Why read 2 Corinthians?1
It is probably one of Paul’s most difficult letters to decipher. For one thing, its tone oscillates widely — from expressing deep love to angry rebuke. For another, it does not seem to proceed in a logical fashion, at least to contemporary readers. Indeed, many modern interpreters have thought it to be a composite of several letters. Yet the letter also expresses profound ideas that have had a tremendous influence not only on the history of theology but on much of western thought.2
More importantly, the letter has much to say about apostolic ministry: what it is about, how the gospel gets communicated, and what constitutes authentic Christian community. Paul deals with these themes while addressing some very practical tasks, such as defending his ministry while seeking reconciliation, raising funds for the poor, and countering competitors who are challenging his ministry and, in his view, abusing the Corinthians and leading them astray. Throughout Paul depicts how his own life experience, with all its vicissitudes, becomes the location where Christ’s overflowing sufferings and consolation render the gospel to others in such a way that authentic community might be formed.
What makes the letter especially interesting is the way Paul develops these themes amid challenges to his apostolic leadership. Most explicitly stated in 10:1-10 — that, for example, he is bold while away (through his letters) but weak when present (face to face) — these challenges run as an implicit current throughout the letter. In more contemporary terms, is his gospel merely an “ideology” imposed on the Corinthians to keep them in line but that lacks true spiritual power? In turn, is all his pathos and apparent weakness merely a disguise for his own “will to power” (to quote Friedrich Nietzsche)?3
In responding to these challenges, Paul seeks to render — not just in theory but in his actual practice — how God’s mercy and consolation actually helps us bear suffering, sin, and death, overflowing within and through our relationships with others into expanding communities that embody and proclaim God’s reconciliation of the entire world (5:18-19).
Preaching text: 2 Corinthians 1:1-11; accompanying text: John 14:25-27 Theme: Consolation
Instead of beginning the letter with a thanksgiving, which he does in other letters, Paul begins with a blessing that calls on God, “the Father of all mercies and the God of all consolation,” who consoles us in all our affliction so that we may be able to console others in any affliction with the same consolation (1:3-4). This blessing gets at a central theme in the Old Testament — that God saves and liberates us from whatever is oppressing us so that we can be of service to others; in the words of the Hebrew Bible scholar, Jon Levenson, “the chosen are called to serve.”4
In this blessing, we find a practical understanding of God’s response to evil, sin, and suffering. And it gives us a description of what God’s salvation is all about: it is not just a “comfort” that now immunizes us from others’ suffering or worse becomes an ideology that we use to control or manipulate them. Rather, it creates a basis for a distinct kind of overflow of reciprocity.
At the center of all this are the sufferings and consolations of Christ, which overflow within and through us. Christ’s sufferings (pathemata) for all not only become a means of abundant consolation and grace amid our own suffering, but they so unite us with Christ that we too share in both his suffering for others and in the abundant overflow (perisseuma) of his consolation that spills over through him and within us, and now on to others.
In Christ, we now have a different way interpreting all that happens to us: all our affliction now becomes the means for others’ consolation and affliction; and all the consolation we receive is such that it not only consoles us but others as well as they go through the same suffering.
Paul’s hope for the Corinthians remains unshaken; this overflow of Christ’s sufferings and consolation is the very basis for an authentic sharing or communion (koinonia) not only between him and them, but also among them — where they share in one another’s sufferings and joy (see also 1 Corinthians 12).
Preaching text: 2 Corinthians 2:1-10; accompanying text: Matt 18:21-22
Theme: Forgiveness This section deals events that precipitated Paul’s writing to the Corinthians. Although we are not clear on precisely what happened, it appears that someone had mistreated Paul during a previous visit. Instead of revisiting them as he had said he would, Paul sent them a “painful” letter that they interpreted as a harsh rebuke.5
Paul seeks to communicate that he did not write the letter to cause them pain; he wrote it out of his overflowing love and deep joy in them. It appears, however, that as a result of his letter the community did, in fact, strongly rebuke the person who had created the problem — whatever it was. Now Paul urges them to forgive and console that individual so that he might not be swallowed up with overwhelming shame. The word translated as “forgive” in 2 Corinthians 2:7 is charizomai (“to give freely”), which is the same word Paul will use when he calls on them to “give freely” to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem (in 2 Corinthians 8-9).
The reason Paul so stresses the importance of forgiving — and the mutuality involved in his forgiving anyone they forgive — is that both he and the Corinthians all stand together before the “face” (prosopon) of Christ, the source of their life together. Indeed, he warns, we forgive so as not to be taken advantage of by Satan, whose intentions are to destroy any community we might have with one another through Christ.
Preaching text: 2 Corinthians 4:1-18; accompanying text: Matt 5:13
Theme: Treasure in Clay Jars In the section immediately following this introductory narrative, Paul maintains that his ministry is not about letters of judgement — whether they be letters of rebuke, the letters of recommendation the Corinthians are now demanding from Paul, or even the tablets of stone associated with Moses. Rather, it is a ministry of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 2:14-3:18). And where the Spirit is, there is the freedom that comes from “seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror” in Christ’s face and “being transformed into the same image” (3:18; 4:1-5).
Because his ministry is grounded in God’s mercy — not letters of judgment — Paul’s commends himself. His life embodies an open manifestation of truth to everyone’s conscience before God. Yet he makes clear, “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Christ as Lord and ourselves your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
We have all this treasure in clay jars — a metaphor for our human vulnerability — so that it can be clear that all this excess of power belongs to God and does not come from us (2 Corinthians 4:7). Indeed, it takes shape in our paradoxical experiences of being afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (4:8-9). It becomes manifest in our bodies as we give ourselves up to death for Jesus’ sake — as we die to the distorted patterns that harm us and others and take on the suffering that comes with embodying God’s mercy and consolation amid forces that contradict it. This is how the life of Jesus becomes manifest in our bodies. This is how death in us becomes life for others (4:10-11).
Paul’s trust and speech amid all this is grounded not in a set of ideas — an ideology — that he can use to control others. Rather, it is grounded in the one who raised the Lord Jesus, who will not only raise him but also bring him along with the Corinthians into Jesus’ presence. This is why he can say that everything is for their sake — because grace, as it extends to more and more people, is always about an overflow of thanksgiving, to God’s glory (2 Corinthians 4:12-15).
Preaching text: 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; accompanying text: Mark 8:22-26 Theme: Walk by Faith not Sight As Paul has maintained, all of this takes place amid everything we undergo in bodies. Every momentary affliction — every pathos we undergo — now becomes a place where the excess of an “eternal weight of glory” gets worked out in our lives. This takes place precisely as we interpret what we can see, what is temporary in our lives, from the standpoint of what we cannot see, what is eternal.
To describe how all this takes place in our lives, Paul mixes two classic metaphors for mortal vulnerability: nakedness and a tent. Longing to be “clothed” with a heavenly “building,” we groan — much like a mother groans as she gives birth to a child — yearning for protection against life’s vicissitudes and a permanent space for ourselves. But amid all this God is producing the very things we groan for within us. We have been given us God’s Spirit as a guarantee and the Spirit, as Paul will later say in Romans 8, groans within and through our very groans (2 Corinthians 5:1-5; see also Romans 8:26).
So we can always be confident — even amid our yearning for an immediate intimacy with God where we can be completely “at home.” But we walk by faith not sight. God’s consolation does not take place in some ethereal heaven or out of body experience; it does not immune us from life’s travails or our responsibilities to one another. Like everyone else, we too will have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ and receive recompense for what we have done in our bodies, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:6-10).
As we move through the 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, we see that the basis of all this is the love of Christ that presses us on together — with Christ and with one another. One has died for all so that all might live for him who died and was raised for them (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). We no longer need to deny death — or the sheer pathos of life — because we know that Christ’s love is stronger than death. We are now free to live for the one who died and was raised for us, embodying in our lives God’s very justice and mercy (2 Corinthians 5:21).
This gives us a radically fresh perspective on life. We no longer need to view others from the standpoint of human criteria — in the same way that we no longer view Jesus as just one more martyr for a righteous cause. In Christ, there is new creation; all that distorts in the systems and worlds we have created for ourselves and others are now archaic; “see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).
All this comes from God, who has reconciled us to Godself and has now given us not a special status to lord it over others — or to be immune from life’s suffering — but a ministry or a service (diakonia) of reconciliation. And this diakonia is grounded in the fact in Christ God was reconciling the entire cosmos to Godself — not judging them and calculating their trespasses against them — and entrusting us also with a message or a word (logos) of reconciliation for everyone (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
So we are now ambassadors for Christ. God speaks God’s word of consolation through us and this word calls us all to be reconciled with God so that we might be reconciled with one another (as Paul sought to be with the Corinthians). For our sake, the one who knew no sin was made to be sin; the righteous one, Jesus, took on all the ways we are hooked in abusive patterns with ourselves or one another, whether as victims or perpetrators. And he did this so that we might become the very righteousness of God, the very spaces where God’s reign of mercy and consoling justice might overflow as grace — free gift — for all.
Preaching text: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; accompanying text: John 13:31-35 Theme: Generosity
As we have seen, Paul’s ministry was about a “word” of reconciliation that could only be authentically embodied in a life of “service” freely given for others. Thus, an important dimension of his apostolic work of spreading the gospel to the Gentiles was raising funds, in turn, from among the Gentiles for the poor among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.6
Central to Paul’s appeal to Corinthians to give to the Jerusalem collection is the theme of “grace” — God’s freely given gift, which flows within and through us on to others — although the significance of this theme is obscured by the fact that the Greek word charis is translated in a number of ways in chapters 8-9 (e.g., as grace, blessing, generous act, thanks, and in relation to the collection, as privilege and generous undertaking).
When Paul holds up the Macedonians as an exemplar of giving his emphasis is on the fact that it is God’s grace that enabled their paradoxical abundant joy and extreme poverty to overflow with a wealth of generosity in the midst of a particularly difficult time (2 Corinthians 8:1).7 And his appeal to the Corinthians is rooted in their “overflowing” with all sorts of spiritual gifts — including Paul’s love for them — so that they might overflow in this grace as well (2 Corinthians 8:7). Of course, Paul’s primary exemplar is Christ’s grace: though rich, he became poor for our sakes so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 2:9).8
This appeal is not a command; Paul is merely “testing” the genuineness of their love against that of others (the Greek verb here dokimazo, the same word he used when “testing” the Corinthians with his painful letter and later call to forgive; see 2 Corinthians 2:9).
Two points are central to the advice he gives about giving; he used them to describe the Macedonians’ giving (2 Corinthians 8:3) and he will them in reiterate in 2 Corinthians 9:7-8. First, giving is to be voluntarily and not done out of compulsion. Second, it is to be done on the basis of what one has and not on what one does not have; the point is not to be greedy with what one has. (Paul is not calling for an extreme asceticism here.)
Paul’s intent in all this is not relieve others and put pressure on the Corinthians, but rather simply to call for equality (isotetos, translated as “fair balance” in the NRSV). God’s overflow of grace not only grounds the possibility of our being reconciled with one another, but it also grounds the possibility of our being able to have genuine reciprocity with one another. Our current overflow meets another’s current need, so that at some other point in time their overflow may be there for us in our time of need. After all, is this not what koinonia is all about — not only sharing in one another’s pain and joy, but also sharing in one another’s poverty and wealth (see 6:10)?