With only the possible exception of Galatians, 2 Corinthians is the most personally revealing letter that Paul wrote to a church. While good men differ on the precise timeline of events and correspondence that led to the writing of 2 Corinthians, I understand it to be the fourth letter from Paul to Corinth. And in the absence of compelling external evidence, I also hold 2 Corinthians to be a single letter and not a composite.
Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church seems to have taken a bad turn shortly after he moved on to his next church planting opportunity. We’re aware of the litany of problems brought to Paul’s attention by messengers from the church: disunity, sexual permissiveness, idolatry, abuse of the Table and abandonment of the apostolic traditions, and self-aggrandizing practice of the sign gifts. Paul writes 1 Corinthians in hopes that the church will repent of these errors.
Instead, the church entrenches in its rebellion. One man in the church becomes a spokesman for the rebellion against Paul, and this insurrection expands when the church welcomes outsiders who claim apostolic status. Paul finds himself forced to adjust his previously announced travel plans and heads to Corinth immediately to deal with the problem. There, he is rebuffed by the church; their allegiance has shifted to the outsiders. This rejection is a heavy blow for Paul, and so, having departed again, he pens a devastating letter which he sends to Corinth by Titus. Paul is at Troas, awaiting news from Titus, but Titus does not come (perhaps missing the final ship of the season), and so Paul begins the trek up and around the Aegean Sea, through Macedonia, knowing that Titus will be coming to meet him that way.
They meet and Titus delivers the good news: the majority of the church has been brought to godly repentance through the sorrowful letter. And now Paul writes our second epistle to the Corinthians, urging them to full restoration with him and a complete break with the unbelieving super-apostles.
That is the backdrop for the letter, and in my estimation, explains the hot-and-cold nature of 2 Corinthians. The majority of the letter is positive, but as there remains some opposition to Paul (and loyalty to the super-apostles), Paul also doles out needed correction. But the personal investment of Paul in the Corinthian church is evident throughout, whether he is praising or denouncing the members. Consider this language: “For I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together” (2 Cor 7:3). While some see theological import in this language (particular the order of dying and living), we must at least see this passage as an affirmation of Paul’s deep love for this church. Because this letter is so deeply personal, we can see here some of the specific ways in which Paul evidenced his love for the church, looking to them as patterns for our own ministries today.
First, Paul kept his word (1:17–22). Paul’s language in these verses is breathtaking in audacity: he compares his fidelity to his word to God’s own faithfulness: “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No.” To break one’s word is to undercut the claim to love someone, for it suggests that some greater loyalty might trump any love that is professed. This is why Paul is so insistent on clearing his name with the Corinthians. The application to our ministries today is obvious: as those who proclaim the Word of God, there must never be a cause to consider our word untrustworthy. To fail to honor one’s word is a breach of love.
Second, Paul’s personal joy and sorrow were inextricably linked to the church’s spiritual health (1:23–24; 2:1–4; 6:3–12). The sins of the Corinthians had been emotionally devastating to Paul. Now, we might imagine a well-intentioned advisor to Paul saying the following: “Paul, your issue is that you’re finding your identity in the church, rather than in Jesus. Because you have so closely linked your understanding of who you are to the spiritual well-being of the Corinthians, you have left yourself open to the vicissitudes of their immaturity. Anchor yourself in Christ, therefore, and you will find greater stability.”
While this advice might seem both pious and sanity-preserving, I am inclined to believe that Paul’s example here is not to be scorned. Kent Hughes notes this phenomenon throughout the epistles:
This other-sourced joy was a distinctive of Paul’s ministry. He called the Philippians “my joy and crown” (4:1). Similarly, he asked the Thessalonians, “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19, 20). And later in the same letter, “For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God?” (3:9). This joy derived from others’ well-being was evidently an apostolic characteristic because the Apostle John said the same thing, and so beautifully: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
It seems to me that, for most pastors, it is a natural thing to find their joy strongly linked to the church’s wellbeing, and that it would take conscious effort to avoid it. Given Paul’s example, pastors should make no effort to put barriers between the health of their churches and their own joy.
Third, Paul avoided taking personal slights personally (2:5–11; 7:12–13). The sins of the Corinthian involved a direct attack on Paul, particularly his apostolic authority. Given the circumstances, the degree to which Paul seeks to deflect attention from the very real sins against himself is remarkable. He is uncompromising in his insistence that the church be reconciled to him, as indeed he must be, because of this apostolic status. But he repeatedly downplays the personal offense of their sin. To say it another way, he never pursues a course of retaliation against the offender.
The somewhat awkward language that Paul himself employs to direct attention away from himself signals the degree to which this demonstration of love is difficult. To separate the biblical requirement of submission to spiritual authority from personal insults, and then to communicate that distinction in a plausible way, is a skill that surely eludes me more times than I’d care to recount. Nonetheless, it is an expression of biblical love that all pastors must endeavor to cultivate.
In each of these ways, Paul is a model of selfless love for the church. Next week, we will consider his theological foundation for such selflessness.
This essay is by Michael P. Riley, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of Wakefield, Michigan. Since 2011, he has served Central Seminary as managing editor of In the Nick of Time. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Let Zion’s Watchmen All Awake
Philip Doddridge (1702–1751)
Let Zion’s watchmen all awake
And take the alarm they give;
Now let them from the mouth of God
Their awful charge receive.
’Tis not a cause of small import
The pastor’s care demands;
But what might fill an angel’s heart
And filled a Savior’s hands.
They watch for souls, for which the Lord
Did heav’nly bliss forego;
For souls, which must for ever live,
In raptures, or in woe.
All to the great tribunal haste
The account to render there;
And shouldst Thou strictly mark our faults
Lord, where should we appear?
May they that Jesus, whom they preach,
Their own Redeemer see;
And watch Thou daily o’er their souls,
That they may watch for Thee.