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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

- 2 Corinthians

by Editor - William Robertson Nicoll


INTRODUCTION, in the scientific sense, is not part of the expositor’s task; but it is convenient, especially when introduction and exposition have important bearings on each other, that the expositor should indicate his opinion on the questions common to both departments. This is the purpose of the statement which follows.

(1) The starting-point for every inquiry into the relations between St. Paul and the Corinthians, so far as they concern us here, is to be found in the close connection between the two Epistles to the Corinthians which we possess. This close connection is not a hypothesis, of greater or less probability, like so much that figures in Introductions to the Second Epistle; it is a large and solid fact, which is worth more for our guidance than the most ingenious conjectural combination. Stress has been justly laid on this by Holtzmann, who illustrates the general fact by details. Thus 2 Corinthians 1:8-10; 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, attach themselves immediately to the situation described in 1 Corinthians 16:8-9. Similarly in 2 Corinthians 1:12 there seems to be a distinct echo of 1 Corinthians 2:4-14. More important is the unquestionable reference in 2 Corinthians 1:13-17; 2 Corinthians 1:23, to 1 Corinthians 16:5. From a comparison of these two passages it is plain that before Paul wrote either he had had an intention, of which the Corinthians were aware, to visit Corinth in a certain way. He was to leave Ephesus, sail straight across the sea to Corinth, go from Corinth to Macedonia, and then return, via Corinth, to Asia again. In other words, on this tour he was to visit Corinth twice. In the last chapter of the First Epistle he announces a change of plan: he is not going to Corinth direct, but via Macedonia, and the Corinthians are only to see him once. He does not say, in the First Epistle, why he has changed his plan, but the announcement caused great dissatisfaction in Corinth. Some said he was a fickle creature; some said he was afraid to show face. This is the situation to which the Second Epistle directly addresses itself; the very first thing Paul does in it is to explain and justify the change of plan announced in the First. It was not fickleness, he says, nor cowardice, that made him change his mind, but the desire to spare the Corinthians and himself the pain which a visit paid at the moment would certainly inflict. The close connection between our two Epistles, which on this point is unquestionable, may be further illustrated. Thus, not to point to general resemblances in feeling or temper, the correspondence is at least suggestive between αγνος εν τω πραγματι 2 Corinthians 7:2 (cf. the use of πραγμα in 1 Thessalonians 4:6), and τοιαυτη πορνεια in 1 Corinthians 5:1; between εν προσωπω Χριστου. 2 Corinthians 2:10 and εν τω ονοματι του Κ. ημων ’Ι. Χ,. 1 Corinthians 5:4; between the mention of Satan in 2 Corinthians 1:1-24. and 1 Corinthians 5:5; between πενθειν in 2 Corinthians 12:21 1 Corinthians 5:2; between τοιουτος and τις in 2 Corinthians 2:1-17. f., 2 Corinthians 2:5, and the same words in 1 Corinthians 5:5 1 Corinthians 5:1. If all these are carefully examined and compared, I think it becomes extremely difficult to believe that in 2 Corinthians 2:5 ff. and in 2 Corinthians 7:8 ff. the Apostle is dealing with anything else than the case of the sinner treated in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. The coincidences in detail would be very striking under any circumstances; but in combination with the fact that the two Epistles, as has just been shown by the explanation of the change of purpose about the journey, are in the closest connection with each other, they seem to me to come as nearly as possible to demonstration.

(2) If this view is accepted, it is natural and justifiable to explain the Second Epistle as far as possible out of the First. Thus the letter to which St. Paul refers in 2 Corinthians 2:4 and in 2 Corinthians 7:8; 2 Corinthians 7:12, will be our First Epistle to the Corinthians; the persons referred to in 2 Corinthians 7:12 as "he who did the wrong" and "he to whom the wrong was done" will be the son and the father in 1 Corinthians 5:1. There are, indeed, many who think that it is absurd to speak of the First Epistle to the Corinthians as written "out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears"; and who cannot imaging that Paul would speak of a great sin and crime, like that of the incestuous person, in such language as he employs in 2 Corinthians 2:5 ff. and 2 Corinthians 7:12. Such language, they argue, suits far better the case of a personal injury, an insult or outrage of which Paul-either in person or in one of his deputies-had been the victim at Corinth. Hence they argue for an intermediate visit of a very painful character, and for an intermediate letter, now lost, dealing with this painful incident. Paul, we are to suppose, visited Corinth on the business of 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. (among other things), and there suffered a great humiliation. He was defied by the guilty man and his friends, and had to leave the Church without effecting anything. Then he wrote the extremely severe letter to which 2 Corinthians 2:4 refers-a letter which was carried by Titus, and which produced the change on which he congratulates himself in 2 Corinthians 2:5 ff; 2 Corinthians 7:8 ff. It is obvious that this whole combination is hypothetical; and hence, though many have been attracted by it, it appears with an infinite variety of detail. It is obvious also that the grounds on which it rests are subjective; it is a question on which men will differ to the end of time, whether the language 2 Corinthians 2:4 is an apt description of the mood in which Paul wrote (at least certain parts of) the First Epistle to the Corinthians, or whether the language in 2 Corinthians 2:5 ff; 2 Corinthians 7:8 ff. is becoming language in which to close proceedings like those opened in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. If many have believed that it is not, many, on the other hand, have no difficulty in believing that it is; and those who take the negative not only fail to explain the series of verbal correspondences detailed above, but dissolve the connection between our two Epistles altogether. Thus Godet allows more than a year, crowded with events, to come between them. In view of the palpable fact with which we started, I cannot but think this quite incredible: it is far easier to suppose that the proceedings about the incestuous person took a complexion which made Paul’s language in the second and seventh chapters natural than to come to any confident conviction about this hypothetical visit and letter.

1. But the visit, it may be said, at all events, is not hypothetical. It is distinctly alluded to in 2 Corinthians 2:1; 2 Corinthians 12:14; 2 Corinthians 13:1. These passages are discussed in the exposition. The two last are certainly not decisive; there are good scholars who hold the same opinion of the first. Heinrici, for instance, maintains that Paul had only been once in Corinth when he wrote the Second Epistle; it was the third time he was starting, but once his intention had been frustrated or deferred, so that when he reached Corinth it would only he his second visit. A case can be stated for this, but in view 2 Corinthians 2:1 and 2 Corinthians 13:2, I do not see that it can be easily maintained. These passages practically compel us to assume that Paul had already visited Corinth a second time, and had had very painful experiences there. But the close connection of our Epistles equally compels us to assume that this second visit belongs to an earlier date than our first canonical Epistle. We know nothing of it except that it was not pleasant, and that Paul was very willing to save both himself and the Corinthians the repetition of such an experience. It is nothing against this view that the visit in question is not referred to in Acts or in the first letter. Hardly anything in 2 Corinthians 11:24 ff. is known to us from Acts, and probably we should never have known of this journey unless in explaining the change of purpose which the first letter announced it had occurred to Paul to say: "I do not wish to come when it could only vex you; I had enough of that before."

2. As for the letter, which is supposed to be referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:4, it also has been relieved of its hypothetical character by being identified with 2 Corinthians 10:1-13; 2 Corinthians 10:10 of our present Second Epistle. In the absence of the faintest external indication that the Epistle ever existed in any other than its present form, it is perhaps superfluous to treat this seriously; but the comment of Godet seems to me sufficiently to dispose of it. The hypothetical letter in question in which Godet himself believes-must have had two main objects: first, to accredit Titus, who is assumed to have carried it, as the representative of Paul; and, second, to insist on reparation for the assumed personal outrage of which Paul had been the victim on his recent visit. This second object, at all events, is indisputable. But 2 Corinthians 10:1-13; 2 Corinthians 10:10 have no reference whatever to either of these things, and are wholly taken up with what the Apostle means to do when he comes to Corinth the third time; they refer not to this (imaginary) insolent person, but to the misbelieving and the immoral in general.

3. Except in the points specified, the interpretation of the Epistle is little affected by the questions raised in "Introduction." Even in the points specified it is the historical reference, not the ethical import, which is affected. Whichever view we take of them, we get on the whole substantially the same impression of the spirit of Christ as it lives and works in the soul of the Apostle. It is part of the man’s greatness, it is the seal of his inspiration, that in his hands the temporal becomes eternal, the incidental loses its purely incidental character, and has significance for all time. It is the expositor’s task to deal with the spiritual rather than the historical side, and it will be sufficient here to indicate in outline what I conceive the series of Paul’s relations with the Corinthians to have been.

1. His first visit to Corinth was that which is recorded in Acts 18:1-28; according to the statement of Acts 18:11 it extended over a period of eighteen months. In all probability he had many communications with the Church, through deputies whom he commissioned, in the years during which he was absent; the form of the question in 2 Corinthians 12:17 (μη τινα ων απεσταλκα προς υμας κ.τ.λ.) implies as much. But it is only after his coming to Ephesus, in the course of his third missionary journey, that personal intercourse with Corinth can have been resumed. To this period I should refer the visit which we are bound to assume on the ground of 2 Corinthians 2:1; 2 Corinthians 13:2. What the occasion was, or what the circumstances, we cannot tell; all we know is that it was painful, and perhaps disappointing. Paul had used grave and threatening language on this

2. occasion, {2 Corinthians 13:2} but he had been obliged to tolerate some things which he would rather have seen otherwise. This visit was probably made toward the close of the three years’ stay in Ephesus, and the letter referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:9 -the one in which he warned the Corinthians not to associate with fornicators-would most likely be written on his return from it. In this letter he may very naturally have announced that purpose of visiting Corinth twice-once on his way to Macedonia, and again on his way back-to which reference has already been made. This letter, plainly, did not serve its purpose, and not long afterwards Paul received at Ephesus deputies from the Corinthian Church, {1 Corinthians 16:17} who apparently brought written instructions with them, in which Paul’s judgment was sought more minutely on a variety of ethical questions. {1 Corinthians 7:1} Before these deputies arrived, or at all events before Paul wrote the letter (our First Epistle) in which he addressed himself to the state of affairs in Corinth, which their reports had disclosed, Timothy had left Ephesus on a journey of some interest. Paul meant Corinth to be his destination, {1 Corinthians 4:17} but he had to go via Macedonia, and the Apostle was not certain that he would get so far. {1 Corinthians 16:10: "But if Timothy come," etc.} In point of fact, he does not seem to have gone farther than Macedonia; and Luke in Acts 19:22 mentions Macedonia as the place to which he had been sent. That he got no farther is suggested also by the fact that Paul joins his name with his own in the salutation of the Second Epistle, which was written in Macedonia, but never hints that he owed to him any information whatever on the state of the Corinthian Church. All that he knew of this, and of the effect of his first letter, he learned from 2 Corinthians 2:13-17; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; 2 Corinthians 4:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; 2 Corinthians 6:1-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1-13 f. But how did Titus happen to be in Corinth representing Paul? By far the happiest suggestion here is that which makes Titus and the brother of 2 Corinthians 12:18 the same as "the brethren" of 1 Corinthians 16:12, whose return from Corinth Paul expected in the company of Timothy. Timothy, as we have seen, did not get so far. Paul’s departure from Ephesus was apparently hastened by a great peril; his anxiety, too, to hear the effect produced by that letter which had cost him so much-our First Epistle-was very great; he pressed on, past Troas, where a fair field of labor waited for workers, and finally encountered Titus in Macedonia, and heard his report.

3. This is the point at which the Second Epistle to the Corinthians begins. It falls of itself into three clearly marked divisions. The first extends over 2 Corinthians 1:1-24; 2 Corinthians 2:1-17; 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; 2 Corinthians 4:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; 2 Corinthians 6:1-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1-16. In this the Apostle makes his peace, so to speak, with the Corinthians, and does everything in his power to remove any feeling of "soreness" which might linger in their minds over his rigorous treatment of one particular offender. But embedded in this there is a magnificent vindication of the spiritual apostolic ministry, especially in contrast with that of the legalists, and an appeal for love and confidence such as he had always bestowed on the Church. 2 Corinthians 8:1-24; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15 form the second part, and are devoted to the collection which was being made in the Gentile Churches for poor Christians in Jerusalem. The third part consists of 2 Corinthians 10:1-18; 2 Corinthians 11:1-33; 2 Corinthians 12:1-21; 2 Corinthians 13:1-14. In this Paul confronts the disorders which still assert themselves in the Church; the pretensions of certain Judaists, "superlative apostles" as he calls them, who were assailing his apostolic vocation and subverting his gospel; and the immoral license of others, presumably once pagans, who used liberty for a cloak to the flesh. He writes of both with unsparing severity, yet he does not wish to be severe. He parts from the Church with words of unaffected love, and includes them all in his benediction.

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