The difficulty in reading II Corinthians comes from its being two letters (Letter A from 1:1 to 9:15 and Letter B from 10:1 to 13:13). What happened in Corinth in the months which separated the two letters? The break is very clear as Paul abruptly moves from an outpouring of reconciliation with the Corinthians (A) to a bitter accusation and ironical self-defence (B). Such an assault on the recipients would have ruined everything Paul tries to build up in A.
When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (mid 54), he probably thought he had calmed the situation there and solved the major problems. That letter was not well received, nor was his following, painful visit. The lost ‘severe letter’ and the visit of Titus to Corinth seemed effective in resolving the crisis and bringing about reconciliation (2 Cor 1-7). Paul and Titus met up in either Philippi or Thessalonica for the winter of 54-55 where the positive news from Titus brought gladness to Paul. The issue of the collection for the poor of Jerusalem (ch.8-9) was a powerful sign of the unity Paul hoped to create between Jewish and Gentile Christianity.
The second letter to the Corinthians is the most personal of Paul’s epistles. Here he shows us his own understanding of his apostolate. Since his departure from Corinth, new missionaries had followed him with their criticism of his mission. These may have been from Jerusalem or even from Antioch – some over-zealous critics from this former centre of the Pauline mission had, after Paul’s falling out with Peter over the exclusion of Gentile Christians from table fellowship with Jewish Christians, set out to undermine Paul. They had criticised Paul both for his personal weaknesses and for the doctrines he preached. This threatened relations between the community at Corinth and Paul their pastor. The letter then becomes an engagement in reconciliation.
What is at stake?
Paul heatedly defends his apostolic ministry. But more is in jeopardy than offended ego. The Christian identity of the community is threatened by an attack on its apostle and his message; both are foundational for the community’s faith. Paul had to insist on his apostolic identity because it was so often denied to him. So he often begins his letters, ‘From Paul, an apostle, called by Christ Jesus…’ In II Corinthians we see a Paul passionately committed to his faith and call as an apostle.
What is expressive of Paul’s integrity and humility is that he does not boast of his success and achievements to back up his claims for apostolic authority; instead, he boasts only of his sufferings! (3-6, 11-12). Paul knew well from his own experience that the test of his discipleship lay in entering into the cross and the death and resurrection of Jesus. After all, this was the Jesus that Paul encountered in his Damascus experience. Paul never knew or wrote about the Jesus of history; always ‘in Christ’ was the dying and risen One.
An alliance of enemies
Outward appearances, such as that of the ‘super apostles’, meant nothing. It is the weakness of our ‘earthen vessels’ that is our real strength for it leaves room for the power of God to shine in us (2 Cor 4:7-15). Disturbing news led Paul to return to Corinth where he was given a hostile reception so, to give a cooling off time, he left for Macedonia (2 Cor 1:16). On his return to Ephesus he wrote a ‘sorrowful letter’, delivered by Titus but now lost to us (2 Cor 2:1-4). Titus brought encouraging news of the positive effects of this letter (2 Cor 2:13; 7:5), that the community greatly deplored the offensive incident (2 Cor 7:8-11).
Paul’s sense of relief underlies 2 Cor 1-9 (letter A), as he warmly and generously reaches out to dispel misunderstanding. Yet he also realises that a problem remains with the group he calls the Spirit-people, pneumatikoi. In essence, what happened in Corinth was that intruders from outside the community formed an alliance with disaffected members within the community of Corinth. One group may have been Judaisers insisting on the Mosaic Law as binding on Gentile converts or, equally likely, a group of Hellenistic-Jewish wandering preachers, convinced that their eloquence, ecstatic experiences and miracle-working power demonstrated their possession of the Holy Spirit. That there were different groups in Corinth is very clear from 1 Cor 1:12. A radically divisive group within Corinth shared a dislike for Paul with this intruder group.
Outline and gems
Letter A can be read with a focus on removing misunderstanding (1:1-2:13); Paul then speaks of apostolic ministry (2:14-7:1); the restoration of mutual confidence between himself and the Corinthians features in 7:2-16, and the collection for Jerusalem is the topic for 8:1-9:15). Letter B is aimed at the vindication of Paul’s apostolic authority (10:1-13:13).
The beautiful passage of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:11-21) is one of Paul’s most striking texts. In it he encapsulates the meaning of Christian ministry. While Paul is reacting to criticism of his own ministry, he concludes with remarks about the ministry of reconciliation which applies to the whole community. The situation in Corinth is stated in 5:11-13, criticism of Paul’s ministry as unsupported by ‘religious’ evidence, presumably in the form of ecstatic experiences. Paul debates their relevance for the validity of one’s apostolate. Instead he stresses his commitment to the preaching of the gospel and the care of its recipients. It is a ministry which brings to all people the good news that God reconciles them to Godself. To prepare for this, Paul shows that he can understand only himself and what he does in terms of ‘in Christ’—‘ambassador for Christ’.
A second marvellous passage is 4:1-5:10, revolving round ‘treasure in clay jars’. Outwardly the apostle’s ministry reflects only the fragile weakness and mortality of his humanity, but he bears within the priceless message of eternal life and love. As before, the true measure for evaluating an apostle is fidelity to the gospel which is proclaimed rather than any external criteria, such as letters of recommendation.
Others in this series: