2 Corinthians is a letter written by the apostle Paul in response to a complicated relationship between him and the church at Corinth. Let’s just say they “had a history.” Paul started this Jesus community sometime before on one of his missionary journeys (see Acts 18). After moving on to plant more churches, he gets a disturbing report that things were not going well in Corinth (1 Cor 1:11). The people were dividing into “groups” with varying leaders, having casual sex with one another, going sideways on whether or not to eat food offered to idols, getting drunk at church gatherings, and some were even denying the resurrection. It was like the wild west!
In response, Paul writes a stern letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians in our Bibles) calling for repentance and reformation. Unfortunately, many in the church rejected his words and continued to live as if Paul had no authority in their lives. This open rebellion necessitated a face–to–face “chat” with the Corinthians, which Paul calls the painful visit (2 Cor 2:1). He then leaves and sends another severe letter (now lost) written with anguish and tears in hopes of bringing repentance and reconciliation. Finally, most, but not all, of the Corinthians, realized their sin and pride and apologized to Paul. It’s at this point in their tumultuous history that Paul wrote the letter of 2 Corinthians to assure the church of his love, affection, and commitment to them. As I said, they had a history.
Given that history, it’s no wonder that 2 Corinthians is the most personal of all of Paul’s letters, providing a unique window into Paul’s life and ministry during his apostolic career. It’s also this baggage with the Corinthians that account for the complex nature of the letter. As you read it, you’d be hard–pressed not to notice the sudden shifts in his tone and emotions and the constant asides that seem out of place. However, his letter does have a carefully crafted structure, which can be broken down into three main sections, each addressing distinct topics relating to their history. The one guiding theme weaved throughout all three topics is the paradoxical nature of the “cruciform” life, that is, a life shaped by the cross. Paul will finalize their reconciliation, challenge their generosity, and confront his remaining opponents by fleshing out the surprising paradoxes of the cross and showing how it should reverse the Corinthians' whole honor/shame value system. Let’s check it out.
Paradox #1. Paul’s Low Status is Proof of Jesus’ Exalted Status
In chapters 1–7, Paul finalizes his reconciliation with the Corinthians. Their relationship was strained since the “painful visit,” so Paul wants them to know he forgives them and desires an open, honest relationship. But why had they rejected Paul in the first place? After all, he was the one who founded their church. They wouldn’t exist without him! As the letter unfolds, it becomes clear that the Corinthians grew ashamed of Paul’s low status as they were exposed to other wealthy, influential, and eloquent Christian leaders (the “super-apostles” of chapters 11 and 12). Paul was poor, persecuted, and homeless. And to top it off, he was an unimpressive public speaker. Why stay connected to the manual labor guy when they could associate with the rich, celebrity leaders of the day?
Paul tells them exactly why. True Christian leadership is not about worldly status or self-promotion. In fact, it’s the other way around. Paul sees himself and the real apostles as captive slaves to Jesus who’s leading them in a procession of triumph. Paul’s role isn’t to be impressive but rather to point to the one who is—King Jesus! He explains how through the new covenant, the resurrected and exalted Jesus is the glory of God and those who follow Jesus get to share in this glory through the transforming power of the Spirit. However, the Corinthians idea of glory and success needed to be straightened out.
Sharing in God’s glory didn’t mean being attached to the wealthy and eloquent. It meant following Jesus whose own exaltation came through his humility, sufferings, and execution on a cross, so that others could be reconciled to God. They should imitate Jesus by walking in this new “cruciform” way of life, loving and self-sacrificially serving others, just as Paul lowered himself to love and help the Corinthians. The irony of it all is that Paul’s low status, which the Corinthians were so ashamed of, was proof that he authentically represented the crucified and exalted Messiah. If they were to reconcile truly, the Corinthians would have to embrace the upside-down nature of the cross and see Paul’s ministry as a reflection of that glorious paradox.
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Paradox #2. Jesus’ Poverty is (or should have been!) the Source of the Corinthians’ Generosity
After his passionate appeal, Paul moves on to another hot-button topic in chapters 8–9. Namely, that of the Corinthians forgotten generosity. The Jewish-Christians back in Jerusalem had fallen onto hard times as a result of famine. Paul began to raise money from the new, mostly non-Jew churches he had started in hopes of providing the Jerusalem church relief, as well as unifying both Jewish and non-Jewish churches through their common bond in Jesus. Many of the churches were thrilled to give. Most notably, the churches in Macedonia were in extreme poverty, but they especially “overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Cor 8:2). But amidst all of the conflict with Paul, the Corinthians forgot to save up for the gift. Epic fail.
This failure wasn’t just about their bank accounts or spending habits. It was another sign that the Corinthians hadn’t been transformed by the gospel story, which is fundamentally a story of generosity. He writes, “For you know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, that even though he was rich, for your sake he became poor so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). This is a financial metaphor that explains how Jesus gave up his glorious honor (i.e., his “wealth”) to die like a poor slave so that other people, impoverished through sin and death, could become wealthy through the riches of God’s grace. It’s another paradox of the cruciform life—Jesus became poor so that we might become “rich.” And our spiritual riches should necessarily overflow into a wealth of generous justice on behalf of others. To be a Christian is to allow this gospel story to sink so deeply into your heart and mind that it transforms you into a person who is characterized by radical generosity and quickness to share your life and resources to help others.
Paradox #3. Paul’s Weakness is a Sign of Jesus’ Strength
In chapters 10–12 Paul pivots to the main source of his conflict with the Corinthians, that group of impressive leaders (sarcastically called the “super-apostles”) that came to Corinth badmouthing Paul and convincing the church that he was a poor, unsuccessful leader. They were trying to inflate their ministries by discrediting his. Paul says if they want to compare credentials then bring it on! Were they Jewish Bible experts? Did they have superior knowledge of Jesus? Well, guess what? So did he. He was a Pharisee and had the whole Bible memorized. Moreover, he had spent time with the risen Jesus and had visions of Jesus’ heavenly throne room. And while the “super-apostles” charged a lot of cash for their “super–wisdom,” Paul gave up his comforts and convenience so that he could share the gospel with the Corinthians free of charge.
Despite his obvious advantages over these men, Paul refuses to brag about his accomplishments, credentials, or success because that’s not what the Christian life is about. Instead, he will brag about how weak and flawed he is because it’s in those inadequacies that he discovers the mercy and power of Jesus. His weaknesses were a sign of Jesus’ strength for Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness. This is another paradox of the cross. The world boasts of wealth and power, but those who have encountered the cross of Christ know that their only boast is in their weakness, for it’s there that the grace of Jesus is made strong.
Most societies value success, education, wealth, beauty, and fame. God values humility and weakness and sacrificial service.
Paul concludes with a series of sober warnings to the Corinthians in chapter 13. Their contempt for Paul’s life and ministry and their love for the slick, well-educated “super-apostles” reveals that they don’t grasp who Jesus is on a fundamental level. The fact that they’re not living like transformed followers of Jesus should be cause for pause. Are they truly in the faith? One last time Paul invites them to examine their lives, to humble themselves before the grace and love of Jesus, and conform themselves to Jesus’ cruciform way of life, lest they fail to meet the test on that final day.
The book ends on a pretty heavy note with a message for all of us. Paul writes, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test” (2 Cor 13:5). Though this epistle was occasioned by very specific events in the life and ministry of Paul and his relationship with the Corinthians, Paul’s challenge remains today—Are we truly living in line with the core values of the cross?
Most societies value success, education, wealth, beauty, and fame. This seems especially true in the celebrity-crazed culture that is so entrenched in western societies… and in our own hearts and churches. But God values humility and weakness and sacrificial service, all of which were made known most clearly through the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So as Jesus-followers we’re called to reject the world’s value system and conform our lives to the great paradox of the cross, mimicking Jesus’ example and allowing his “cruciform” way of life to become our own, which is only possible through the power and presence of his Spirit who lives in us.
Whitney Woollard is a writer, speaker, and Bible teacher in Portland, OR. She holds her M.A. in biblical and theological studies from Western Seminary and loves sharing her passion for the Bible with others. You can check out her work at her website, whitneywoollard.com