Crisis At Corinth
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from: The Holy Bible: New International Version®, NIV®, Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011by the International Bible Society.
Copyright © Jim Gerrish 2015
On his Second Missionary Journey (AD 49-52) Paul established the church at Corinth. It became an important church in the Roman province of Achaia. However, it seemed always to be a troublesome church, despite the fact that the apostle had spent a year and a half there. It is felt that Paul wrote a total of four epistles to this church, two of which have been lost. God didn’t want Paul to give up on this city since he assured the apostle that he had many people there (Acts 18:10).
In our study of 1 Corinthians we mentioned several things about Corinth. We said that it was an ancient city, but was destroyed by the Roman consul Lucius Mummius Achaicus in 146 BC. However, it was rebuilt in 46 BC by Julius Caesar. Corinth had always been a great commercial center, since it was established on an isthmus controlling two seas, the Aegean to the East and the Ionian to the west. The city also had considerable military importance. Unfortunately, Corinth was the center for the worship of the pagan goddess Aphrodite, and had thus become a cesspool of iniquity. It was said that her temple had some 1,000 female prostitutes attached to its worship.1 Radio preacher and Moody pastor, Warren Wiersbe says, “About the lowest accusation you could make against a man in that day would be to call him a ‘Corinthian.’” 2
Scholars feel that this book was written from Macedonia (7:5; 8:1; 9:2) somewhere between AD 55-57, probably a few months after he wrote 1 Corinthians. There is some evidence that it was written from Philippi.3 There has been little doubt in the church that this epistle was authored by Paul (cf. 1:1; 10:1). He wrote it after meeting Titus in Macedonia and upon hearing of some progress at Corinth. Paul had been greatly concerned about the church since he had sent them a very severe letter, which is now lost.
This book was quoted in the early second century by Polycarp, and later by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian.4 The book of 2 Corinthians has somehow been neglected by preachers and scholars. We are told that there are fewer commentaries written on this book than any other in the New Testament.5 This is tragic, since it is in this book that Paul most clearly reveals himself and his calling. Tyndale author and editor Philip W. Comfort says, “With a passion unmatched in any of his other letters, Paul revealed his entire life to the Corinthians.” 6 So, we learn things about Paul here that are not revealed in any other epistle. This alone is good reason for us to study this book.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia: 2 Corinthians 1:1
Paul had a direct and miraculous call from God to be an apostle, or one sent out from God. His commission came not from an organization or from man, but from God himself (Gal. 1:1). Although Paul was not part of the original twelve, he was especially chosen by God to be the apostle to Gentile peoples (Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:8). We Gentiles can thank God that Paul was chosen and called for our sakes.
The apostle Paul never carried on his ministry alone. He was surrounded by other brothers who helped vitally in his work. In 1 Corinthians 1:1, he was assisted by Sosthenes, while here he is assisted by his beloved Timothy. We know from Acts 16:1-3, that young Timothy joined with Paul in his Second Missionary Journey. Timothy had a Jewish mother but a Gentile father. The apostle circumcised him so that he could more easily work among the Jewish people. It is thought by some that with this verse Paul may have been trying to reinstate Timothy somewhat, who may have failed in his assigned mission to correct things at Corinth. 1 Obviously, by this time Titus was carrying on most of the work between Paul and the Corinthians.
We note here that this letter was written not just to Corinth, but to all the saints in the area of Achaia. In ancient times Achaia was the Roman province that included the Peloponnese peninsula, as well as parts of eastern Central Greece, and Thessaly. We should understand that most of Paul’s letters were passed on from church to church so that their vital lessons could be learned by all.
It is interesting that Paul persists in calling the early Christians saints (hagiois). This designation also included the stubborn and difficult believers at Corinth. The word for saints does not speak of some stained glass figures but of real-life Christian folks like you and me. It speaks of all those who are reserved for God’s service. 2
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2).
Once more, as in several other instances, Paul takes the normal Greek greeting of “chairein” and turns it into “charis,” meaning “grace.” 3 The beloved expositor, F.B. Meyer points out how Grace was the usual salutation in the West, while Peace was the usual one in the East. Here they meet together.4 As we have mentioned on other occasions, grace must precede peace. Until there is a work of grace in our lives there will be no peace (cf. Rom. 5:1). This peace comes only from Jesus the Messiah, whose name in the Hebrew language means “YHWH saves” or “YHWH brings salvation.” 5
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
In many translations (NAS, ESV, NET, NKJ), this verse begins with “Blessed.” This is a very common Jewish declaration of praise that is seen often in the Bible. Even today most declarations of praise among the Jewish people begin with the Hebrew,“Baruk atah Adonai Elohenu melek ha-olam” (Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the Universe”).
God is not only the God and Father of the Lord Jesus but he is the Father of compassion and comfort. The word for compassion is oiktirmos, and it means pity and mercy as well as compassion.6 We don’t often think of God as having pity upon us, but he does. We see he is also the God of comfort (paraklēsis). This word has the meaning of calling to one’s aid or of encouragement. The Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete (Jn. 14:16), or one who comes to encourage us.7 When we think of comfort we think of something soft and easy, but the comfort of God always comes for our strengthening.
We see in this verse that God’s comfort in our troubles is for a purpose. The purpose is that we may in turn comfort or build up others from the comfort we have received. Donald Guthrie of London Bible College says, “Through unusually severe trouble Paul had had a profound experience of divine comfort.” 8 He was thus able to comfort others.
“During the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, Pastor Martin Rinkart faithfully served the people in Eilenburg, Saxony. He conducted as many as forty funerals a day, a total of over four thousand during his ministry. Yet out of this devastating experience, he wrote a ‘table grace’ for his children, which today we use as a hymn of thanksgiving:
Now thank we all our God,
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom his world rejoices!” 9
Also, John Knox was one comforted by God. Shortly before his death he arose from his sickbed saying that he had received sweet meditations concerning the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Although desperately sick, he went into the pulpit and imparted to others the great comfort he had felt in his soul.10
No doubt, there are many others who have comforted humankind with the comfort they have received in their suffering. Chuck Colson was imprisoned as a result of Watergate. He asked himself many times why he had to go to prison, since there was really no legal basis for his sentence. Why did he have to endure such shame and humiliation? Soon the answer came as he discovered the awful injustices that many prisoners suffered. A great sense of compassion was born in him. When he was finally released, he began a ministry of going back into the prisons and preaching to the inmates. Soon many wonderful and dramatic stories of the changes in human lives began to appear as a result of his ministry and of his having to go into prison himself.11
God comforts us in our troubles or afflictions. The Greek word here is thlipsis which has the etymological meaning of squeezing or crushing, like that of crushing wheat or processing grapes. The word began to be used figuratively for physical or emotional trauma (cf. 2 Cor. 1:6; 2:4; 4:8; & 7:5).12 Wiersbe points out how there are ten basic words for suffering in the Greek language and the apostle uses five of them in this letter alone.13 We cannot escape the idea that the Christian life will have many pressures and much suffering. Here we think of Jesus: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18).
Perhaps we should pay some attention to the Greek word thilipsis. Aberdeen Professor, David Lowery, says, “…it describes the suffering produced by various painful circumstances ranging from persecution (Matt. 13:21) and imprisonment (Acts 20:23) to childbirth (Jn. 16:21)…It may also be translated ‘tribulation’ (KJV, NKJV) or ‘affliction’ (NASB, NRSV).” 14 Obviously, this word can include many of the pressures and troubles that come against the Lord’s people.
Wiersbe comments, “The ability to endure difficulties patiently, without giving up, is a mark of spiritual maturity (Heb. 12:1-7). God has to work in us before he can work through us…God put young Joseph through thirteen years of tribulation before he made him second ruler of Egypt.”15
COMFORTING OTHERS THROUGH CHRIST
For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 2 Corinthians 1:5
The Greek scholar William Barclay comments, “Behind this passage there is a kind of summary of the Christian life…” 16 The Christian is called to suffer with Christ and to share in his tribulations. Jesus said in John 16:33, “…In this world you will have trouble [thlipsis]. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Clearly, the more our suffering in Christ abounds the more our comfort abounds. In the eleventh chapter, Paul will detail his sufferings in Christ— things like stripes, beatings, stonings, imprisonments, shipwrecks and the likes. Because of these, he was made strong to minister to others.
John Trapp, 17th century Anglican commentator, says, “As the hotter the day, the greater the dew at night; so the hotter the time of trouble, the greater the dews of refreshing from God.” 17 Philip Comfort says, “In fact, suffering should be thought of as the necessary pain that accompanies spiritual growth…(Rom. 5:3-4; Jam. 1:3-4; 2 Pet. 1:6; Rev. 2:2, 19).” 18
“If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (1:6). There was a very real sense in which Paul in his suffering was filling up what was lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his body the church (Col. 1:24). He was continuing on with the sufferings of the Master. As the prolific commentator, James Burton Coffman notes, “All of the hardships endured by the apostle were for the sake of the eternal salvation of his converts.” 19
The purpose was that they would be able to endure in their own sufferings. The Greek word for patient endurance is hupomone. Barclay sees this word as describing “spiritual staying power.” He says, “It is the spirit which can bear things, not simply with resignation, but with blazing hope.” 20
“And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort” (1:7). Paul says very simply that to share in suffering is to share in comfort, or strengthening. A couple of Scriptures bear this out. Romans 8:17 says, “…if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Also 2 Timothy 2:12 says, “if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us…”
PAUL’S GREAT PERIL
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 2 Corinthians 1:8
In this passage we are confronted with a great mystery about which our New Testament apparently does not speak. We might wonder what terrible thing had happened to Paul. “The language is so unusual in the case of Paul that many commentators have insisted that a most extraordinary peril must have befallen him.” 21 Some have thought that it was the awful riot at Ephesus, instigated by Demetrius (Acts 19:24ff). However, the Book of Acts does not speak of Paul being in any danger during this riot. Others have thought that Paul was really thrown to wild beasts (1 Cor. 15:32). Yet, this was not a punishment that was prescribed for Roman citizens like Paul. Perhaps the Jews, who were always seeking Paul’s blood, had finally laid a terrible trap for him, from which he barely escaped. We simply do not know the details. We might guess that it was at this time that Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for him (Rom. 16:3-4).
Paul does not say much about it, so far as giving us details, and that is often the case with those who have gone through great suffering. Barclay relates this story from the war period in England:
H.L Gee tells of two men who met to transact some business in days of war. The one was full of how the train in which he had travelled had been attacked from the air. He would not stop talking about the excitement, the danger, the narrow escape. The other in the end said quietly, “Well, let’s get on with our business now. I’d like to get away fairly early because my house was demolished by a bomb last night.” 22
Whatever this problem was, Paul felt like it would take his life. Professors Charles Pfeiffer and Everett Harrison say, “the language used here puts it among the most excruciating of human experiences.” 23 God’s dear ones are not exempt from trouble, but in fact it seems to come their way and even follow them. The good news is that, “…When God puts his children into the furnace, he keeps his hand on the thermostat and his eye on the thermometer…” 24
“Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (1:9). Clearly, Paul thought he was going to die and thus he was already focusing on the resurrection of the dead (Gen. 22:1-18). The early church father and archbishop, John Chrysostom (349-407) says: “In the natural course of events, he should have died, but God did not allow that to happen in order that Paul would learn not to trust in himself but in God.” 25
“He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many” (1:10-11). Chrysostom feels like, “When a person is delivered from the gates of death, it is really a kind of resurrection.” 26 The apostle already has new strength in the Lord, knowing that the one who has just delivered can deliver again. Such deliverance often cannot happen without the prayers of God’s people. These praying people will now be able give thanks to God for his miraculous answer to their prayers.
CHANGE OF PLANS
Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace. 2 Corinthians 1:12
At this point it might be good for us to get a little perspective regarding Paul’s letters and trips to Corinth, so that we can understand the complaint that the Corinthians apparently had. Paul first planned to visit Corinth after passing through Macedonia (1 Cor. 16:5). Later, he apparently promised the Corinthians that he would visit them before and after his Macedonia trip, so that they could have double pleasure. However, the hostile reports from Corinth and the “painful visit” (2 Cor. 2:1) caused him to change his mind and he decided to go directly to Macedonia.27
So Paul’s plan was revised. This may have been partly due to the riot that broke out in Ephesus. Paul then sent Titus to Corinth with “a severe letter” (2 Cor. 2:4-9; 7:8-12) while he himself headed for Macedonia by way of Troas. That “severe letter” has now been lost to us, as well as his very earliest correspondence mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11. A door of opportunity was open in Troas but Paul was restless because he did not meet Titus as scheduled. He therefore journeyed on to Macedonia. It was there where he met Titus and received a good report about Corinth. He promptly wrote our present letter of 2 Corinthians. His purposes were to encourage the church, forgive and restore the troublemaking member (2 Cor. 2:6-11), explain his change in plans, and make preparations for the Jerusalem offering (2 Cor. 8:1 ff.).28
Duke University professor, Craig Keener comments, “Hospitality was important in antiquity, and it was an honor to host a prominent guest. For Paul not to have come could have seemed like both a breach of his word…and an insult to their hospitality.” 29 There were obviously several reasons for Paul’s change of plans. We will see later in verse 23 that he really wanted to avoid another painful visit. He didn’t go as scheduled for their benefit and for his own as well. We gather that other dynamics were working at Corinth. The church had been infiltrated with some false apostles who were very determined to make Paul look bad. To do this they were quick to picture him as insincere in his travel plans.
Paul had a good conscience regarding his change of plans (Acts 24:16), even to the point that he was not afraid to boast about it. The apostle had conducted himself with integrity and sincerity. The word for sincerity (eilikrineia) is an interesting one. It describes something that can be held up to the light of the sun and examined with the sun shining through it.30 Paul had nothing to hide. He had conducted himself wisely, relying on God’s grace.
“For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand. And I hope that, as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand fully that you can boast of us just as we will boast of you in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1:13-14). When Paul speaks of understanding in this verse he is using the Greek epignōskō. He is speaking of exact knowledge or spiritual knowledge.31
Paul speaks a lot about boasting (kauchēma). This is not some vain boasting but more of an outspoken confidence. Chrysostom says of it, “Paul is not boasting. All he is doing is writing facts which the Corinthians themselves would acknowledge to be true.” 32
PLANS THAT DIDN’T WORK OUT
Because I was confident of this, I wanted to visit you first so that you might benefit twice. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. 2 Corinthians 1:15-16
This was Paul’s original plan, but it was interrupted by an emergency, the “painful visit” mentioned in 2:1. The apostle had no desire to make another such visit. It would have put too much pressure on him as well as on the people (1:23). He no doubt wanted to wait until the situation at Corinth could be remedied. Barclay says, “…Preaching is always ‘truth through personality.’ And if a man cannot trust the preacher, he is not likely to trust the preacher’s message.” 33
Paul wished to visit the Corinthians and then have them help him on the way to Judea. “In the ancient world, when a distinguished guest came to a city, his friends and supporters met him a distance away from the city and walked into the city with him. They also sent him away in the same manner, walking with him for some distance away from the city.” 34 We see this custom in Acts 15:3; 20:38; 21:5 and in Romans 15:24. No doubt they would also supply companions for the Judean trip, who could help transport the large offering. They would arrange for provision for those who traveled along.35
“Was I fickle when I intended to do this? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say both ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’”? (1:17). The word for fickle (elaphria) has the meaning of lightness in weight, temper, conduct. It is similar to our word of levity.36 Paul was not saying “yes” and meaning “no.” Wiersbe says, “Only a person with bad character uses extra words to strengthen his yea and no.” 37
“But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us— by me and Silas and Timothy—was not ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ but in him it has always been ‘Yes.’” (1:18-19). The Bible college director and web commentator, David Guzik, comments, “Paul was such a man of integrity that he could liken his truthfulness to God’s faithfulness.” 38 The apostle makes it clear that the promises regarding the Messiah were not fickle but were always “Yes.”
Silas and Timothy were with Paul when the Corinthian church was founded. Silas had joined Paul on his Second Missionary Journey after Barnabas and Mark went off to Cyprus. Silas was also called Sylvanus. We read in Acts 15:22 that he was a chief person among the brethren of Jerusalem and he was also a prophet and Roman citizen (Acts15:32; 16:37).
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (1:20). “The whole range of Old Testament and New Testament promises are secure in their fulfillment for us in Christ.” 39 The great reformer, John Calvin remarks, “let us keep in view this general doctrine, that all the promises of God rest upon Christ alone as their support.” 40 This is sealed with the Hebrew “amen,” or “so be it.”
“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (1:21-22). We cannot overlook the reference to the Trinity in this passage as God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are working together for our good.
We see here that the Lord has anointed us, just as kings, priests and prophets of old were anointed. Guzik points out that there are only two other places where the New Testament speaks of our anointing, and these are 1 John 2:20 and 2:27. He reminds us that the anointing is not for superstars in the spiritual world but for every child of God.41
God has set his seal of ownership on us by putting his Spirit in our hearts. The ancient seals were made of wax and were imprinted with an engraved ring or other tool. This wax seal was a guarantee that no one had tampered with the product. It was a form of security. In a similar manner the Holy Spirit is our seal of authenticity. With the Spirit we are also sealed to the day of redemption (Eph. 4:30).
We are told here that the Holy Spirit is a deposit or pledge (arrabon). This was originally a Semitic word and is no doubt reflected today with the custom of having arravim as cosigners when property in Jerusalem is rented. It was passed on to the Greek culture and today the word speaks of the engagement ring.42 The Holy Spirit is sort of a down payment of that which is to come. In other words, there are more spiritual things ahead. The Holy Spirit is just a sample and indicator of that fact.
“I call God as my witness— and I stake my life on it— that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth” (1:23). The New Testament requires us to live in such a way that oaths are not necessary (Mt. 5:33-37). However, the Bible does not say that oaths are prohibited. On one occasion God even swears an oath (Heb. 6:13).43 It may be that Paul is just subpoenaing God to be his witness (Rom. 1:9; Phil. 1:8; 1 Thess. 2:5).44 Where men are unfaithful God remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13). Clearly, Paul primarily did not go to Corinth because he didn’t want to hurt the people further.
“Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm” (1:24). Paul was like a gentle mother to the churches he founded (1 Thess. 2:7). There was no thought in his mind about lording it over the Corinthians or others. Chrysostom said, “Paul did not want to go to Corinth in order to plunge the Corinthians into despair. Instead, he stayed away so that they would reform themselves, fearing what might otherwise happen if he did come.” 45
The apostle knew that the righteous must stand by faith and by faith alone (1 Cor. 16:13; Phil. 1:27). Their faith would eventually cause the Corinthians to stand on their own feet and to stand firm.