At the moment, the lectionary is offering us selections from the second of two letters included in the New Testament, written from Paul to the believers in Corinth. This week, we have an excerpt that affirms, “we do not lose hope” (2 Cor 4:16), and encourages the Corinthians, “we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor 5:1). Next week, we encounter the affirmation, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).
These words are positive and affirming. Paul is in a good frame of mind about the Corinthians. He offers them phrases which build them up in faith, consistent with his words in his first letter to these believers about what should be done as a community (1 Cor 14:4, 12, 26; and see also Rom 15:2; 1 Thess 5:11).
Paul’s first letter indicates that he concentrated his mission in Corinth on Gentiles, non-Jews (1 Cor 12:2; 16:15–18), and it would seem that he had significant success there (see also Acts 18:1–18). He stayed in Corinth for some time, earning his own living and working with other people in the early Christian movement, such as Peter, Apollos, and the tentmakers, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, two of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius in a general expulsion a few years earlier.
Paul was successful in establishing a new Christian community in Corinth. This undoubtedly caused tension with the local synagogue, as Paul was preaching that Jesus was the Messiah, whom Jews were expecting to come (Acts 18:4). This success may have led to his being dragged before Gallio, the Roman proconsul, by the local Jews, charged with heresy.
Gallio dismissed the charge as a matter of concern to the Jews alone; it was not a matter for the Roman authorities to be involved with (Acts 18:12–17). Gallio was proconsul in Corinth in the years 50–51, so this provides the date for Paul’s visit there. Soon afterwards, Paul left Corinth, accompanied by Aquila and Pricilla, bound for Antioch, but on the way they stopped over in Ephesus (Acts 18:18–21).
After Paul left Corinth, he remained in contact with the community of believers there, as the two letters of Paul to the Corinthians attest. He indicates that he wrote the first one whilst in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8). Yet in that letter, Paul refers to his “previous letter” to Corinth (1 Cor 5:9); so it seems that 1 Corinthians was probably the second of his letters to Corinth, and what we know as 2 Corinthians might actually be 3 Corinthians!
But then, our letter of 2 Corinthians refers to a second visit which Paul made to Corinth—the “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1)—followed by another letter from Paul to the Corinthians—the “tearful letter” (2 Cor 2:4; 7:8). So what we know as 2 Corinthians was probably the fourth letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians!
Indeed, the integrity of 2 Corinthians as we know it has been questioned, and scholarly scrutiny of the form and contents of the letter even suggests that it may be a composite of two, three, or even four letters which were originally separate communications. So Paul’s fourth letter to Corinth, which we call 2 Corinthians, is comprised of a number of main sections, each of which has its own distinctive focus.
In the first section of the letter (1:1–7:16), Paul writes to offer consolation and hope to his converts in Corinth. It is clear that members of the community have undergone some difficult times; Paul empathises with them, drawing on his own experiences, as a way of offering a message of hope to the believers in Corinth. The excerpts we heard in worship last Sunday (Pentecost 3), and will hear this Sunday (Pentecost 4), come from this part of the letter—warm, encouraging, affirming.
This first section contains a brief excursus (6:14–7:1), which is of a markedly different character—leading many scholars to the conclusion that Paul himself did not write these verses. (How they came to be included in the final letter, then, poses something of a mystery requiring more detailed attention than we can give it here.)
In a second main section (8:1–9:15), Paul addresses a very practical matter—the collection of money which he was making amongst the churches of Achaia and Macedonia, which he was planning to take to Jerusalem for the benefit of the believers there who had been experiencing difficulties. In this section, Paul focuses on the need for unity among the churches, both Gentile and Jewish, which lies at the heart of this enterprise. The lectionary selects one paragraph from this section for Pentecost 5.
In the third main section (10:1–13:13), Paul’s tone is markedly apologetic, as he writes in severe tones to defend himself in the face of criticisms which have been levelled against him in Corinth. Here, the issue is how to discern true and false teachers amongst the leadership active within the churches. That’s the section that provides one of the readings for Pentecost 6, which ends with Paul’s famous declaration, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
As was the case in a number of churches where Paul was active, a group of traditional Jewish believers had become active and were persuading the Corinthians to adopt beliefs and practices different from those advocated by Paul. The task which Paul undertakes in these chapters is to validate his own authority over and against this other group, and encourage the Corinthians to remain faithful to the good news which he first brought to them.
Paul’s theology of the cross, clearly articulated in 1 Cor 1–4, provides the basis for the approach that he takes in 2 Cor 10–13. He emphasises his frailty (10:10) and reiterates the catalogue of sufferings that he has experienced (11:23–29; 12:10; cf. 6:4–10) but argues that this is the sign of his true calling as an apostle, for “power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).
So Paul asserts that his authority comes not from self-validation, but because he bears the Lord’s commendation (10:18), and his sufferings demonstrate that “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10), in accordance with the pattern established in the crucifixion of Jesus himself (13:3–4).