened at Troas. God was the great victorious General indeed.

‘And is making known through us the fragrance of his knowledge in every place.’ Paul had thought in terms of Ephesus and Corinth, (he targeted the large cities) but Troas? Yes, even there God had been active. For in every place, well known or not, God gives of the fragrance of His knowledge through His people. And that was what God had done through him briefly in Troas. ‘The fragrance of His knowledge.’ True knowledge of God is like a sweet fragrance to those who respond and receive His word, breathing it in to enjoy its excellence.

(Troas was in fact an important seaport 20 kilometres south south west of the site of Troy and was made a Roman colony by Augustus, although rarely mentioned in secular literature. Its artificial harbour basins provided necessary shelter from the prevailing northerly winds and it was the port from which ships crossed to Neapolis in Macedonia. It was at Troas that Paul had received his call to Macedonia years before (Acts 16:8-9). It was there, where later there was a substantial church, that he would raise Eutychus from the dead (Acts 20:7-12)).

‘For we are a sweet odour of Christ for God, in those who are being saved, and in those who are perishing. To the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.’ Just as the knowledge of God is a fragrance, so is the messenger of the Gospel a sweet odour of Christ on God’s behalf, wafting a fragrance both to those who are being saved and those who are perishing. ‘We are a sweet odour.’ The bearers of the incense dispensers of God marching in the Triumph may well be described in terms of what they bear and dispense.

‘To one a fragrance of death to death.’ This may be suggestive of the chained captives in the Triumph who smelled the incense and recognised that it spelled their death. The incense was partly offered in gratitude for their defeat and its consequences. They knew that they were seen as rebels and only fit to die. It might then remind them of the spices that would often be burned as incense at the funerals of important people, the fragrance of death, and have seen it as an omen. In a similar way, says Paul, will all rebels receive the fragrance of death. So what should have been the fragrance of the knowledge of God to them, had become to those who have rebelled the odour of death, a message to them from death itself.

‘A fragrance from death to death.’ It was a message from personified death, the great enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26; 1 Corinthians 15:55) to those as good as dead, and indeed already dead in sin, that they were doomed, that death would be their lot, eternal death. All was death. As often with Paul ‘death’ spells the final end for those who will not be raised to eternal life. In the background may have been the idea of poisonous fumes from a burning fire.

‘To the other a fragrance from life to life.’ But to those who marched in victory the fragrance of the incense was a reminder of victory, and of the good times ahead, the beginning of a new life as they received the rewards of victory. In the same way, to those who received and believed the fragrance coming from the messengers of God, it was a fragrance from the One Who is life itself, from the One Who is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25; John 14:6), as offering eternal life to those who receive Him and follow Him (John 1:12-13; John 10:28). Here all is life. He Who is the Life is bestowing life.

In later Jewish literature the Torah (Pentateuch) was likened to a medicine or drug which brings benefit or harm depending on how it is used. It is either a medicine of life or a deadly poison (although not a fragrance). The ideas may well have been around in Paul’s time and some think that it may have influenced his ideas. Compare here 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 where the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. But if so he replaces the Torah with the knowledge of God through Christ.

‘And who is sufficient for these things?’ The thought overwhelms him. What man or woman is sufficient (competent, capable, adequate) to cope with such privileges and glory? The answer, of course, is ‘none’. Neither Paul nor his opponents have such sufficiency. For it can only be through God that such sufficiency is experienced (2 Corinthians 3:5).

Verse 17

‘For we are not as the many, corrupting (or ‘peddling’) the word of God, but as of sincerity. But as of God, in the sight of God, speak we in Christ.’

So, Paul concludes, they should now be able to see the truth about him and his fellow-workers. They are not, like many, corrupting and misinterpreting the word of God, or alternately hawking it about and peddling it for money. Those who did such things were people who claimed to be ‘sufficient’ but were not. Rather Paul and his fellow-workers are ‘of sincerity’. They are genuine and true in their presentation of the word of God. They have no desire for worldly gain. Indeed they are revealed to be ‘of God’, following in His triumphal train, and successfully wafting His truth to many. And it is because they are ‘of God’ that, in His very presence and before His very eyes, they speak in Christ.

And having now been caught up in his theme, and in his gratitude to God, he continues it on, only coming back to his narrative in 2 Corinthians 7:5.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/2-corinthians-2.html. 2013.
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