The Letter of 2nd Corinthians–8th book of the New Testament—A.D. 55-56
31. I Am An Apostle…and Don’t You Forget It!
The Corinthian drama resulting in the writing of the first two letters to Corinth took place during the latter stages of Paul’s stay at Ephesus (approximately 53 to 55.) Apparently the two letters were not well received. Though 1 Corinthians had largely been a response to questions they had asked about various topics, Paul’s straightforward manner did not go over well.
Into the already turbulent situation was then added the arrival of some Jewish Christians who were speaking against Paul and undermining his influence. It seems that they too, like Paul, called themselves “apostles” and Paul sarcastically refers to them (11:5, 12:11) as “superlative apostles,” or, in some translations, “super apostles.” What exactly their teaching was, or their differences with Paul were, we have no way of knowing. Yet again, I find Paul’s response interesting. Rather than attempting to see if there is cause for common ground and unity, or to discover if this might be a situation where various elements of church leadership could work harmoniously together, he instead blasts both the newcomers, and the entire Corinthian fellowship for listening to them. To be fair, of course, I realize that they may have been teaching dangerous falsehoods. But not knowing this for certain—and with the Antioch/Galatians incident in mind in which Paul similarly impugned the motives of Peter and Barnabas—the question occurs to me.
Paul had already been planning a visit to Corinth later in the year (probably the year 55) as he mentions at the end of 1 Corinthians. But now, because of these newcomers and these new disputes, he decided to sail over and pay a visit to Corinth sooner than planned, hoping to clear matters up and set straight whatever was being circulated about him and his teaching.
This he did. But the visit did not go well and only made things worse. He apparently left in haste, returning to Ephesus. He later referred to it as a “painful visit.” In anguish and affliction of heart (2 Cor. 2:4) he wrote again, his third letter.
Though it has been called “the sorrowful letter,” it was a stern letter of reprimand and rebuke in which Paul lapses into a torrent, from Paul’s perspective, of necessary boasting to set the record straight about his ministry and his apostleship, and to put the Corinthians in their place for their shortsighted view. Most scholars now agree that 2 Corinthians 10-13 preserves a good part of this stinging, critical letter.
Paul sent Titus back to Corinth with the letter. In the meantime, things were heating up in Ephesus and Paul had to leave that city as well. Luke describes a riot in some detail in Acts 19, which, though he was apparently in no danger, was as a result of the Christian movement in the city, with Paul obviously in the center of it. Paul traveled north, having agreed to meet Titus at Troas.
Now there are obviously some circumstances which require a gentle approach, and others which require a stronger approach. When on trial, Jesus spoke no word of defense. Yet one may also point to his driving out of the money changers as an example when “righteous anger” represents the Lord’s method. We cannot, therefore, condemn Paul’s method with the Corinthians wholesale. Yet it strikes me that when attacked or questioned, Paul always fights back. I know of no example in Paul’s life where he followed the example of Jesus’ trial—silence in the face of accusation, where he simply bows his head, lays down his arms, and does not offer a word on his own behalf. Perhaps speaking out was appropriate in every case, I don’t know. William Barclay reads an entirely different tone on chapters 10-13 than I do. He sees it as a heartbroken plea rather than a self-defensive rebuke, and perhaps he is right. He justifies Paul’s words with the following, “Chapters 10 to 13 are the most heart-broken cry that Paul ever wrote. They show that he has been hurt and insulted and slandered as he never was before or afterwards by any Church. His appearance, his speech, his apostleship, his honesty have all been under attack.” (The Letter to the Corinthians, p. 8)
Leaving Ephesus for Troas, Paul was anxious for news from Titus about the reception of his reprimand. Titus did not come, however, until Paul had moved on to Macedonia. When he finally arrived, Titus brought the good news that the Corinthians had taken his letter to heart, had repented, and had acted to punish the offending man who had been responsible for the revolt against Paul and his teaching.
Relieved, Paul wrote again, his fourth letter to the Corinthians, probably from Philippi, in what scholars believe we have as 2 Cor. 1-9, expressing his joy and urging forgiveness toward the man responsible for the recent problems.
It is clear, however, that all the issues are not resolved. Whatever has been the ongoing nature of the conflict and the dispute over Paul’s authority and credentials, it is not entirely resolved, because Paul continues to defend himself. We are left to guess at the details.
Donald Guthrie comments:
There are in the former section various hints of still prevalent opposition to the apostle’s teaching and authority. In i.17 ff. he argues strongly in self-defense, while in ii.6 he speaks of the offender being punished by the majority, implying the existence of a minority who probably did not agree with Paul’s authoritative pronouncement in the case. There are many who are still mishandling the Word of God (ii.17, iv.2-5), and there are those who are priding themselves on their position (v.12) and who consider the apostle to be beside himself (v.13). These data are enough to show that chapters i-ix do not represent the Corinthians as being wholly on Paul’s side. His relief was occasioned by the response of the majority, which was undoubtedly a big forward step, but he must still deal with the dangerous minority. (New Testament Introduction, p. 431)
What is known, to complete the Corinthian saga in Paul’s life, is that he did indeed continue on south to Corinth, probably wintering there, before retracing his steps around through Macedonia and back to Jerusalem with the funds he had collected for the believers there.
Having spoken so highly of 1 Corinthians and its numerous passages of spiritual luminance and wisdom, I have to confess that I find its counterpart, 2 Corinthians (which, as we see, may actually be a composite of Paul’s third and fourth letters to the Corinthians), to be a troubling portion of the New Testament revelation.
2 Corinthians obviously has its bright spots. Paul’s human emotions continue to come through, which is always good. We gain more insight into the collection scheme he is spearheading to assist the poverty-stricken Christians of Jerusalem, with numerous admonitions to generosity. The principle of Paul’s thorn in the flesh and its universal application is one that we have all found helpful in understanding certain ongoing trials which we must pray for grace to bear. In how many Bibles are the Lord’s words to Paul underlined: My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness. And how many deep heart-cries of prayer through the years have echoed Paul’s words of eternal truth. There are many who find great meaning in Paul’s (it is assumed he is speaking of himself) being caught up to the third heaven where he saw visions and revelations.
Each of us will have our own additional favorite and specifically meaningful gems from this book, as from every one of the Bible’s books.
Paul’s troublesome defensiveness
However, I remain troubled by this document as it comes to us—both chapters 10-13 as well as the rest. Its entire tone of boastfulness, extreme defensiveness, and preoccupation with self disturbs me. Humility is notably absent.
I simply don’t know how to square, Love is not boastful (1 Cor 13:4) and Boasting is not good (1 Cor. 5:6) with 2 Cor. 10-13. It wouldn’t be so bad if Paul didn’t make such a point of commanding on his hearers the very example and course of action he does not follow himself. It isn’t the boasting itself so much as the emphasis Paul lays on the Corinthians of not boasting, of talking about all the attributes of patience and love, and then going ballistic when he is personally challenged or questioned.
It is not merely the “boasting” section of chapters 10-13, it is the self-preoccupation evident from the first chapter all the way to the end. We all lapse into defensiveness at times. Anyone in the public eye who is subject to attack and criticism is highly susceptible to the temptation toward defensiveness, as I know myself only too well. Yet it must be recognized that ordinarily defensiveness is a flawed approach toward an increase of truth. It is rarely the best method. We never see Jesus being defensive. Thus, Paul’s extreme sensitivity and defensiveness, I cannot but view as a major character weakness, and one that probably clouded his judgment at times. I simply do not see that this becomes him well. I cannot recall any instance in Scripture (after the Lord’s resurrection) where we read of Barnabas or Peter or John or James or any of the apostles walking other than mostly in humility.
Of course Paul himself admits that his boasting is foolish. Even in so doing, however, he spiritualizes it and then blames the entire proceeding on the Corinthians. Not knowing the specific details of what drove Paul to write as he did, I cannot but wonder if there might have been a better, humbler, more gracious, more Christlike way to accomplish his ends? I don’t believe that argumentation, defense, sarcasm, and stinging criticism are the best ways for a church to deal with its problems. Sure, I am prone to such emotional reactions myself. We all are. But I am not involved in church leadership. In a church setting I think these methods particularly destructive. As I said with Galatians, I note very damaging trends set in motion by Paul’s attempt to resolve church conflict as he did that have remained with us ever since.
He speaks in 1 Cor. 12:31 of “a more excellent way.” It is unfortunate that a more excellent way could not have been the methodology employed in resolving these early conflicts over doctrine and teaching in the first century church.
To balance the scales so that I don’t present a completely one-sided view of the Corinthinan situation, let me quote from the Introduction to 2 Corinthians from one of my father-in-law’s Bibles, the Life Application Bible, which presents a notably traditional and evangelical perspective on all interpretations as reflective of its publisher, one of my own publishers, Tyndale House. You can decide what you think for yourselves.
“Paul constantly struggled with those who would mislead God’s people, and he poured his life into spreading the Good News to the uttermost parts of the world. During three missionary trips and other travels, he proclaimed Christ, made converts, and established churches. But often young believers were easy prey for false teachers. False teachers were a constant threat to the gospel and the early church. So Paul had to spend much time warning and correcting these new Christians.
“The church at Corinth was weak. Surrounded by idolatry and immorality, they struggled with their Christian faith and life-style. Through personal visits and letters, Paul tried to instruct them in the faith, resolve their conflicts, and solve some of their problems. First Corinthians was sent to deal with specific moral issues in the church and to answer questions about sex, marriage, and tender consciences. That letter confronted the issues directly and was well received by most. But there were false teachers who denied Paul’s authority and slandered him. Paul then wrote 2 Corinthians to defend his position and to denounce those who were twisting the truth.
“Second Corinthians must have been a difficult letter for Paul to write because he had to list his credentials as an apostle. Paul was reluctant to do so as a humble servant of Christ, but he knew it was necessary. Paul also knew that most of the believers inCorinthhad taken his previous words to heart and were beginning to mature in their faith. He affirmed their commitment to Christ…
“As you read this intensely personal letter, listen to Paul’s words of love and exhortation, and be committed to the truth of God’s Word and prepared to reject all false teaching.”
You might consider reading 2 Corinthians 10-13 prior to chapters 1-9, as in all likelihood it represents, as we have seen, the severe letter which came before the final letter of reconciliation. In preserving the biblical books intact as they have come to us, however, (with the exception of Acts), we have considered it while in the order it appears in our Bibles.