An Overview of Paul’s
Epistle of 2 Corinthians
2 Corinthians Overview
Tod Kennedy, revised and completed January 2011
Second Corinthians was probably Paul’s third letter to the Corinthian church. It was a follow up letter to Paul's most recent visit and letters, and to news from Corinth, especially the report Titus brought. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians about the alienation between himself and the Corinthians, its effect upon both parties, and the reconciliation. He presents his authority, doctrine, personal message, suffering, disappointments, responsibilities, blessings, and hope for them. Paul weaves the threads of the letter together so that the Corinthian believers are encouraged to grow in Christ, fellowship with God and each other, and continue the progress they began after Paul’s first two visits and his first letter to them.
1. Author: Paul the apostle (2 Corinthians 1.1-2).
Date: About AD 56, from Philippi (
3. The historical background to Corinth:
3.1. General background:
3.1.1. Corinth was an ancient city. It occupied a strategic location at the western end of the isthmus between Greece and the Peloponnese. It was on the southwestern part of the isthmus. The isthmus was 4 miles long. It saved a dangerous 200 mile sea voyage. The west harbor was Cenchrea, and the east harbor was Lechaeum.
3.1.2. Corinth was a center of commerce and trade. It "...was a wide-open boomtown. San Francisco in the days of the gold rush is perhaps the most illuminating parallel." (Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, "The Corinth that Saint Paul Saw." Biblical Archaeologist 47.3 (September 1984): 147).
3.1.3. Corinth was destroyed in 146 BC by the Roman general L. Mummius in revenge for an anti-Roman revolt. Julius Caesar had the city rebuilt in 46 BC. It became the capital of the Roman province of Achaia in 27 BC. The city rapidly regained her previous commercial prosperity.
3.1.4. Corinth also had a reputation for sexual liberty. "In classical Greek korinthiazw (literally "act the Corinthian") means to practice fornication; korinthia `etairai or korinthaia korai ("Corinthian companions" or "Corinthian girls") are harlots. The temple of Aphrodite on the Corinthian acropolis gave religious sanction to license of this kind." (Bruce, F.F. The Book of the Acts. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980: 367n4). Jerome Murphy-O'Connor (BA 152) questions the sexual exploits and says "From the point of view of sex, Corinth was no better or worse than any other Mediterranean port-city."
3.2. Political background:
3.2.1. The first century church was under Roman rule. God used Roman rule to protect, to consolidate, to extend, and to test His young church. Nero was the emperor at the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. He ruled from A.D. 54-68. He became the emperor at age 17 and committed suicide at age 31. The first part of his reign was adequate. The severe excesses for which he is remembered did not come until later.
3.2.2. While Paul was at Corinth during his first visit (about AD March 51 to September 52) Gallio was the proconsul there (Acts 18.12). A proconsul was a governor of a province which the Roman Senate administered. This type of province did not need a standing army. "Gallio was a son of the elder Seneca, the rhetorician (c. 50 B.C. c. A.D. 40), and brother of the younger Seneca, the philosopher (c. 3. BC-AD 65). He was born in Cordova shortly before the beginning of the Christian era, and his name originally was Marcus Annaeus Novatus, but after he came to Rome with his father in the reign of Tiberius, he was adopted by the rhetorician Lucius Junius Gallio, and thereafter bore the same name as his adoptive father." (Bruce, Acts 373). He possessed wit and charm. He became proconsul in AD 51. He later left because of poor health. Gallio, Seneca, and other family members became a victim of Nero's suspicions in AD 65. Gallio is important for at least two reasons. First, the mention of him in Acts 18 gives a specific date for Paul's visit. Second, Gallio dismissed a case brought against Paul by Jewish antagonist to the gospel. The ruling had a far reaching effect because it set a precedent for other magistrates and assured imperial neutrality toward Paul's ministry for several years (Bruce, F.F. New Testament History. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1972. 316-317).
3.3. Corinth at the time of Paul:
3.3.1. The length of the city wall was about 10 kilometers. The area inside was about 4 square kilometers (Murphy-O'Connor 149).
3.3.2. By the time of Paul it had a population of over 500,000.
3.3.3. Corinth had a stadium where athletic games were held every other year (Isthmian Games). The temple was dedicated to Poseidon. They were held in the spring of A.D. 50. Paul may have attended (Murphy-O'Connor 149).
3.3.4. The Acrocorinth on the southern edge of the city was the most imposing landmark. It was a 513 meter climb from the agora (market place). The temple of Aphrodite was on the summit.
3.3.5. The bema of Acts 18.12-17 was "a large platform in the middle of the shops that bisected the agora. Dominating the lower agora from a height of 2 meters, it was the rostrum from which magistrates addressed the city and had public proclamations read." (Murphy-O'Connor 154).
3.3.6. "As Paul glanced down the Lechaeum Road he would have seen the shops on either side and might have caught a whiff of the meat and fish markets further along. These are mentioned in a Latin inscription [Kent 1966: 127] containing the term macellum, "meat market," which in Greek dress is the word used by Paul when he advises those who had scruples about eating meat offered to idols, "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market (en makelloi..." (Murphy-O'Connor 153).
4. The events leading up to Paul’s 2 Corinthians letter:
4.1. Paul made his first stop at Corinth about AD March 51. He stayed until about September 52. This was during his second missionary trip. He witnessed and taught for 18 months (Acts 18.1-18).
Paul made an
important stop at Ephesus about AD September 53 during his third
missionary trip. He remained at Ephesus until about AD May 56, a stay of
almost 3 years (
returned to Ephesus discouraged over the Corinthian church while Paul was
still in Ephesus (
was in Ephesus he learned from people associated with a person named Chloe
and from Apollos about the turmoil in Corinth (
Paul wrote 1
Corinthians in response to what was happening in Corinth and probably sent
it with Timothy and the others when he sent them on ahead from Ephesus to
Corinth. Paul would follow (
to visit Macedonia and then to Greece, including another trip to Corinth,
before he returned to Jerusalem (Acts 19.21;
decided to go to Corinth twice. First, on the way to Macedonia, and then
on his return from Macedonia, but these plans were also changed (
Ephesus about the first of May in AD 56. He went to Troas, where he
expected to meet Titus, but Titus was not there. Paul then went on to
Macedonia, where he met Titus. Paul had sent Titus to Corinth earlier,
probably with a severe letter to the Corinthians, which was not included
in the Bible. This severe letter condemned those that sought to rebel
against Paul's ministry (
4.9. When Titus arrived in Macedonia from Corinth, he reported the good effect of the severe letter and spiritual progress of the Corinthians to Paul. Titus' report brought joy to Paul. This prompted Paul to write and send another letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians) from Philippi in AD 56 (2 Corinthians 7.6-8).
At this time
Paul also appointed Titus and two other believers to return to Corinth and
to administrate the Corinthians' offering for the Jerusalem believers.
Titus took the letter (2 Corinthians) with him to Corinth when he went to
carry out Paul's assignment. Paul would follow later (1 Corinthians
returned to Jerusalem from Corinth by way of Macedonia, Troas, Assos,
Miletus, and on to Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, and finally to Jerusalem (
2 Corinthians Sections and Chapter Titles
Section 1, Paul wants to remove misunderstanding, 1-2
1. Comfort during suffering
2. Forgive, comfort, and reaffirm your love
Section 2, Paul describes the apostolic ministry, 3-7
3. The Holy Spirit’s New Covenant ministry
4. Clay jars hold God’s glory
5. Live by faith because we are reconciled
6. Servants of God; unequal relationships
7. God refreshes us during spiritual battle fatigue
Section 3, Grace Giving is God's kind of giving, 8-9
8. Grace giving of ourselves, then our wealth
9. God multiplies our grace gifts
Section 4, Paul the apostle wants to build up the
10. Spiritual warfare requires God’s weapons and God’s authority
11. Beware of spiritual counterfeits
12. Thorns in the flesh bring grace support
13. Christian life checkup
2 Corinthians Themes and Brief Summaries
Paul wants to remove misunderstanding, Chapters 1-2
Chapter 1, Comfort during suffering
1. Paul wrote to Corinthian believers primarily, but he also included all believers in the Roman province of Achaia. He began this letter by going right to a common and much needed topic not only for him but for all believers. Namely, that God comforts believers during suffering, and by His comfort they learn to comfort other believers that also suffer. So, suffering and comfort can be a means for believers to be a blessing to other believers (1.3-7).
2. God brought suffering and testing into the lives of Paul and his team so that they might learn to trust Him (faith rest) as the source of deliverance. God delivers in response to faith and in response to prayer by other believers (1.8-11).
3. Paul's ministry toward the Corinthians was grounded in holiness, godly sincerity, and God's grace. One of the Corinthian church’s problems was that they questioned and criticized Paul’s ministry for them. Paul told them that his ministry was mutually beneficial to himself and to the Corinthians (1.12-14).
4. Paul hoped to visit them twice during his Macedonian trip so that they might be blessed twice through association with him. Paul was not unreliable because this trip did not work out. He was simply following the will of God (1.15-20).
5. God the Father established Paul and his team in their ministry with the Corinthians. God also anointed, sealed, and gave the Holy Spirit to and to Paul and his team. Therefore Paul's ministry was right. Paul was conscientious in the application of his ministry to them, and so they had no reason to criticize him (1.21-24).
Chapter 2, Forgive, comfort, and reaffirm your love
1. The Corinthians were objects of Paul's ministry and therefore a cause for his joy. His purpose for writing and visiting them was not to cause sorrow, but instead to cause joy through helping their Christian life and conveying his love to them (2.1-4).
2. Flagrant sin causes sorrow to the individual involved by divine discipline and separation, and to the church necessitating separation from the individual. This sorrow is intended as a motivation for correction. The individuals and church must be quick to forgive and reaffirm their Christian love so that the sorrow is not unnecessarily prolonged and used by Satan to take advantages of believers. Now Paul was anxious to know how the Corinthians took his letter (2.5-13).
3. Believers compose Christ's army. He leads them in triumphal procession in honor of His victory over sin and Satan. In this procession they glorify Christ before God the Father (2.14-17).
Paul describes the apostolic ministry, 3-7
Chapter 3, The Holy Spirit’s New Covenant ministry
1. The Corinthian believers were Christ's letter written by the Holy Spirit to the world and the Corinthians were also in the heart of Paul and his team. Therefore, he did not need an introductory letter about them nor did he need to commend them to the world. All believers are individual letters to the world from Christ and about Christ. The Holy Spirit writes each letter. People read the human letters (3:1-3).
2. Paul knows that any ministry and witness that pleases God is because God made him and all believers adequate and sufficient for the successful accomplishment of that ministry, called by Paul, the new covenant ministry. All of this is possible based on the death and resurrection of Christ and the present ministry of the Holy Spirit inside of each believer. This present new covenant ministry of the Holy Spirit is much better than the old covenant ministry based upon Moses’ Law. We in the church have much greater blessing, opportunity, privilege, and resources (3:4-11).
3. Paul’s recognition of this present glorious ministry through the Holy Spirit gave him great boldness to serve God. The ministry and glory of this ministry does not fade as did the glory with Moses’ ministry. Even today when one reads Moses’ law while rejecting Christ, the greater new covenant glory is veiled and all they see is Moses law. When one does turn to the Lord Jesus the veil falls away. The believer in Christ now has freedom to see the Lord’s glory and to be continually transformed into greater Christ likeness (3:12-18).
Chapter 4, Clay jars hold God’s glory
1. Paul knows that God has blessed him and he knows what these blessings are, so he does not despair because of the pressures, rejection, and failures in his ministry. Instead, Paul pursues his ministry through the understanding and application of biblical truth in his life so that the truth becomes the basis for other's acceptance or rejection of him (4.1-2).
2. The only people blind to the gospel are those that refuse to accept God's light about Jesus Christ. They veil themselves to the glory of God, so Satan uses this veil to keep them from believing in Christ (4.3-6).
3. This treasure, which is a personal knowledge of God's glory (nature and attributes) in Christ, has been deposited in each believer even though all still have a sinful nature and live in a sinful world. This great contrast between God's glory and power and man's helplessness dramatizes the need for God's power in order to live the Christian life. God's power is demonstrated in Paul by consistent ministry and spiritual victory while enduring undeserved suffering. (4.7-12).
4. Paul depends on the spiritual blessings from God. Therefore he has confidence about himself and the Corinthians about future resurrection and presentation to the Lord. Furthermore, he serves so that through the Corinthians grace may spread and God receive thanks and glory (4.13-15).
5. Paul emphasizes the spiritual growth of the inner man, not the decay of the physical body; eternal rewards, not temporary suffering; and the eternal unseen blessings of God, not the material and fleeting things in life (4.16-18).
Chapter 5, Live by faith because we are reconciled
1. All church age believers will be clothed by God when they die. This may be spiritual clothes that will be joined later with the resurrection body or it may refer to the resurrection body. The limitations and hardships of human life in a fallen world made the desire for a spiritual body normal. The good news is that God has destined believers for eternal future with him. The Holy Spirit is God's pledge that He will do this for us (5.1-6).
2. We all are to live by faith throughout our entire lifetime. This means believing what God has said so strongly that what He said shapes your thinking and activity—about living and dying. Believers are with the Lord immediately after physical death; there is no soul sleep after physical death and before resurrection. Because this is true, Paul and believers can prefer to depart this life and be present with the Lord in heaven. Wherever we live we should, as Paul, make it our ambition to please the Lord (5.7-9).
3. The judgment seat of Christ refers to the time that Christ will evaluate believers’ service. That which was done through the Holy Spirit will be rewarded (divine good), while that which was done in human energy (bad or human good) will be removed. Paul’s fear of the Lord, which is a learned volitional faith commitment ending in love for the Lord caused him to fulfill his ministry and should do the same for the Corinthians and for us (5.10-13).
4. Christ’s love for us urges us to live for Him. With this viewpoint we recognize people as those for whom Christ died and view each believer as a new spiritual specie in Christ with a new relationship with Christ, a new capacity for spiritual life and growth, a new kind of life, a new means of living, and a new hope (5.14-17).
5. God has reconciled the world to Himself through the work of Christ. It is now possible to become friends with God. Christ solved the sin problem by being made sin for us. Jesus Christ took our place and was judged for our sin even though He was perfectly righteous. God has made believers ambassadors to give out this wonderful message of reconciliation (5.18-21).
Chapter 6, Servants of God; unequal relationships
1. Paul urges the Corinthians to show themselves as servants of God by dealing with all hardship and suffering with God’s grace and grace resources, and in doing so they will not give people a reason to discredit the ministry (6:1-10).
2. Any problems the Corinthians have with Paul are caused by their own emotions controlling them instead of by Paul’s biblical instruction. He has been gracious, open, and honest (6:11-13).
3. Another warning. Paul says they are not to put themselves in cooperation or relationships with unbelievers that will compromise God’s word and harm their fellowship with God and their ministry. Believers are the temple of God. Believers are to be separate from those controlling and entangling associations (6:14-18).
Chapter 7, God refreshes us during spiritual battle fatigue
1. Believers ought to cleanse themselves of sin by confession of that sin and avoidance of the sin and make daily progress toward Christian life sanctification. A believer gains sanctification only while in a good relationship with the Lord, called fear of the Lord (7.1).
2. Paul has a great desire that the Corinthians welcome him and his team into their souls. He has not been unfair, he has not corrupted them, he has not cheated them. He is committed to their spiritual growth (7.2-5).
3. Paul suffered spiritual battle fatigue, not because of sin, but due to the constant spiritual pressure, criticism, rejection, affliction, and concentration and demands of his ministry. Paul was encouraged by Titus visiting him and also by the good report about the Corinthians that Titus brought to Paul (7.5-7).
4. Genuine sorrow can make you sensitive to spiritual truth, but sorrow by itself changes nothing. Genuine repentance is a change of thinking and that is what is needed (7.8-12).
5. Spiritual encouragement for Paul came from Titus being refreshed by the Corinthians because of their obedience to his and Paul’s ministry. We see that acceptance of your ministry by those you serve, and by spiritual prosperity of those you serve help solve spiritual battle fatigue and give spiritual refreshment (7.13-16).
Grace giving is God’s kind of giving, 8-9
2 Corinthians 8, Grace Giving of ourselves, then our wealth
1. The Macedonian believers showed what grace giving was all about. Even though they had little of the details of life, they first gave themselves to the Lord and the apostle for service, then willingly and freely gave money to support other believers (8.1-6).
2. The Corinthian believers were rich in practical spiritual resources—faith, Bible teaching, Bible knowledge, earnestness, and love. They also ought to master grace giving. Christ showed us how to freely give to others by giving himself in death so that we might gain everlasting life and the riches that come with relationship with Christ (8.7-9).
3. If you decide to support a believer or group of believers, complete what you said you would do, but do so based on your ability. And remember, your willingness combined with what you have is much more important that unwillingness combined with great resources or willingness combined with what you do not have (8.10-12).
4. Grace giving is one way of mutual support among different members of the church. Grace giving is not to place hardship on the giver or to reduce responsibility of the recipient (8.13-15).
5. Titus along with two other respected believers took charge of the administration of the Corinthian's offering. Titus responded to Paul’s appeal because he wanted to, not because Paul ordered him to do it. Paul wanted to make sure the handling of money was honorable in the sight of God and men. The questionable handling of money can discredit the ministry (8.16-24).
Chapter 9, God multiples our grace gifts
1. Paul proudly told the Macedonians about the grace giving the Corinthians. They had committed to this giving. He did not want to pressure them nor did he want to make money and issue when he saw the them, so to help the Corinthians fulfill their giving project and be already prepared when Paul arrived he sent Titus and two others to Corinth to help them (9.1-5).
2. God wants us to give freely and cheerfully. He in turn will graciously provide the material support we need, while at the same time multiple the results of our grace giving. Liberal giving enriches the giver, and liberal giving produces thanks to God (9.6-11).
Grace giving not only supports other believers; it also overflows
to thanksgiving to God. Grace giving results in glory to God because
giving is an application of God’s will and because the decision to give
was fulfilled. Recipients of grace giving respond by praying for the
givers and by wanting to know the givers (9.12-15).
Paul the apostle wants to build up the Corinthians, 10-13
Chapter 10, Spiritual warfare requires God’s weapons and God’s authority
1. Some of the Corinthians contend that Paul lives according to the flesh—that is, apart from God’s word and God’s Spirit. They say that he talks “tough” when he is away from them and is weak when he is with them. Their accusations are quite wrong. He does not want to have to be firm with them when he comes (10:1-2).
Though Paul and his team live in the flesh or human body they do
not do spiritual battle with the ideas or doctrines or weapons of the
flesh—mankind in the fallen world. They use God’s spiritual resources and
weapons, and with these resources and weapons they destroy worldly
thinking and replace it with biblical thinking
3. Paul and his team belong to Christ just as the Corinthian believers belong to Christ. Their authority to build them up came from the Lord and Paul does not want to fail. They do not brag about themselves nor does Paul make idle threats. Any boasting is according to God’s will and ministry given to Paul (10:7-13).
4. Some so-called missionaries take credit for what others have done. Not Paul and his team. They brought the gospel to the Corinthians in accord with the plan to go to places where the gospel had not previously been preached. They are relying on the Lord’s approval not man’s approval and so any honest boasting is in the Lord or about what the Lord has done (10:14-18).
Chapter 11, Beware of spiritual counterfeits
1. Paul says that it is foolishness to him to give his credentials, but because of the present need he will. He has a godly protective jealousy for them. The Corinthians are deceived like Eve was deceived. He is afraid that they put up with a false Jesus, with demons, and with a different gospel (11:1-4).
2. Paul is an apostle. He has great knowledge from God and this is evident to him and to others. He even preached to them without taking any money. He did not burden them by requesting support. Other churches supported him in his ministry for the Corinthians. God knows that he loves these believers. Paul will continue his God given ministry and by doing that he will remove his critics opportunities for boasting. They will be shown for what they are—false apostles, deceitful workers, and counterfeits. Satan and his servants disguise themselves as angels of light and try to infiltrate the church and damage the church (11:5-15).
3. Paul engages in some correct spiritual boasting so they he may teach them what they need to know. While the Corinthians put up with false servants of righteousness—the foolish—gladly, they criticize Paul (11:16-20).
4. These false “servants of righteousness” do not have the credentials that Paul has. They have not proven their “apostleship.” Paul has the right heritage and he has suffered greatly for Christ. Furthermore, Paul has intense concern for all the churches and this concern has brought much inner pressure upon him. Paul is not self centered; he does not want to talk about his great spiritual successes. If he boasts at all, it will be to mentions his weaknesses and failures (11:21-33).
Chapter 12, Thorns in the flesh bring grace support
Paul continues to present his credentials that demonstrate his
apostleship and his burden to minister to the Corinthians. In doing this
he also shows his weaknesses. He relates the historical event of a man who
was taken up to the third heaven, Paradise, where he heard
words—instruction and insight—so wonderful that he was not permitted to
tell. This man was Paul and this event may have happened when he was
stoned in Lystra (
2. With the third heaven revelation that Paul experienced he might have a tendency toward pride. To guard against this God allowed Satan to inflict upon Paul some painful illness or debility. This affliction humbled Paul and reminded him that he was totally dependent upon God to effectively serve God and the Corinthians. Though Paul prayed for relief, God would not remove the affliction, but God said that he would graciously provide for Paul whatever he needed to continue to minister. Paul was then glad to experience personal weakness so that Christ’s power would give him needed strength for ministry. Paul became even more conscious of grace and dependent on grace (12:7-10).
3. The Corinthians have been questioning Paul’s apostleship and this forced him to go over his credentials more than he would normally do. He demonstrated the signs of his apostleship—signs, wonders, and miracles. He wants nothing from them for himself. Instead Paul, as a good parent gladly spends himself for them (12:11-18).
4. Both he and Titus served honorably in building the Corinthians up in the faith. Yet he fears that he will come and find some unrepentant of their sins—mental attitude sins, sins of the tongue, and open immorality. His humiliation results from their lack of response to his ministry (12:19-21).
Chapter 13, Christian life checkup
1. Paul wrote this letter between his second and third visits. When he returns to them he will have witnesses to their sin. Their lack of repentance is partially because they reject Paul’s authority to deal with their sin and carnality. He assures them that he will apply his apostolic authority against those who stand against his ministry. They say Paul is weak, but he is weak in his humanity like Christ was weak. Christ was strong in God power and Paul will be the same (13:1-5).
Paul, in verse 5, challenges them to test themselves (peirazw
peirazo, to test to find the nature or character of something) to learn if
they are living the Christian life they way they should, and to examine
dokimazo, examine to determine genuineness). Jesus Christ in you means
living comfortably in them and in fellowship with them. This is the same
Regardless of what they think of Paul and his team, he wants them
to live right. Paul prayers for them that they may be strong and complete
in the faith. He does not want to have to deal severely with them when he
comes. He wants to use his authority to build them up
4. Paul ends on a very high note. His desire is that they will grow up and live the Christian life so they will experience God’s love and peace. He gives greetings and closes with the familiar benediction: “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” (13:11-14).