2 Corinthians 7 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Joy in the Midst of Distress

"Thank you kindly for looking into this matter," "your help is much appreciated," "hope to see you soon" and similar expressions tend to find their way into the concluding comments of our letters. This was also the practice in Paul's day. Expressions like "by so doing you will confer on me a kindness" (Tebtunis Papyri 766,15), "write to me for whatever you want" (Bremer Papyri 52,9) and "I will try to come to you soon" (Oxyrynchus Papyri 1763,91f) were common fare in the first-century Greek letter. While we tend to include such phrases as a polite way of drawing matters to a close, the first-century letter writer chose his phrases and crafted his closing remarks with marked intentionality.

Paul in 2 Corinthians is no exception. I do not say this to condemn you at 7:3 signals the transition to a block commonly referred to in epistolary parlance as the body-closing section. In the Hellenistic letter this section functioned to underscore the reason(s) for writing (for example, "I have written to let you know," Les Papyrus Grecs du Musée du Louvre 43) and to further good relations with the reader(s). Often the latter was done by acknowledging the benefit to both parties concerned ("It is well for him to come quickly, for he will instruct you," Oxyrhynchus Papyri 743,41f) and by expressing confidence in the readers' ability to do the right thing. Sometimes, however, a threat or warning was needed ("Take care that I do not come to quarrel with you," Tebtunis Papyri 759,9ff).

Paul's letters follow suit. Expressions of confidence appear with conspicuous regularity (e.g., "confident of your obedience," Philem 21). An aura of goodwill and family feeling generally prevails (e.g., "What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory? . . . Is it not you?" 1 Thess 2:19)--unless the relationship has reached the point where only a threat will work (e.g., "Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?" 1 Cor 4:21).

Second Corinthians 7:3-16 is very representative of the Pauline closing section. This is Paul's final attempt in these chapters to get his readers to accept the legitimacy of his ministry and open their hearts to him. The tone is conciliatory and confident. His intent in writing is not to condemn them but to help them see that they are in his heart to live or die (v. 3). Expressions of joy and benefit predominate: the verb chairo ("I rejoice"; "I am glad") and the noun chara (joy) occur six times (vv. 4, 7, 9, 13 [toice], 16), while the terms comforted, encouraged and refreshed appear eight times in all (vv. 4, 6, 7, 13). The Corinthians' obedient response to the severe letter is recalled (vv. 8-13), and mention is made of how it encouraged Paul in the midst of trials (vv. 5-7, 13). Confidence phraseology pervades: I have great confidence in you (v. 4), "I am glad that I can have complete confidence in you" (v. 16). Family feeling is evident throughout: You have such a place in our hearts (v. 3), I take great pride in you (v. 4), "I boasted to Titus about you" (v. 14).

Paul begins by reassuring the Corinthians that his purpose in writing is not condemnation. He abandons the first-person plural that he has used since 2:14 and takes up the first-person singular: I do not say this to condemn you. The Greek word for "condemnation" (katakrisis) is a rare one, occurring only here and in 2 Corinthians 3:9 in the Greek Bible. It means to bring a verdict of guilty or to pass sentence against someone. Paul has defended himself at length and made some strong denials throughout chapters 1--7 (as in 7:2: "we have wronged . . . corrupted . . . exploited no one"). In retrospect, he is aware that what he wrote could easily have sounded as if he was blaming and passing judgment on them. So he is concerned that they not misunderstand his intentions. Indeed, there can be no room for condemnation because of the secure place that the Corinthians have in his affections. What he said before he now says again: You have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. When did Paul say this? No such statement can be found earlier in the letter, so it is likely that he expressed himself in this fashion either on his second visit (compare proeirhka, 13:2) or in a recent communication to them (perhaps in the severe letter).

The fact that he has to repeat himself shows that the depth of his commitment to them has not really sunk in (I have said before, v. 3). The place the Corinthians have in his heart is such that Paul can say, "Come death, come life, we meet it together" (NEB). His affirmation is a strong one and not unlike the wedding vows that couples have traditionally made to one another: "For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part" (Book of Common Prayer).

But Paul's commitment goes beyond this. The order of the words is significant. To live or die with you is actually the reverse: "to die with you and to live with you" (eis to synapothanein kai syzen). Paul puts the more difficult commitment first. His union with the Corinthians is not dissolved at death, as wedding vows are. Come what may, their destinies are inextricably linked both in this life and beyond. Paul expresses himself in the classical formula of his day for abiding friendship and loyalty. It is a pledge that is also found in the Old Testament. Ittai the Gittite's reply to David is nearly identical: "Wherever my lord the king may be, whether it means life or death, there will your servant be" (2 Sam 15:21). Nor is Paul alone in making this pledge. The first plural we indicates that his colleagues share in it as well.

Paul goes on to say that he has great confidence in them (v. 4). The range of meaning for parrhsia includes "confidence," "frankness," "boldness," "openness" and "public." Although sometimes translated as "frankness" ("I talk to you with utter frankness," Phillips; compare NEB), this overlooks the role that expressions of confidence regularly play in Paul's closing sections. The language is that of the optimist who finds an opportunity in every difficulty rather than a difficulty in every opportunity. Yet Paul's is not a blind confidence. The news Titus brought back from his visit to Corinth was that the church was duly repentant for not supporting him. The believers there had seen the error of their ways and punished the individual who had publicly humiliated him on his last visit. So Paul has every reason to be confident that they will take the next step and give him their complete support in the larger matters that he is now calling to their attention.

It is his confidence in the Corinthians that leads him also to take great pride in them (v. 4). The notion is an active one. The text is literally "I do a lot of boasting on your behalf." Paul assumes the role of the father who not only takes pride in the accomplishments of his children but also actively boasts about them to anyone who will lend a willing ear. Is this a momentary euphoria stemming from Titus's good report? Not at all. Paul had boasted to Titus even prior to his Corinthian visit (v. 14). Nor has he suddenly become blind to the many failings of the Corinthians, as is the wont of parents when speaking about their children. But just as a parent will encourage a strong-willed child by praising her when she is obedient, so Paul encourages the independent-minded Corinthians by boasting about them when he can. Not only are the Corinthians a cause for pride, but they are also a source of encouragement. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds (v. 4; compare the Cotton Patch Version: "I am bubbling over with joy").

At this point Paul resumes the travelogue that he had abandoned at 2:13. He had left a promising evangelistic field in Troas and gone to Macedonia in the hopes of meeting up with Titus and hearing news of the Corinthians' response to his severe letter (see the commentary on 2:12-13). But when he came into Macedonia, he was, instead, harassed at every turn. The Greek verb thlibo (v. 5) and noun thipsis (v. 5) are terms that frequently turn up in this letter (verb three times; noun eight times). Thlibw (and its cognates) means to put pressure on something or someone and so afflict, oppress or harass.

Paul does not provide any details about the harassment he encountered. The most he says is that it took the form of conflicts on the outside and fears within. The conflicts without are undoubtedly some kind of persecution or opposition. We know from Acts that Paul was pursued from city to city by a group of hostile, unbelieving Jews who stirred up trouble for him wherever he went. The term conflict (mache and its cognates) is frequently used in Hellenistic Greek for military combat or sporting contests (Bauernfeind 1967:527-28). Whether Paul's choice of words points to physical threats of some kind is not clear. In the Septuagint the literal sense predominates. But in the New Testament mache also is used figuratively of quarrels and fighting, and this could easily be what Paul intends here (2 Tim 2:23; Tit 3:9; Jas 4:1).

Paul also experienced fears within. Concern for Titus was certainly one of these fears. Has he been waylaid on the road by robbers? Did something happen at Corinth to delay him? These are some of the questions that must have been running through Paul's mind. The plural fears indicates that Paul faced more than one worry. Fear related to the opposition he encountered in Macedonia, which Titus's eventual arrival did not relieve, may well have been part of the picture (v. 4, in all our troubles). But what form did this fear take? Concern for his own safety does not square with Luke's picture of the apostle (as in Acts 20:22-24; 21:10-14). Fear about the safety of the Macedonian churches is more likely (see Acts 16--18). In fact, if Paul was in Thessalonica, much would be explained. The church there faced intense opposition on more than one occasion (Acts 17:1-9; 1 Thess 1:6-8; 2:2, 14; 3:1-5; 2 Thess 1:4)--so much so that Paul at one point was fearful his evangelistic labors there had been in vain (1 Thess 3:1-5). Then too, fear for the church at Philippi is a possibility. In his letter to the Philippians he tells them to "watch out for the dogs," those "mutilators of the flesh" and "workers of evil" (3:2) who are "enemies of the cross" (3:18).

The trouble that Paul faced in the province of Macedonia was such that his body had no rest (v. 5). The NIV's body is actually the word "flesh." But Paul is quite capable of using body (soma) and "flesh" (sarx) interchangeably (as in 2 Cor 7:1; Gal 4:13-14; Eph 5:29; 1 Tim 3:16). "Flesh" is the physical side of things as impacted by external circumstances and inward state of mind. Had no rest is probably another way of saying that he was physically spent from worrying. Then too, he had no chance for respite (anesis), because when he came to Macedonia he faced opposition at every turn (v. 5). The Greek word anesis refers not so much to rest (NIV, KJV, NKJV, RSV, NRSV) as to "relief" (REB, NEB) or relaxation.

While Paul did not experience respite, with Titus's arrival he did receive encouragement: But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus (v. 6). With this statement we come full circle in chapters 1--7. Paul opened on a note of praise to the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort (1:3). Now we see exactly how the Lord comforted him. Downcast translates a Greek term that means "low" (tapeinos). Paul had reached a low for which only divine comfort could suffice.

Three sources of comfort are specified. The first was the coming of Titus (v. 6). Parousia (coming) is commonly used of the advent of a notable personage, like a king or an emperor. One can almost hear the sound of trumpets heralding Titus's arrival, so palpable was Paul's relief. Nor was this an isolated case of anxiety for a colleague's mission. Paul had been similarly encouraged six years earlier when Timothy arrived with good news of the Thessalonican church's steadfastness in the face of intense persecution (1 Thess 3:6-7).

Paul's second source of comfort was news of the church's positive reception of Titus and the encouragement they had given him (v. 7). Precisely how they encouraged him Paul does not say. Part of it surely was the fact that they responded in obedience both to Paul's letter (v. 9) and to Titus himself (v. 15). Yet their response went beyond obedience. They also ministered to Titus. "His spirit," Paul tells the Corinthians, "has been refreshed by all of you" (v. 13).

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