2 Corinthians constitutes the first preserved “sequel” in Paul’s letters. In fact, Paul wrote three or possibly four letters to Corinth. Some scholars speculate 2 Corinthians is actually an edited copy of two letters smushed together, based on differing tone and structure. (There’s a break in 2:14 that picks back up in 7:5). In fact, the whole thing is a bit confused. This is one of those letters that emphasizes the fact that we get only one side of the conversation, and have have to muddle through in trying to piece it together. We know Paul’s travel plans to revisit Corinth had changed, that something or things significant had happened since the last time he had written. Let’s look at a few things about the entirety of the letter, then some specifics.
Second Corinthians has many major historical and literary problems, making the reconstruction of the situation faced by Paul more difficult than in the case of 1 Corinthians.
It is difficult, first of all, to piece together what transpired between the writing of the two letters. Although Paul’s relations with the community were strained, he had planned to visit it after passing through Macedonia (1 Cor. 16:5), in order to pick up the collection on the way to Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:3). In the meantime, he had anticipated sending Timothy, expecting his early return (1 Cor. 16:10–11; cf. 4:17).
There is no lack of biographical data in 2 Corinthians, but the sequence of events remains elusive. In 1:8, Paul refers to an “affliction” he had experienced in Asia, which threatened his life (1:9). Was this in any way connected to his “fighting the beasts in Ephesus” (1 Cor. 15:32)? In 1:16, he speaks of a visit that he had planned to make to the Corinthians in connection with his trip to Macedonia (the same itinerary as in 1 Cor. 16:3–5) but that he had called off since he did not wish another “painful visit” (2:1). But what visit is this? He then speaks of a “letter written out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2:4). Is this 1 Corinthians or another letter? It certainly caused considerable distress (2 Cor. 2:5–11; 7:8–13).
In 2 Cor. 2:12, Paul begins to relate his actual movements rather than his plans. He had gone to Macedonia not through Corinth but by way of Troas. Not finding his delegate Titus in Troas, he did not linger but went straight on to Macedonia. Here the travelogue stops momentarily. It is resumed in 7:5, where we find Paul recounting the comfort he had received in Macedonia by the arrival there of Titus, who bore Paul news of the Corinthians’ zeal for him (7:7). At this point, therefore, he appears reconciled with them (7:6–16).
In 8:6, Paul says that Titus had already begun work for the collection among them, and in 8:16–18, he writes that he is about to send Titus and “another brother” to complete that work. There is, however, a slight but troubling shift in 9:3–5, where Paul indicates that he is sending “brethren” for the collection. Is he simply collapsing together Titus and the “brethren” (cf. 8:23)? Things get even murkier when we find in 12:18 that Paul had already sent Titus and “the brother” to Corinth to work for the collection. Is this a reference to the earlier (8:6) or the later (8:16–18) visit of the delegate? Finally, Paul says in 12:14, “Here for a third time I am ready to come to you,” whereas we would have expected this to be only his second visit.- Johnson and Penner, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation
So while the letter is a bit jumbled, there is a theme.
Paul often begins the main part of his letters with a prayer in which he lays before God the main theme he wants to get across to his readers. There is no problem here in discovering what it is. He repeats the word ‘comfort’ in one form or another ten times in five verses. To say that this is obviously what’s on his mind doesn’t put it strongly enough; it sounds almost like an obsession.
Actually, the word he uses is a bit more many-sided than ‘comfort’. It can mean ‘to call someone to come near’, ‘to make a strong appeal or exhortation’, or ‘to treat in an inviting or friendly way’. The whole idea of the word is that one person is being with another, speaking words which change their mood and situation, giving them courage, new hope, new direction, new insights which will alter the way they face the next moment, the next day, the rest of their life. And when you put all that together in a bottle, shake it up, and pour it out for someone who is in the middle of deep suffering, the best word we can come up with to describe the effect is probably ‘comfort’…. At the heart of this prayer, and of the gospel, is the fact that what is true of the Messiah becomes true of his people. This is a central principle for Paul, not simply as a powerful idea and belief but as a fact of experience. The letter returns to this again and again, in what some have called a pattern of ‘interchange’: the Messiah died, so his people die in him, sharing his sufferings; the Messiah rose again, so his people rise again in him, knowing the power of the resurrection to comfort and heal, already in the present time, and cherishing the hope that one day they will be given new, resurrection bodies like the one the Messiah himself now has. This is basic to a good deal of the letter.- Wright, 2 Corinthians for Everyone.
Throughout this letter, Paul again has to defend himself as he did in 1 Corinthians, but there’s a twist. Some new people have been in Corinth since Paul was there last, and they fit the Corinthians view of what an Apostle should be way more than Paul did.
“unlike the situation he faced in 1 Corinthians, Paul now finds himself in a new polemical situation in which his own legitimacy as an apostle had been severely called into question at Corinth and still is being doubted by a significant minority within the church…. This polemical situation and the corresponding apologetic tone which characterizes much of 2 Corinthians are evident from the beginning of the letter.- Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 167″
According to 2Co 10:10, the Corinthians said of Paul that “his letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (NRSV) They’ve compared Paul to these other people, who they think are REALLY Apostles. Sure, Paul writes a good game, but when he shows up, his talks stink and he’s not very charismatic… unlike those other people. Plus, THEY come with letters of recommendation, but Paul doesn’t. THEY’ll take money for teaching like a real Apostle should, but Paul didn’t. (See 1Co 9).
Paul’s response is threaded throughout the letter, but a good bit in chapter 11. The KJV says in 11:5 “For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles” but it’s clear the term does not refer to something like “Peter, James, and John” as the “chiefest Apostles.” Rather, Paul is speaking sarcastically or ironically; Indeed, several translations (NRS, NET, NIV, ESV, etc.) read “super apostles” here, and that’s a better way to think about it.
“It is evident from 2 Corinthians that Paul’s opponents in Corinth were a group (“many,” 2 Cor 2:17) of persons (hoi kapēleuontes, “hucksters” or “peddlers,” 2 Cor 2:17) who had “come” to Corinth (2 Cor 11:4–5) from outside (their “letters of commendation,” 2 Cor 3:1) where they and their message had been “received” (2 Cor 11:4, 20).– Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 647.
It emerges from 2 Corinthians that these newcomers legitimated their [service] in Corinth by “boasting” (kauchasthai, 2 Cor 10–12) of their achievements, “contrasting” (synkrinein, 2 Cor 10:12) their strengths with Paul’s weaknesses. In their missionary journey to Corinth they have come a greater, Paul a lesser, distance (2 Cor 10:13–14). They have “letters of commendation” (from Jerusalem?); Paul has none (2 Cor 3:1–3). They are “sufficient,” triumphant figures; Paul is inadequate, a sorry figure as he limps from place to place in defeat (2 Cor 2:14–3:5; 4:1, 16). Extrapolating from remarks Paul makes about himself, some scholars affirm that these experiences were being claimed by his opponents. They are men of divine power (“beside” themselves, 2 Cor 5:13), “caught up … out of the body … into paradise” where they see “visions” and hear “revelations” of what “cannot be told” (2 Cor 12:1–5), whereas Paul is mundane, a minister without power, worldly and weak (2 Cor 10:3–6; 12:1–10; cf. 2 Cor 5:12–13). Possibly they performed “the signs of an apostle” (2 Cor 12:12) whereas, they allege, Paul did not. They are powerful in speech (2 Cor 11:5–6) and in wisdom whereas he is in speech “unskilled” and in general “a fool” (2 Cor 11:1–12:13). In all things he is “inferior” (cf. 2 Cor 11:5), whereas they are superior, “better” (hyper, 2 Cor 11:23).
Certainly it was a heated competition between Paul and these unnamed opponents holding sway among the Corinthian church.
When [Paul] ridicules his opponents as “false apostles” (pseudapostoloi, 2 Cor 11:13) or “superapostles” (hyperlian apostoloi, 2 Cor 11:5; 12:11), he unfortunately does not reveal their names. That these opponents had even less respectful titles for him is suggested by the term “miscarriage” (ektrōma, 1 Cor 15:8). The struggle over the definition and criteria of true and false apostleship (see also Rev 2:2), in analogy to that over true and false prophecy, raged well into later church history as part of the battles against heresy.– “Apostle,” Anchor Bible Dictionary
Paul says his rivals claim to be apostles of Christ, as he is. He dismisses this claim with direct slander: they are in reality “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13). But he begrudgingly admits their surface plausibility, for he calls them superapostles (hyperapostoloi; 11:5, 12:11). They claim a Jewish pedigree sufficiently impressive to arouse Paul’s defenses (11:22). They engage in self-commendation and measure themselves over against others (10:12). They also travel with letters of recommendation from churches to validate their authority (3:1). They claim to work on the same basis Paul does, preaching the gospel for free (11:12), but they accept money for their preaching (11:7–10). They are peddlers of God’s word (2:17), and they tamper with it (4:2). They are, in short, apostles of churches, not of Christ.
Some other characteristics of his rivals may be guessed from the emphases of Paul’s self-presentation—the things he feels the need to stress in his comparison with them. They seem to have been rhetorically gifted, placing great stock in their knowledge and speech (10:10; 11:6). They are able to work miracles to back up their claims (12:12). They have mystical experiences (12:1–5). They are spiritual athletes who have endured great hardships as “servants of Christ” (11:23–27). In all these things, they “boast” (11:21).-Johnson and Penner, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation
So Paul too “boasts,” talking about his own hardships he has suffered, explaining why he hasn’t accepted payment like a teacher should, and also citing his own mystical experiences, e.g. being “caught up into the third heaven” (an ascension text.) You want credentials? I’ll give you credentials!
Is there a takeaway here? Yes.
Paul does not directly attack them, except in the slander of 11:13–15. His anger and frustration are directed more at the Corinthian congregation, which is so easily led from sobriety and stability by the attraction of the spectacular.-Johnson and Penner, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation
We like our Apostles charismatic, interesting, and new. Don’t give us the same old stuff. And if they keep repeating basic and important teachings, we find someone else who will give us the spectacular.
Perhaps not unconnected, there is some connection between the Superapostle conflict and Paul’s “collection for the saints” already mentioned several times. What’s the background for this and what is going on?
LDS traditionally cite Acts 2:44-47, which refers to the Jerusalem Church living with “all things in common.” We tried that too, in the 19th century. What we don’t usually understand is that this experiment in early Christianity didn’t work very well, in the sense that they were desperately terribly poor. Consequently, one of the things that Paul was charged with was collecting money for the support of the Jerusalem community. Paul approaches this differently in different areas, but it’s mentioned in several letters.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians contains two chapters that are largely devoted to the collection for the saints (2 Cor 8–9). Included in these directions are such things as the need for generosity (2 Cor 8:12; 9:5–11), the goal of equality (2 Cor 8:13–15) and the need for careful administration of the funds (2 Cor 8:18–21)”– Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 143.
Here’s an article on the collection. Given Paul’s relationships with the churches, and his own need for support that he negotiated differently in different places, it’s not a surprise that the collection caused some problems.
Specific notes and tidbits.
1:22 – Earnest? This passage says God has given us “the earnest of the spirit.” 2Co 5:5 uses the same phrasing. Ephesians 1:14 is the most explicit, and confusing in its language, saying that the holy spirit is “the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession.”(Eph 1:14 KJV)
What does this mean?
If you’ve bought a house, you’ve had to put down “earnest money,” which shows that you’re serious and committed, a security deposit, a demonstration in good faith that the rest of the money will be forthcoming. It’s money paid to confirm a contract. And indeed, the Greek here (adapting a Hebrew word) means “first installment, down payment, something given in pledge.” We receive the spirit after baptism, wherein we enter into a covenant relationship in which we are promised salvation, and indeed all God has. The spirit is the downpayment from God to us that the rest of that heavenly inheritance is forthcoming.
We demonstrate that we are willing to obey by the outward sign of baptism (Joseph Smith), and the spirit is a token, a down payment on the blessings God will ultimately bestow. In that light, these other translations of Ephesians make sense.
The Spirit “is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people” (Eph 1:14 NRS)
“is the down payment of our inheritance” (Eph 1:14 NET)
“the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Eph 1:14 ESV)
“a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession– to the praise of his glory. (Eph 1:14 NIV)
In that light, what does it mean if we can no longer feel the spirit, if we are “past feeling, that [we can] not feel his words? (1Ne 17:45 BOM)
Three notes on Satan. First, in 4:4, Paul refers to him as “the god of this world.” As before, however, “world” here does not mean “planet.” (Israelites didn’t understand the universe in such terms. See the bottom section and links in my post here.) Rather it’s the word aiōn, “age, time period” as it was in Matthew 24 , when the apostles ask Jesus when the end of the “world” (KJV) or the [evil] aiōn will be, and the kingdom will usher in a new aiōn, an age of goodness and righteousness. If you’re a Hobbit fan, think of “the Third Age.”
Second, it describes Satan as “blinding minds.” On that note, Hugh Nibley several times paraphrased Brigham Young as saying, “Satan is out to decoy our thoughts, to get our minds on trivial thoughts, on the things of this world against which we have so often been warned.” and indeed, it is quite easy to do so. Sex, money, prestige, the “anxieties of the age” (Matthew 13:22) it is easy to get distracted from our discipleship.
Third, Paul provides a contrast between unbelievers’ “minds being blinded” (4:4) with Christians who have the “mind of Christ” (1Co 2:16) Consequently, “Satan might not outwit us, for we are aware of his schemes.” (2Co 2:11) How do we become “aware of his schemes”? One valid and common answer would be, “read the scriptures.” But Brigham Young, later quoted several times by President Faust, gave another response. We should “study evil” vicariously, he said, through reading and theater. Presumably he would have included movies as well. (You should read my whole post on this, for the entire contextualized quotes and discussion. I haven’t pulled out the best one here.) “We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.” “Shall I practise evil? No; neither have I told you to practise it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.”
It generated lots of discussion in the freshman Book of Mormon class I taught.
5:7 “We walk by faith, not by sight.” It’s obvious, but note that Paul includes himself in that “we”; this goes for everyone. President Monson and Joseph Smith did not know the end from the beginning either. Joseph Smith especially had to learn from his ventures and failures, and not just personal ones. Rough Stone Rolling can be a challenging read, and it’s not perfect, but it’s well worth reading to learn about JS’ having to learn and grow (and fail in the process) like we all do. On a slightly different note, the brilliant BH Roberts expressed it this way.
“Constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs even of the Church; not even good men, no, not though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally and at need that God comes to their aid.”- Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:525 (The entire chapter there is fantastic and worth reading.)
12:7 Paul’s thorn in the flesh- No one has definite any idea what this is.
Some think it was a physical incapacity, such as stuttering (10:10, 11:6), epilepsy (5:13, Ac 9:4), or weak vision (Ac 9:7, Ga 4:15); some, the emotional suffering resulting from not winning Jews to the Messiah as he would have liked (but see Ac 28:24&N); others, a recurring temptation, such as greed (Ro 7:8); and yet others take the following phrase, “a messenger [Greek an-gelos, “messenger, angel”] from the Adversary,” to mean that his “thorn” was a demonic spiritual being especially dispatched by Satan (Mt 4:1) to pound away at him (compare Mt 25:41, Rv 12:7, 9).-Jewish New Testament Commentary
Perhaps it’s better that we don’t know specifically, since it makes it easier to relate to and apply to ourselves. Paul says of this thorn in his flesh, that “three times I begged the Lord to take this thing away from me” (CJB). Jesus, too, petitioned that “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Mat 26:39) Whether a one-time bitter cup to drink, or a life-long thorn in the flesh, a personal demon we must wrestle daily, each of us will be afflicted in some way. It’s unavoidably part of life. In one of the most powerful BYU devotionals (and quoting Robert Frost), Elder Holland says that “the only way out is through.” Nephi also seems to border on despair when he says “I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins;” (2 Ne. 4:18-19)
In all three cases, the solution is there for us. Nephi continues-
nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep. He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh…. he hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the night-time.
Those contrast words, “nevertheless” and “but” (see here, “Do you not know…”) are some of the most encouraging in scripture. The only way out is through, but we are not alone in our struggles and challenges. We share them with our God, our community, and our humanity.
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