2 Corinthians 7 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

News of the Corinthians' Obedience

Confrontation is not easy for any of us. We tend to shrink from it or rationalize away its necessity. Paul, however, confronted the Corinthians directly, despite how much he stood to lose. He did it because he valued his relationship with the church more than his own reputation. Most of us would seek redress for a wrong done to us. This is especially the case where our rightful authority has been challenged and our reputation defamed. The stakes were even higher for Paul because it was his apostolic authority that was being attacked and his reputation as Christ's ambassador that was on the line. Yet his primary concern throughout is his relationship to the congregation. All else is secondary--even the injustice and public humiliation that he had suffered.

Paul's third and final source of comfort was Titus's report of the Corinthians' response to the severe letter. It is this piece of news that caused Paul to "nearly burst with joy" (Cotton Patch, v. 7). The Corinthians had reacted to his rebuke with a godly sorrow, just as God intended (vv. 9-10). Paul's letter had been written in the wake of a painful visit to Corinth. While there, someone publicly insulted him and demanded that he give proof of his apostleship (13:3, "proof that Christ is speaking through me"). What was particularly hurtful for Paul was that the church sat by and did nothing to support him. After issuing a strong word of warning (13:2), he returned to Ephesus and, instead of a promised return visit, wrote a letter in which he rebuked the church for not coming to his aid (7:8-12), demanded that the individual who had challenged his authority be punished (2:5-11) and expressed deep sorrow over the church's lack of support (2:3; 7:12-13).

The Corinthians' initial response had been distress: I see that my letter hurt you (v. 8). The Greek verb lypew (hurt) means to cause pain or distress. This had not been Paul's intention. He had written not to grieve the church but to let them know the depth of his love (2:4). It had also caused Paul a great deal of pain to write such a letter. "I wrote," he says, "out of great distress and anguish of heart with many tears" (2:4).

Paul's initial reaction to Titus's news was regret for having caused such pain. The tense is imperfect. His was not a momentary pang of remorse but a time of sustained unhappiness over the affair. Many are the occasions when parents struggle over how severely a child should be punished. God repeatedly faced this challenge with Israel. In Hosea 11:8-9 he is pictured pacing the floor, anguishing over the need to discipline a wayward child: "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?" This is what is commonly referred to as "tough love," a love that dares to discipline, dares to weep over the pain inflicted and dares to rejoice at the prospect of reconciliation and a better future secured for one's child. Paul went through this struggle in writing his severe letter to the Corinthians (2:4). And now when he is told of the grief that it caused the church, his first response is regret.

On reflection, however, Paul's regret changes to gladness. Though I did regret it, he says, yet now I am happy (vv. 8-9). Is this not a strange turnabout? What exactly led to his change of heart? Four things are specified. First, the Corinthians' sorrow lasted only for a little while (v. 8). They were not pained for any extended period of time, and so no permanent damage to the relationship occurred.

Second, God's hand was evident in the church's response. They had become sorrowful as God intended (v. 9). The phrase is literally "grieved according to God" (elyphthete kata theon). But what does this mean? Renderings include "sadness . . . used by God" (TEV), "suffering that God approves" (JB), "made sorry after a godly manner" (KJV, NKJV) and "as God would have had you sorry" (Phillips). The NASB's "made sorrowful according to the will of God" or the NIV's became sorrowful as God intended is probably the sense here.

The kind of sorrow that God intends results in a change of heart: Your sorrow led you to repentance (v. 9). This is the third reason Paul can be happy. The Corinthians did not merely regret what they had done but repented of it (v. 9). Metanoia (repentance) denotes not just a change of mind about something but a reorientation of the whole person (Goetzmann 1975:357-58). Judas felt remorse for what he had done in betraying Jesus to the authorities (metameletheis, Mt 27:3), but his remorse did not issue in repentance. Repentance, to be sure, involves a recognition that a wrong has been committed. The Corinthians, when confronted with their failure to defend Paul in the face of his detractors, felt sorry for the pain they had caused him. This is remorse. But repentance goes further. It not only recognizes the wrong committed but also seeks to rectify it. This the Corinthians did by admitting their blame and by punishing the offender (2:6; 7:11).

The fourth and final reason Paul can be happy is that the church was not harmed in any way by the severity of his letter (v. 9). What kind of harm is in view? In the world of commerce the Greek verb zhmioomai referred to loss or damage in money or material goods due to unfavorable conditions or circumstances (such as the loss in goods and lives caused by a storm at sea; Stumpff 1964b:888). The implication is that discipline can cause spiritual havoc or injury if not administered or received in the right way. This was Paul's concern for the offender whom the Corinthians continued to discipline even after he repented. Had the discipline continued, the man stood in danger of being overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2:7).

To their credit, the Corinthians responded to the severe letter in the way God intended. Paul spells out what this way is in verse 10. It is only natural to experience pain and feel hurt when someone rebukes us for a perceived wrongdoing. And while we feel pain, it is what we do with our pain that counts. The Corinthians, despite their other failings, responded in a very mature fashion to Paul's rebuke. To be sure, they were hurt by what Paul said in his letter to them. But they did not allow their hurt to deepen into bitterness and resentment. Instead, they were able to get past their hurt to see that the rebuke rang true and that they needed to change their ways (v. 9). This is godly sorrow--one that recognizes the wrong committed and then does everything within its power to repair the damage. Simply put, godly sorrow is constructive.

Two people are chatting over coffee. In reaching for the sugar, one of them accidentally knocks her cup in the other's lap. A typical reaction would be "Look at the mess I've made. I'm so sorry." This is the voice of regret. A certain kind of person will continue to berate herself for her clumsiness. But constructive sorrow is different from either. It says: "Here are some napkins. I'll get the table cleaned up. And please let me pay the cleaning bill."

Constructive sorrow is the kind of sorrow that leads to salvation and leaves no regret (v. 10). Paul might not be thinking of salvation in the theological sense (that is, eternal life). The term swthria can also mean "self-preservation" or "well-being." Sorrow that turns outoard to redress the wrong done leads to personal wholeness. Worldly sorrow, on the other hand, brings death. Worldly sorrow is that which turns in on itself and feeds off its ever deepening self-pity. It brings death because it breeds self-destructive resentment and bitterness that eat away at the person (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:71). It is said that a rattlesnake, if cornered, will sometimes become so upset that it will bite itself. That is exactly what the harboring of hate and resentment against others is--a biting of oneself. We think that we are harming others by holding these grudges and hates, but the deeper harm is to ourselves. This is a sorrow that will overwhelm and consume us in the end.

In the Corinthians we have an excellent model of godly sorrow that produces repentance and corporate well-being. Judging from the eight descriptive nouns found in verses 7 and 11, Titus must have given Paul a blow-by-blow account of the church's reaction to his letter. Their initial response was alarm (literally, "fear" [phobos]). Alarm at what? It could be that they feared divine reprisals for rejecting God's representative (see Héring 1967:55; Plummer 1915:223; Tasker 1958:106). It is also possible that they stood in dread of the discipline Paul would exercise when he came (Hughes 1962:274). The likeliest explanation, though, is that they were simply caught off guard. The voice of alarm says, "I had no idea. Is Paul all right?" They obviously had not taken seriously what had transpired betoeen Paul and the offending individual, and they never guessed how deeply he had been affected by the whole ordeal.

The Corinthians moved then from alarm to indignation. Aganaktesis, found only here in the New Testament, refers to deep vexation or profound displeasure. At what or whom were they vexed? The offender and the rival missionaries (who quite likely egged the wrongdoer on) come immediately to mind. But it may well be that their indignation was aimed first at themselves. It would have been quite natural for them to turn in anger to one another and ask, "Who let this happen? Who is responsible?"

Then came the regret. "Titus told us of your deep sorrow," Paul says (see v. 7). Odyrmos commonly denotes wailing and lamentation, often accompanied by tears and other outoard expressions of grief (Hauck 1967:116). In the New Testament it is found only here and in Matthew 2:18, where it is used of Rachel's weeping for her children and refusing to be consoled. It is, to be sure, a stronger word than the one Paul used to describe his own remorse at having to write such a severe letter (v. 8). What were the Corinthians lamenting? While they might have lamented the fact that Paul thought it best not to pay them a return visit (Barrett 1973:208), it is more likely that odyrmos depicts the deep sorrow and remorse they felt at having caused Paul such pain.

Once the Corinthians got past their initial shock over what had taken place, they reached out to Paul, longing to see him and assure him of their support (vv. 7, 11). Epipothesis means a yearning for and desire in a good sense (Schönweiss 1975:458). They also hurried to clear themselves of blame. What eagerness Paul recounts. The word spoude refers to the zealous pursuit of something. They must have made Titus promise that he would assure Paul of their noncomplicity in the whole affair: "Tell Paul we had nothing to do with this."

But while they had not taken the man's side against Paul, they had done nothing to support Paul either. So something more than earnest denials of complicity was needed. This led them to attempt to clear themselves. The term apologia, from which our word "apology" comes, is commonly used of a reasoned statement in defense of something or someone (Furnish 1984:388). The Corinthians' self-defense was apparently quite convincing, for Paul could say, At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter (7:11).

The church also moved quickly to rectify the wrong that had been done by punishing the offender (to see justice done, v. 11). The language is judicial. Ekdikesis can mean either to take revenge (KJV, NASB) or to punish (TEV, RSV, NRSV, Phillips). There is no hint in the broader context that the Corinthians sought to avenge themselves against the guilty party--although this might have been a natural reaction. Their concern was rather to see a wrong righted. Readiness (or perhaps "eagerness") to see justice done nicely captures the sense (NIV, JB, NEB, REB). Paul's choice of terms points to some kind of formal disciplinary action decided on and carried out by the congregation (see 2:6). Excommunication or at least the witheolding of church privileges is indicated by the potential impact on the individual ("overwhelmed by excessive sorrow," 2:7).

The Corinthians set about their disciplinary task with great fervor (vv. 7, 11). The NIV concern is weak. Zelos denotes "zeal." But zeal for what? Three possibilities readily come to mind. Paul could be thinking of the church's eagerness to discipline the offending party (Bruce 1971:218). Or he could have in view the Corinthians' zealous support in the face of his detractors (Martin 1986:235). He could even be referring to their enthusiasm in carrying out his instructions (Furnish 1984:395). Most likely all three are part of the overall picture. The apathy that they exhibited on Paul's last visit took an about-face. Now they are eager to demonstrate their support--or at least the majority are eager (2:6).

But as was their wont, the Corinthians went overboard to such an extent that Paul had to restrain their fervor (see the commentary on 2:6). All this proved to Paul that the Corinthians at every point were innocent in this matter (v. 11). Hagnos ("pure," "chaste," "holy") plus einai ("to be") carries the sense of legal blamelessness. The Corinthians' overall response was sufficient to clear themselves of blame (NEB) and prove themselves guiltless (RSV) with respect to the whole unfortunate affair.

Why does Paul recount the Corinthians' response to his letter at such length? Surely a statement acknowledging their obedience and expressing gratitude for their support--even if a bit late--would have sufficed. But Paul's relational skills are at work here. The Corinthians far exceeded his expectations. And so like a pleased parent he pulls out all the stops and basks in their affection and loyalty: your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern (v. 7) and what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation (v. 11).

The Corinthians' favorable response provides Paul with a splendid opportunity to articulate his principal reason for writing such a severe letter. In chapter 2 he said that he wrote as he did to see if they would stand the test and be obedient in everything (2:9). It was not to cause them pain but to let them know the depth of his love for them (2:4). Now he adds, in a somewhat surprising vein, that he wrote not on account of the one who did the wrong or of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are (v. 12). Devoted is perhaps better translated "earnest" (ten spouden). "Before God" is placed last in the clause for emphasis. A note of accountability is sounded here. The Corinthians are reminded that even their earnestness is played out under divine scrutiny.

Has Paul's sudden euphoria over the Corinthians' obedience blotted out all memory of the fears and anxieties that he had experienced while waiting for Titus? At this point he seems to be speaking in retrospect. When he wrote the severe letter he was not at all sure of the Corinthians' loyalty. In fact, he was so worried about their response to his letter that he gave up a promising evangelistic opportunity in Troas and went on to Macedonia in the hopes of meeting up with Titus and hearing news of the church (2:13; 7:5). But the church came through the test with flying colors (2:9). So perhaps this is Paul's tactful way of saying that his fears about them had been misplaced.

There certainly was a lot at stake. In writing such a letter, Paul had put all his apostolic labors in Corinth on the line. If he miscalculated in writing as he did, his relationship with the church might have come to an end (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:71).

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Joy in the Midst of Distress

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Paul's Parental Pride in the Corinthians Proves True

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