Much of the New Testament is made up of a collection of letters sent to and from the leaders of the early church. These letters were prompted by specific context and circumstance but their wisdom and encouragement continue to ring true for us today.
Here we turn our attention to one such letter, 2 Corinthians, considering its message and purpose, as well as the context in which it was written. What is 2 Corinthians all about, and how does it continue to speak to us today?
Who Wrote Second Corinthians?
2 Corinthians was written by the apostle Paul approximately 55-57 C.E. to the community of believers that made up the church in Corinth. Paul had been instrumental in the church’s founding back during his second missionary journey. And since the church’s founding, Paul had remained in contact, writing multiple letters to the community—some of which have since been lost and one of which makes up the Book of 1 Corinthians.
Context and Background
Paul’s mentorship over the Corinthian church was not without its ups and downs. In the letter of First Corinthians, Paul dedicates much time to correcting the early believers, urging unity and humility. Here, Paul references an earlier “severe” letter that he had sent to Corinth. Given the encouraging tone of 1 Corinthians, this is likely referring to a separate letter that the apostle Paul wrote between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians.
Following this lost and severe letter, scholars believe that Paul return to Corinth in person for a visit that proved to be very challenging. And, following this trip, Paul wrote this second letter. Division amongst the believers in Corinth appears to have grown more pronounced, with many who wanted to reconcile with Paul and follow the teachings that he laid out, and others who now viewed his leadership with hostility.
Overview of the Letter
Second Corinthians can be divided into three key sections, Paul’s explanation and defense of his ministry (chapters 1-7), a petition for generous giving (chapters 8-9), and a reassertion of Paul’s authority (chapters 10-13). Paul spends much of 2 Corinthians simply defending his apostolic ministry, and indeed, this is in many ways the letter’s central theme.
Let us briefly consider these three major sections of 2 Corinthians, turning our attention to some of the notable key verses and passages from each.
Paul’s Explanation and Defense of His Ministry (chapters 1-7)
After a brief word of greeting to the believers in the church at Corinth, Paul explains the purpose of his ministry. He compares the freedom and mercy of the Gospel to the stringent nature of the Law and declares that suffering is not a mark of weakness. Instead, Paul affirms that his faith is in Jesus Christ who is the source of his hope and strength.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”—2 Corinthians 5:17
A Petition for Generous Giving (chapters 8-9)
In chapters 8 and 9, Paul turns his attention outward, urging the believers at Corinth to remember their sisters and brother in Christ who are in need. He reminds the Corinthians of the example set by the believers in Macedonia who extended generosity to those in need and also Paul encourages them to likewise embrace gracious giving.
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”—2 Corinthians 8:9
A Reassertion of Paul’s Authority (chapters 10-13)
Finally, Paul concludes his letter by reiterating his authority among the community of believers at Corinth. He expresses concern for their faithfulness to him especially when so many false teachers were clambering for influence. The last chapter of 2 Corinthians contains Paul’s plea to the Corinthians to examine themselves to determine whether what they are professing is in fact true.
"We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."—2 Corinthians 10:5
How Do I Apply This?
While this is a letter written to a specific group of people, the messages and wisdom of 2 Corinthians continue to resonate with us today. Divisive and competing voices continue to vye for our attention. The societal narrative that pain and suffering are marks of weakness and deserving of derision remains prevalent. And in this context of ours, Paul’s words offer us an alternative way forward. Second Corinthians asserts that living in unity requires us to humbly forgive one another when missteps and mistakes occur.
Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth continue to be a vital and relevant text for us today. It invites us to think mindfully about how we live together in community—urging generosity and care, humility and forgiveness.
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”—2 Corinthians 4:17
To learn more about the letters of the New Testament, consider the Letters Set from Alabaster.