2 Corinthians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Corinthians' Complaints

The Corinthians were complainers as well (1 Cor 10:10, "Do not grumble") and took the opportunity of Titus's visit with the severe letter to communicate a number of criticisms they had against Paul. First, they said that Paul's letters were hard to understand: "What is this fellow talking about?" (vv. 12-14). Second, they claimed that Paul was fickle. "He promises to visit us and then changes his mind without even consulting us" (1:15-23). Third, they thought that he had a domineering attitude toward them and wanted to show who had the upper hand (1:24--2:4). No doubt they were being egged on by visiting preachers who sought to displace Paul in the Corinthians' affections by pointing to his supposed character and ministerial deficiencies (see the introduction).

First Complaint: Obscure Letters (1:12-14) In chapter 1 verse 12 Paul begins to deal with the Corinthian complaints by pointing to the overall integrity of his conduct. Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. Paul's primary line of defense is personal commendation. This is our boast. The language of boasting (1:12, 14; 5:12; 7:4, 14; 10:8, 13, 15-17; 11:10, 12, 16-18, 30; 12:1, 5, 6, 9), commending (3:1; 4:2; 5:12; 6:4; 10:12, 18; 12:11) and having confidence (1:9, 15; 3:4; 5:6, 8; 7:4, 16; 10:2, 7) occurs more in 2 Corinthians than anywhere else in the New Testament. Paul also provides the Corinthians with three different résumés of ministerial credentials (4:8-9; 6:4-10; 11:22--12:6).

Even though résumés are a given in our society, many today take offense at Paul's boasting and view his self-commendation as a sign of personal arrogance. Three factors must be kept in mind. First, Paul does not engage in boasting in order to make himself look good. He is pushed to do it by the Corinthians, who placed great store in such things, and by his opponents, who enjoyed flaunting their credentials (5:12; 10:12). Paul stooped to their level in order to safeguard the church from placing its trust in those who were only out to exploit them (11:18-20). He is quite open about this. "We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again," he says, "but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart" (5:12). Second, the credentials Paul puts forward are job related. He speaks from the standpoint of his office, not his person, and phrases what he says in the plural "we," not the singular "I." It is as servants of Christ and ministers of the gospel that he commends himself and his coworkers. And, third, when Paul does boast, he boasts not in his achievements and accomplishments but in the hardships, struggles and trials of an itinerant missionary. "As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger" (6:4-5).

Paul uses the language of the courtroom when he wants to underline the veracity of what he is about to say. Our conscience testifies (v. 12) means he has a clear conscience that is open to both divine and human scrutiny--an assertion that few indeed could make then or now. This is no idle boast on his part, for he makes this claim "before God" (v. 12; 2:17; see the note), who will judge the truthfulness of his words in the day of the Lord Jesus (v. 14). What he calls on his conscience to bear witness to is the "frankness and sincerity" of his conduct in the world and especially toward the Corinthians (v. 12). The word for "frankness" (NIV holiness, see the note) denotes simplicity of intent. Paul behaved with openness and candor, not holding anything back from them or attempting to deceive. Nor was he insincere in what he said and did--what we today would call a hypocrite. On the contrary, his affection for them was genuine. This was because he conducted himself not according to worldly wisdom but according to God's grace. In short, Paul did not allow society's standards to dictate how he spoke or acted. By society's standards his conduct would be deemed sheer foolishness. But God's standard of grace demanded that he reach out not primar-ily to the educated or power brokers of society but to the "nobodies" (1 Cor 1:28). "Not many of you were wise by human standards," he tells them, "not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise" (1 Cor 1:26-27).

Even with such mundane activities as writing letters and making travel plans, Paul maintains that he acts with complete frankness and sincerity. Far from forcing the Corinthians to "read betoeen the lines"--as they complained they had to do--Paul's intent was to write only what they could easily read and understand (v. 13). The first verb, read (anaginosko), is used for the reading of a letter aloud to an assembly; the second verb means not only to understand but also to give assent to what has been read (epiginosko, "to recognize"; see the note). One of the functions of the letter carrier was to read the letter and answer any questions that the recipients might have. With Paul's letters, however, there are no hidden meanings or obscurities that require the on-the-spot explanations of a carrier. What he says is what he means.

Paul extends the idea of clarity in writing to a desire for complete understanding and clarity in all matters pertaining to his relationship with the Corinthians: I hope that, as you have understood us in part, you will come to understand [us] fully (v. 14). Through Titus's recent visit they have come to better understand something of Paul's motives (7:11). What Paul wishes for now is that they will have complete confidence in him, so that he might become a source of boasting for them, as they have become for him (v. 14).

Once again Paul emphasizes how intertoined their lives are--so much so that his apostleship has no meaning apart from those who have become his "children" (12:14-15). And when at last he must give an account on the day of the Lord Jesus, his basis for confidence and source of pride will be not himself but those who have come to faith through his ministry.

Second Complaint: A Change of Plans (1:15-22) It is a sad but true indictment of the church that we are too often program and people driven rather than mission and message oriented. An experienced cotton-mill manager once said to Charles Hummel, the director of faculty ministries with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, that his greatest danger was in letting the urgent things crowd out the important. In a rapidly changing and quickly paced society like ours, we as Christians live in constant tension betoeen the urgent and the important. All too frequently it is the urgent that wins out. Paul faced this problem with the Corinthian church in his day. A canceled visit to Corinth led the church to label Paul as a fair-weather friend who, following the way of the world, made and changed his plans to suit himself and no one else. And if he was unreliable in small matters like this, how was he to be trusted in bigger matters like preaching the gospel? What the Corinthians failed to see, however, is that Paul's travels in serving the gospel were governed not by personal whim but by his mission and his message. God, not people or programs, dictated his schedule.

In an attempt to move his relationship with the church toward this fuller understanding of his priorities, Paul goes on in verses 15-22 to respond to a complaint that arose over some alleged miscommunication on his part about his travel plans. From Paul's comments in these verses it seems that he had planned to visit the Corinthians toice before heading to Jerusalem to deliver the relief fund (v. 15). His intent was to come to Corinth first, move on to Macedonia and then return to Corinth, from where he hoped to be sent on his way to Judea with the money he had collected (v. 16). This would be the first time Paul had visited them since the founding of the church three years earlier. But the first of these too visits was so painful that Paul canceled the second one and returned to Ephesus, abandoning for the moment his Jerusalem collection efforts (see the introduction). The news of Paul's canceled visit was not well received at Corinth. They looked on his willingness to forgo a return visit as a sign of a fickle person who can say yes one moment and no the next (v. 17).

Paul's initial approach to the Corinthian charge is to show that he is not fickle in his decision making. I planned, he says, to visit you first so that you might benefit toice (v. 15). Paul chooses his words carefully. The Greek term for planned stresses a course laid out as a deliberate act of the will and is better translated "I determined" (eboulomen). Far from telling the Corinthians one thing and doing another, his plan to visit them had been carefully thought out, and he had fully intended to follow through on it. Paul had also expected that the church would send [him] on [his] way (propemphthenai, v. 16)--a technical term for furnishing a traveler with whatever provisions were necessary for the journey ahead. So he did not make these plans lightly (elaphria), a word commonly used of someone who makes a promise that they do not intend to keep (v. 17).

Paul goes on in verses 18-22 to answer the church's complaint from the standpoint of his role as a preacher of the gospel, arguing from the integrity of the message that he, Silas and Timothy had preached to them--and which they themselves affirmed by their Amen (v. 20)--to the integrity of the messengers themselves. Paul employs a greater-to-lesser line of argumentation that was in common use, especially in Jewish circles. God is faithful (v. 18). How do the Corinthians know this? They know this preeminently through the Son of God in whom there was and is no fickleness or inconsistency. For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ (v. 20). Put simply, Jesus is the very embodiment of God's faithfulness, for God has fulfilled and continues to fulfill (gegonen) every one of his promises in and through him (en auto). The Corinthians affirm God's faithfulness to his promises when through Christ they say "Amen" to the preaching of God's word (v. 20).

Two young girls were talking, and one said she had ten pennies. The other girl looked at her hand and only saw five. She said, "You only have five pennies."

The first girl replied, "I have five, and my father told me he would give me five more tonight. So I have ten." She understood that her father's promise was as good as done.

So it is with God's promises. And God's faithfulness in and through Jesus was preached by Paul without any wavering or inconsistency, so that the consistency of his message ensured the consistent character of his motives and actions. As the Corinthians themselves could verify, there was no "yes" and "no" about the Son whom Paul and his colleagues preached. His consistency in the greater matters ensured his reliability in the comparatively lesser matters.

Paul reinforces his argument by pointing in verses 21-22 to their joint possession of the Spirit, arguing that the God who gave them the Spirit to guarantee their common destiny (v. 22) is the same God who ensures the integrity of his conduct ([confirms] both us and you). So to doubt Paul's reliability in a trivial matter such as travel plans would be to also doubt the credibility of the Spirit's work in the Corinthians' own lives.

Paul chooses four terms drawn from the familiar world of law, religion and commerce to describe the Spirit's activity in the life of the congregation. The first is in the present tense, while the other three are past actions on which the Spirit's present activity is dependent: Having anointed, sealed and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, God is now (through the Spirit) in the process of confirming both us and you in Christ, says Paul. To "confirm" (bebaioo, not the NIV stand firm) is a technical term for the legal guarantee that a seller gives a buyer to ensure the validity of the sale against any possible third-party claims. As applied to the Spirit, it depicts his job in confirming the ongoing validity of God's relationship to his people. "Anoint" (chrio) is a word used in the Old Testament for commissioning to a particular office (e.g., king, priest) or task (e.g., prophet). It is also used metaphorically of the Spirit's equipping for mission or service (e.g., Is 61:1). By the action of anointing, then, Paul has in mind the Spirit's empowering and equipping the church to carry forth Christ's mission in the world. To "seal" (sphragizo), in the commercial world of Paul's day, referred to the means by which money, goods or documents were secured for delivery. A seal was both a mark of ownership and proof that the goods in question had not been tampered with or falsified in transit. Nowadays we might think of the rancher in West Texas who makes it his practice to round up all his year-old calves each spring for branding. The brand, which is placed on the flank of the calf with a heated branding iron, is the rancher's mark of ownership. No one can dispute that the calf belongs to him. In the same way God has placed his mark of ownership on us by sealing us with the Spirit. No one can remove us from his ownership until the day of redemption.

The activities of confirming, anointing and sealing are dependent on what Paul calls the arrabon of the Spirit in our hearts. Arrabon is a legal term pertaining to contracts of sale or service. In the case of a contract of sale, the arrabon in Hebrew law was something handed over as security to be reclaimed at a later date ("pledge," as in Gen 38:17-20), while in Greek law it referred to the earnest money that a buyer would give the seller prior to the actual sale and delivery of the item. Today we might think in terms of the down payment (deposit) that we make on a house or car with the intent of paying the balance at some future point. In the case of a contract for services, the arrabon was the first installment that a hirer would give the workers toward services to be carried out at a later date. Two letters from Paul's day illustrate this sense quite well. In one letter a servant writes to his master that he has paid Lampon the mouse-catcher an arrabon of eight drachmas so that he will start work and catch the mice while they are still with young; in a second letter the provision is made regarding the engagement of certain dancing girls for a village festival who are to receive payment "by way of arrabon to be reckoned in the price" (Moulton-Milligan 1930:79). Even today in Greece he arrabona is still used for "the engagement ring."

In what way, though, is the Spirit a first installment or deposit? The Spirit's activities of birthing (anointing, sealing) and guaranteeing the church's continuing existence leads one to think of the Spirit as the first installment of the church's future redemption. Paul develops this idea in Ephesians 5:25-27, where the church is portrayed as the bride-to-be and Christ as the expectant bridegroom. On his return they will be wed. Meanwhile, the church is in the process of being cleansed through the word, so that she might be presented to Christ as a "radiant" bride, without "stain or wrinkle."

To sum up, the Spirit's role in the life of the church is that of a first installment or down payment that guarantees God's indisputable relationship, commissions and equips for service, secures against falsification or tampering, and preserves the "goods" of this relationship until the day of redemption.

Third Complaint: A Domineering Attitude (1:23--2:4) We live in a day when the exercise of discipline in the church is fast disappearing or being replaced by self-image reinforcement, while in the home it is often frowned on as being antiquated or bordering on abuse. Yet discipline is firmly rooted in the biblical record, where it is presented as a positive, not negative, model. The preeminent model is God himself, whose dealings with his people are often pictured in terms of a parent-child relationship. Central to this relationship is discipline. It is a measure of God's love that he disciplines his children (Prov 3:11-12), but it is not without personal cost. In Hosea 11:8-9 God is portrayed as a parent pacing the floor, anguishing over the need to discipline his wayward child, Israel. Paul similarly anguishes over the need to discipline the Corinthian church.

In 1:23--2:4 Paul tells the Corinthians why he did not carry out his Corinth--Macedonia--Corinth travel plan. Today, to guarantee the truthfulness of what we are about to say, we use such phrases as "with God as my witness" or "I swear to tell the truth." Paul begins by swearing an oath in the strongest terms possible. I call God as my witness is literally "I call upon God as a witness against (epi) my soul (psychen)." With this imprecation Paul invokes the wrath of God against himself (v. 23). He is willing to forfeit his very life if he is found not to be telling the truth. The term soul is commonly used in the New Testament of the "self." Paul employs it of the inner life of a person--equivalent to the ego or personality (e.g., Rom 2:9; 11:3; 13:1; 16:4; 1 Cor 15:45; 2 Cor 12:15). That Paul would bind himself in this way points to the seriousness with which he viewed the Corinthian accusation.

Legal terminology predominates in these verses. Paul pictures himself on trial in a court of law. To call upon (epikaloumai) is a common legal term in the Old Testament for summoning witnesses to a trial--equivalent to our subpoena today. Under Jewish law any matter had to be verified by too or three witnesses (Deut 19:15; compare 17:6). Since there are no human witnesses who could testify about the intentions of his heart, Paul calls on God as his sole witness to testify to the fact that it was to spare the Corinthians that he did not pay them a return visit. Pastoral concern, not fickleness, caused him to change his travel plans.

But from what did Paul want to spare them? It is clear from his remarks both here and in chapter 13 that had he come again he would have had to discipline them (13:1-10), and this would have caused them grief (2:2). Paul exercised discipline very unwillingly and only as a last resort. When he did rebuke a church, it was done in love, never merely to hurt but to restore a broken relationship (2:4).

All of us who teach or pastor face the danger of thinking that our job is to force others to think as we do. So Paul immediately throws in a qualifier. To talk about sparing them discipline could sound like a threat. It could seem as if he is attempting to lord it over their faith (v. 24). On the contrary, he and his colleagues work together with them (synergoi) to secure their joy. When Paul rebuked, the last thing he wanted was to play the bully. Nor could he bully them if he wanted to, because it is by faith, not by pastoral coercion, that they stand firm.

In 2:1-4 Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians why he did not pay them a return visit. I made up my mind, he says, that I would not make another painful visit to you (v. 1). I made up my mind is literally "I judged this for myself," indicating a settled and carefully weighed decision. The reason he gives for his decision is that his visiting them at this time would cause them to be sad and then there would be no one to make him glad (v. 2). So intimately was Paul's happiness bound up with theirs that he refrained from coming until it would be a time of gladness and nurture for both. So instead of paying them yet another painful visit, he decided to send them a letter that was intended to show how much he loved them but which caused him many tears to write due to its harsh character (vv. 3-4).

The events surrounding this painful visit and "severe letter" can be reconstructed to a large extent from 1 and 2 Corinthians (see the introduction). It appears that the relationship betoeen Paul and the Corinthians deteriorated when a group within the church began to question his authority. There were "some" who were arrogantly claiming that Paul was not coming back to Corinth (1 Cor 4:18). They were also becoming suspicious of him because he would not accept financial assistance but worked instead to support himself (1 Cor 9:1-18). Perhaps, they thought, this was because Paul was not truly an apostle. News of this deteriorating situation reached Paul and resulted in a visit that was painful for both him and the Corinthians. It seems that during his visit someone in the congregation publicly insulted him and challenged his authority, demanding proof that Christ was speaking through him (13:3). What was particularly hurtful for Paul was the fact that the church sat by and did nothing to support him. After issuing a strong word of warning (13:2), he returned to Ephesus, abandoning his plan to visit the Macedonian churches, revisit Corinth (1:16) and then go on to Jerusalem with the relief funds that had been collected from the Gentile churches.

When Paul returned to Ephesus he wrote the church a "severe letter" by means of which he hoped to avoid another painful encounter with them (2 Cor 1:23). In this letter he called for the Corinthians to discipline the individual who had "caused" him "grief" (2:5-11), rebuked the church for not coming to his aid (7:8-12), tested their obedience to apostolic authority (7:14-15) and questioned their personal support (2:3; 7:12-13). That this was a difficult letter for Paul to write is clear from his statement that he wrote it out of great distress and anguish of heart with many tears (2:4). Thlipsis (distress) and synoche (anguish) are virtual syno-nymns for personal pain brought about by oppressive circumstances. Here, they refer to the deep emotional turmoil that Paul experienced as he wrote this letter to the Corinthians, very much like the anxiety a parent feels when faced with the prospect of exercising discipline.

Disciplining a child is never an easy matter. That discipline can be motivated by love is exceedingly difficult for a child to comprehend. It must have been hard too for the Corinthians, who were "grieved" by the severity of Paul's letter (v. 4). Nonetheless, Paul intended that by this letter they might know the depth of [the] love he had for his spiritual children (v. 4). Love, which stands in an emphatic position in the clause, is the primary reason he gives for writing. It is all too easy to allow personal feelings to get in the way of ministry. But this was not the case with Paul. He could have used this letter to vent his anger and disappointment with his spiritual children. Instead, he saw past his own pain to what was needful from the pastoral standpoint.

Previous commentary:
Paul Defends His Ministry

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