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Bible Commentaries

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2 Corinthians

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8
Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13

Book Overview - 2 Corinthians

by Joseph Exell

2 CORINTHIANS

INTRODUCTION

I. The Interval between the Two Epistles. St. Paul’s departure from Ephesus was probably hastened by the tumult raised by the shrine-makers of Artemis (or Diana) against him (Acts 19:21; Acts 20:1). It was some time before Pentecost, in the year 58, when he “departed for to go into Macedonia.” He journeyed to Troas, the port of embarkation for Macedonia, where he stayed for a while awaiting the return of Titus from Corinth, and making use of the “door opened” to him at this place to preach Christ (2 Corinthians 2:12-13). Accordingly we find a Pauline Church in existence at Troas on the Apostle’s return journey this way in the following spring (Acts 20:6-12). But Titus did not arrive at the time expected; and the Apostle, finding “no rest in his spirit” on this account, oppressed with anxiety about the Church of Corinth, bade farewell to his new friends at Troas, and pushed on to meet Titus in Macedonia. This was the darkest hour in the Apostle’s history since the days he spent in blindness at Damascus (2 Corinthians 7:5). Corinth appeared to be in full revolt against him. Galatia was falling away to “another gospel.” He had narrowly escaped with his life from the enraged populace of Ephesus--“wild beasts” with whom he had long been fighting, and at whose mercy he had left his flock in that city (1 Corinthians 15:32). He was “pressed out of measure, above strength.” Under this continued strain of excitement and anxiety, his strength succumbed; he was seized with an attack of sickness, which threatened to terminate his life (2 Corinthians 1:8-9; 2 Corinthians 4:7-18; 2 Corinthians 5:1-4). Together with his life, the fate of his mission and of Gentile Christianity trembled in the balance. Never had he felt himself so helpless, so beaten down and discomfited as on that melancholy journey from Ephesus to Macedonia, and while he lay upon his sick bed (perhaps at Philippi), knowing not whether Titus or the messenger of death would reach him first. Titus, however, now returned with news from Corinth which re-established his shattered health more quickly than all the medicine in the world. The relief which St. Paul now experienced was as intense as the previous distress and alarm into which he had been plunged by the misconduct of the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 7:6-16). Evidently, the First Epistle had brought about a reaction in the Church; there had been an outburst of loyalty towards the Apostle, and of indignation and repugnance against the chief offender, who, in addition to his gross immorality, had treated St. Paul’s authority with insolent defiance. (Prof. G. G. Findlay, B. A.)

II. The Question of a Third Epistle, and of Paul’s Relations with the Corinthians. There are many who think it absurd to speak of the First Epistle as written “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears,” and who cannot imagine that Paul would speak of a great sin like that of the incestuous person in such language as he employs in 2 Corinthians 2:5 ff; 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 victim at Corinth. Hence they argue for an intermediate visit of a very painful character, and for an intermediate letter, now lost, dealing with the 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 2 Corinthians 2:4 is an apt description of the mood in which Paul wrote (at least, certain parts of) the First Epistle, or whether 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. But surely it is far easier to suppose that the proceedings about the incestuous person took a complexion which made Paul’s language natural. The visit, however, 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. Granted; yet the close connection of our Epistles compels us to assume that this second visit belongs to an earlier date than the First. We know nothing of it save 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 this visit is not referred to in Acts or 1 Corinthians 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 did not wish to come when it could only vex you; I had enough of that before.” As for the letter supposed to be referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:4, it has also been relieved of its hypothetical character by being identified with 2 Corinthians 10:1; 2 Corinthians 13:10. In the absence of the faintest external indication that 2 Corinthians ever existed in any other than its present form, it is perhaps superfluous to treat this seriously. The letter must have had two main objects--

III. The Purpose of the Epistle. The First Epistle was entirely appreciated by those for whom it was mainly intended. The licentious party who, whether from misunderstanding or perverting the Apostle’s teaching, had used his name as a watchword for their excesses were humbled. Some complaints were raised against the Apostle’s change of purpose in not coming to them direct from Ephesus (2 Corinthians 1:15-24; 2 Corinthians 2:1); some cause still remained for fear lest the intercourse with the heathen should be too unrestrained (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1); but on the whole the submission of the mass of the Corinthian Church was complete. They received Titus with open arms (2 Corinthians 7:13-16); and in the matter of the incestuous marriage, the correction of which had been the chief practical subject of the First Epistle, they had been struck with the deepest penitence (2 Corinthians 7:7-11); an assembly had been convened, and a punishment inflicted on the offender (2 Corinthians 2:6); and although their sorrow for themselves, and this severity towards the guilty person, had passed away before Titus’s departure (2 Corinthians 7:8), and the sin itself bad been forgiven (2 Corinthians 2:10), yet there was nothing to indicate any disinclination to follow the spirit of the Apostle’s teaching. Thus far all had gone beyond the Apostle’s expectations; in the one point in which his command might seem to have been only partially followed out, in the temporary character of the penalty inflicted on the incestuous person, his mind was relieved even more than if they had literally observed his orders. They had judged, he almost seemed to think, more wisely in this respect than himself (chaps. 2 Corinthians 7:12; 2 Corinthians 2:9-10), and generally he felt that confidence between them was now restored (2 Corinthians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 7:16), and that he was now more inseparably united with them in that union in their common Lord, which none but Christians knew (2 Corinthians 1:5-6; 2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Mingled, however, with this good news were other tidings, not wholly unexpected by the Apostle, for he had already anticipated something of the kind in 1 Corinthians 9:1-6, but still demanding new and distinct consideration. The Jewish party at Corinth, which claimed especially the name of Peter, and apparently that of Christ also, had at the time of the First Epistle been so insignificant in itself or as compared with the opposite party, as to call for only a few passing notices from the Apostle. It had, however, even then reached a sufficient height to question his apostolical authority (1 Corinthians 9:1-6); and in the interval, apparently from the arrival of a new teacher or teachers, with letters of commendation (2 Corinthians 3:1; 2 Corinthians 10:12) from some superior authority, probably from Jerusalem, the opponents of the Apostle had grown into a large and powerful party (2 Corinthians 1:12; 2 Corinthians 1:17; 2 Corinthians 3:1; 2 Corinthians 10:1; 2 Corinthians 12:21), constituting even the majority of the teachers (2 Corinthians 2:17); openly assailing the Apostle’s character, claiming almost despotic dominion over their followers (2 Corinthians 1:24; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 2 Corinthians 11:13; 2 Corinthians 11:20), insisting on their purely Jewish origin (2 Corinthians 11:22), and on their peculiar connection with Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16; 2 Corinthians 10:7; 2 Corinthians 11:13-23; 2 Corinthians 13:3), on their apostolic privileges (2 Corinthians 11:5; 2 Corinthians 11:13), and on their commendatory letters (2 Corinthians 3:1; 2 Corinthians 5:12; 2 Corinthians 10:12; 2 Corinthians 01:18). These two subjects, the general acquiescence of the Corinthians in the Apostle’s injunctions and the claims of the Judaising party, must have been the chief topics of Titus’s communication. The first and prominent feeling awakened in St. Paul’s mind was one of overwhelming thankfulness for the relief from the anxiety which he had up to that moment felt for the effects of his Epistle; next indignation at the insinuations of his adversaries. To give vent to the double tide of emotion thus arising within him, was the main purpose therefore of this Epistle. A third subject of less importance, but which gave him a direct opportunity for writing, was the necessity of hastening the collection for the Christian poor in Judaea. He had already spoken of it in the close of his First Epistle; but his sense of the need of success had been further impressed upon him by the generosity of the Macedonian churches, of which his recent stay among them had made him an actual witness. (Dean Stanley.)

IV. The Connection between the Two Epistles. This connection is not a hypothesis of greater or less probability, it is a large and solid fact. 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 chap. 1:13-17, 23, to 1 Corinthians 16:5. And not to point to general resemblances in feeling or temper, the correspondence is at least suggestive between ἁγνὸς ἐν τῷ πράγματι (2 Corinthians 7:11; cf. the use of πρᾶγμα in 1 Thessalonians 4:6), and τοιαύτη προνεία in 1 Corinthians 5:1; between ἐν προσώπῳ χριστοῦ (2 Corinthians 2:10), and ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι του κυρίου ἡμῶν ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ (1 Corinthians 5:4); between the mention of Satan in 2 Corinthians 2:11, and 1 Corinthians 5:5; between πενθεῖν in 2 Corinthians 12:21, and 1 Corinthians 5:2; between τοιοῦτος and τις in 2 Corinthians 2:6 f., 2 Corinthians 2:5, and the same words in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and 1 Corinthians 5:1. If all these are examined and compared, I think it becomes extremely difficult to believe that in 2 Corinthians 2:5 ff; 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. 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; 2 Corinthians 7:8; 2 Corinthians 7:12, will be our First Epistle; the persons referred to in 2 Corinthians 7:12 will be the son and the father in 1 Corinthians 5:1. (J. Denney, B. D.)

V. The Style of the Epistle. As in the occasion so also in style, this contrast between the First and Second Epistle is very great. The First is the most, the Second the least systematic of any of the Apostle’s writings. The three subjects of the Epistle are, in point of arrangement, kept distinct. But so vehement were the feelings under which he wrote, that the thankful expression of the first part is darkened by the indignation of the third; and the directions about the business of the collection are coloured by the reflections both of his joy and his grief. And in all the three portions, though in themselves strictly personal, the Apostle is borne away into the higher regions in which he habitually lived; so that this Epistle becomes the most striking instance of what is the case, more or less, with all his writings; a new philosophy of life poured forth, not through systematic treatises, but through occasional bursts of human feeling. The very stages of his journey are impressed upon it; the troubles at Ephesus, the repose of Troas, the anxieties and consolations of Macedonia, the prospect of moving to Corinth. “Universa Epistola,” says Bengel, “itinerarium refert, sed praeceptis pertextum praestantissimis.” (Dean Stanley.)

Erasmus compares this Epistle to a river which sometimes flows in a gentle stream, sometimes rushes down as a torrent bearing all before it; sometimes spreading out like a placid lake; sometimes losing itself, as it were, in the sand, and breaking out in its fulness in some unexpected place. The full play allowed to the peculiarities of mind and feeling of the sacred writers is in no way inconsistent with their inspiration. The grace of God in conversion accommodates itself to all peculiarities of disposition and temperament. And the same is true with regard to the influence of the Spirit in inspiration. (C. Hodge, D. D.)

VI. Its Relations with and Differences from the Other Epistles. If hope is the key-note of the Epistles to the Thessalonians, joy of that to the Philippians, faith of that to the Romans, and heavenly things of that to the Ephesians, affliction is the one predominant word in this Epistle (2 Corinthians 1:4-8; 2 Corinthians 2:4; 2 Corinthians 4:8; 2 Corinthians 8:13). The Epistles to the Thessalonians contain the Apostle’s views on the Second Advent; the Epistle to the Galatians is his trumpet-note of indignant defiance to retrograding Judaisers; that to the Romans is the systematic and scientific statement of the scheme of salvation; that to the Philippians is his outpouring of tender and gladdened affection to his most beloved converts; the first letter to the Corinthians shows us how he applied the principles of Christianity to daily life in dealing with the flagrant aberrations of a most unsatisfactory church; the second letter opens a window into the very emotions of his heart, and is the agitated self-defence of a wounded and loving spirit to ungrateful and erring, yet not wholly lost or wholly incorrigible souls. (Dean Farrar.)

The Second Epistle differs very greatly from the First. The First is objective and practical; the Second intensely subjective and personal. The First is calm and measured in tone--sometimes severe, but always collected and deliberate; the Second is broken, vehement, impassioned--now melting into the softest affection, now rising into a storm of indignant reproach and sarcasm. The First Epistle reflects the nature of the Corinthian Church--its abundance of talent and activity, its truly Greek factiousness and love of display, its defects of conscience and moral sense, its close relations with heathen society; the Second reveals the nature of the Apostle Paul himself--his sensitive honour and contempt for all chicanery, the tenderness and ardour of his affections for the Gentile Churches--those of a mother or lover rather than those which commonly belong to the teacher and the pastor, the frailty of his delicate yet active and enduring frame, the unparalleled hardships he endured, the violent enmities amidst which he moved, his continual sense of eternal things, the supernatural visitations and mystical raptures that he not unfrequently experienced, the awful miraculous powers he was capable of exerting, his absolute sincerity and self-abnegation, his absorbing devotion to the doctrine and message of the Cross--all these qualities of the great Apostle and characteristics of his work stand out in the pages of this letter, in their variety and combination, with amazing vividness and power. Never has any man painted himself more naturally and more effectively than St. Paul in the letter before us. To see him at his greatest as a thinker and theologian, we turn to the Epistle to the Romans; to know him as a saint, we read the Philippian Epistle. But if we would measure him as a man amongst men, and as a minister of Christ; if we would sound the depths of his heart, and realise the force and fire of his nature, the ascendency of his genius and the charm of his manner and disposition, we must thoroughly understand the second letter to the Corinthians. This is Paul’s Apologia pro vita sua. Its main interest is not doctrinal, as in Galatians and Romans--although there are weighty passages of doctrine in it; nor practical, as in 1 Corinthians and the Pastorals--although chaps. 8 and 9, in the middle of the letter, are practical enough; it is intensely personal, full of explanation, defence, protestation, appeal, reproach, invective, threatening--with a vein of subduing pathos blended with the most subtle irony running through the whole. St. Paul’s heart just now is very tender. He has been down in the gulfs of sorrow, and lying beneath the shadow of death. The restored affection of the Corinthian Church found him in the state when such a cordial was most needed, and it moved his whole nature in response; while the insolence and intrigues of the Judaists, now laid open to him in their full baseness, roused in him a scorn that knew no bounds and a triumphant confidence in the “weapons of” his Apostolic “warfare,” and in his power to “overthrow” their “strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:1-6). (Prof. G. G. Findlay.)

VII. Plan of the Epistle.

A. Salutation and Introduction (2 Corinthians 1:1-11).

B. The Tidings Brought by Titus.

1. Confidence of St. Paul in the intentions of the Corinthian Church (2 Corinthians 1:12-24; 2 Corinthians 2:1-11).

2. The arrival of Titus (2 Corinthians 2:12).

3. Digression on the Apostolical mission.

4. The arrival of Titus (continued from 2 Corinthians 2:16) (2 Corinthians 6:11-13; 2 Corinthians 7:2-16).

5. Digression on intercourse with heathens (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 2 Corinthians 7:1).

C. The Collection for the Churches In Judaea.

1. The example of the Macedonian churches (2 Corinthians 8:1-15).

2. The mission of Titus (2 Corinthians 8:16-24).

3. The spirit in which the collection is to be made (2 Corinthians 9:1-15).

D. The Assertion of His Apostolical Authority.

1. Assertion of his authority (2 Corinthians 10:1-6).

2. Digression on his boast of his claims.

E. Concluding Explanations, Warnings, and Salutations (2 Corinthians 12:11-21; 2 Corinthians 13:1-14). (Dean Stanley.)

VIII. The Effect Produced by It. This is not recorded. Acts 20:2-3, which tells us that St. Paul’s long promised visit was at length paid, only says that “he came into Greece and there abode three months.” When we consider the strong reaction in his favour as described by Titus in chap. 7., we cannot but think that the extraordinary “weight and power” of this Epistle, written expressly to take the favourable tide at its height, produced a deep impression, and this is confirmed by the mere duration of his sojourn at Corinth. It is more strongly corroborated by the fact that during his visit he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, in which many momentous topics received a calm, profound, sustained treatment, showing that he had recovered that rest of spirit and flesh of which he had recently been so sorely destitute. The collection also dame to a happy issue, for he had said (1 Corinthians 16:4), that if the amount subscribed “should be worthy of his going also,” the Corinthian bearers of it should accompany him to Jerusalem, and we find (Romans 16:26) that it was found worthy of his going. So far, the letter bore its proper fruits, but his original Jewish persecutors (Acts 18:6; Acts 18:12-13) were not likely to be mollified by 2 Corinthians 3:6-18. His Judaising adversaries also would naturally remain implacable after his polemic against them (2 Corinthians 10:1-18; 2 Corinthians 11:1-33; 2 Corinthians 12:1-18). We can imagine the malignant rage with which they would witness a three months’ demolition of their satanic strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:4). But so long as he was in the bosom of the Church he was safe, and it was only on his departure that an unsuccessful attempt was made to take his life (Acts 20:3). If we look beyond the record of Scripture towards the end of the first century, we are again presented with a dark picture of the Corinthian community. (See the Epistle of Clement of Rome, chaps, 3. 30.) Certainly a fresh race of men had sprung up, but it would seem that even an apostle must not expect the fruits of his labours to outlive the generation amidst which he has toiled. Perhaps no influence could have been lasting in so mixed and volatile a population. It was, however, a glorious achievement, if the much people which God had in that city (Acts 18:10) entered, under the Apostle’s guidance, into their blessed rest. And the Epistle has become a possession of all men for all times; has done and will continue to do its Divine work, accomplishing that which God pleases, and prospering in that whereto he sent it (Isaiah 55:11), through the long march of all the ages. (J. Waite, D. D.)

IX. Its Genuineness. Of this 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 Irenaeus, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian. 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 the other Epistles (especially 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. (Dean Plumptre.)

X. The Subsequent History of the Corinthian Church. Of this we know little. Within a few months Paul paid his promised visit, and was hospitably received 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 funds (Acts 20:4). The malignant enmity of the Jews, however, had not abated (Acts 21:3), and he had to change his plans. After this we lose sight of the Church altogether, except for the glimpse given in 2 Timothy 4:20, where we learn that after his first imprisonment, and 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). (Dean Plumptre.)

The silence of history respecting the subsequent state of this Church seems, as far as it goes, of favourable augury. And the testimony of Clement (the “fellow-labourer” of St. Paul, Philippians 4:3) later on (a.d. 95 circ.) confirms this interpretation of it. He speaks (evidently from his own personal experience) of the impression produced upon every stranger who visited Corinth by their exemplary conduct; and specifies particularly their possession of the virtues most opposite to their former faults. Thus he says that they were distinguished for the ripeness and soundness of their knowledge in contrast to the unsound and false pretence of knowledge for which they were rebuked by St. Paul. Again, he praises the pure and blameless lives of their women, which must therefore have been greatly changed since 2 Corinthians 12:21 was written. But especially he commends them for their entire freedom from faction and party spirit which had formerly been so conspicuous among their faults. Perhaps the picture which he draws of this golden age of Corinth may be too favourably coloured, as a contrast to the state of things which he deplored when he wrote. Yet he may believe it substantially true, and may therefore hope that some of the worst evils were permanently corrected; more particularly the impurity and licentiousness which had hitherto been the most flagrant of their vices. Their tendency to party spirit, however (so characteristic of the Greek temper), was not cured; on the contrary it blazed forth again with greater fury than ever, some years after the death of St. Paul. Their dissensions were the occasion of the letter of Clement, who wrote in the hope of appeasing a violent and “long continued schism” which had arisen (like their earlier divisions), from their being “puffed up in the cause of one against another” (1 Corinthians 4:6). He rebukes them for their “envy, strife, and party spirit”; accuses them of being “devoted to the cause of their party leaders rather than to the cause of God”; and declares that their divisions were “rending asunder the body of Christ,” and “casting a stumbling-block in the way of many.” This is the last account which we have of this Church in the apostolic age; so that the curtain falls on a scene of unchristian strife, too much like that on which it rose. Yet though this besetting sin was still unsubdued, the character of the Church, as a whole, was much improved since the days when some of them denied the resurrection and others maintained their right to practise unchastity. (Conybeare and Howson.)

Later on, about a.d. 135, the Church of Corinth was visited by Hegesippus, who found it faithful to the truth under its bishop Primus. Dionysius, who succeeded Primus, brought out all that was good in the Church, and bears testimony to its liberality 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 chaps, 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 as Dorcas and Priscilla, was conspicuous both for her good works and her spiritual discernment. 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. (Dean Plumptre.)
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Friday, December 6th, 2019
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