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Paul Actually Wrote Four Letters to the Corinthians

Today’s post is adapted from Scott Hafemann’s commentary on 2 Corinthians in the NIV Application Commentary and his introductory lecture from the 2 Corinthians video study on MasterLectures.

The letter we call “2 Corinthians” is actually at least the fourth letter Paul wrote to his church in Corinth, together with the churches in the surrounding region of Achaia. Here are all four:

  1. the previous letter mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9 (“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people…”)
  2. canonical 1 Corinthians itself,
  3. the tearful, severe letter referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:3–4 (“I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears…”), and
  4. canonical 2 Corinthians.

These letters reflect that Paul had stayed in touch with his churches in and around Corinth and knew well their history, character, and problems. After his initial stay in Corinth for a year and a half, during which he founded the church, Paul continued on as their “father” in the faith from afar.

The occasion behind First Corinthians in our Bibles

First Corinthians is a product of this pastoral concern. Written in the spring of A.D. 54 or 55, approximately three years after Paul’s founding visit, it provides the most detailed example of the way in which Paul applied his theological convictions to the practical problems of the church (for Paul, practice and profession are inextricably linked!).

At the time he wrote 1 Corinthians, Paul intended to return to Corinth after his stay in Ephesus and after passing through Macedonia, to proceed from Corinth to Jerusalem with the collection (cf. 1 Cor. 16:5–9). In the meantime, he sent Timothy to visit the Corinthians on his behalf (16:10–11; cf. Acts 19:22). Upon his arrival, Timothy found that the problems in Corinth had escalated, most probably a result of the recent appearance of Paul’s opponents from outside the city. In response, Paul decided to visit Corinth immediately himself in order to shore up the church, after which he would go on to Macedonia and then return for a second visit en route to Jerusalem (the double “benefit” of 2 Cor. 1:15–16). At this point, Paul assumed that once in Corinth, his holy and sincere conduct toward the Corinthians would be vindicated (1:15a). Nothing could have been further from the truth.

When he arrived for what soon became a very “painful visit” (2:1), the church called into question Paul’s authority and gospel, while one of its leaders severely attacked Paul himself (cf. 2:1, 5–8; 7:8–13; 11:4). Indeed, the false teaching of Paul’s opponents had led a great number, if not most, of the Corinthians to accept another view of Jesus, a contrary spirit, and hence a different gospel altogether (cf. 11:4)! So, faced with this confrontation to his ministry, Paul left Corinth and returned to Ephesus in the midst of a largescale rebellion against his apostolic authority (1:23–2:5; 7:12), determined not to make another “painful visit” (2:1–2).

Paul’s leaving, however, was not the act of a weak coward, as the false apostles no doubt portrayed it (cf. 10:10–11; 11:20–21). Far from being scared by his opponents, Paul suffered humiliation without retaliating, in order to extend mercy to the Corinthians (1:23–24).

Once in Ephesus, and still distraught over the plight of his spiritual children, Paul sent Titus back to Corinth with a tearful and severe letter—the third letter he wrote to the church in Corinth—in which he warned the Corinthians of God’s judgment and called them to repent (2:3–4; 7:8–16).

The occasion behind Second Corinthians in our Bibles

After Titus left for Corinth, Paul himself went on to Troas to pursue his own ministry and to wait for Titus to return with news about the church. But when Titus delayed in returning, Paul feared both for Titus’s safety and for the condition of the Corinthians. Filled with anxiety, Paul left the open door he had in Troas and went on to Macedonia to find Titus (2 Cor. 2:12–13). There he met Titus and received the joyful news that God had used his letter written “with many tears” (2:4) to bring about the repentance of the majority of the church (2:5–11; 7:5–16). Unfortunately, Paul also heard that, under the continuing influence of his opponents, there was still a rebellious minority who continued to reject Paul’s authority. In response, Paul wrote “2 Corinthians” from Macedonia, a year or so after the writing of 1 Corinthians (ca. A.D. 55/56), and began to make final plans to return to Corinth for his “third visit” (2 Cor. 12:14; 13:1).

As a result, whereas in 1 Corinthians we see Paul the pastor, striving to fill in the cracks in the Corinthians’ way of life, in 2 Corinthians we encounter Paul the apologist, fighting for the legitimacy of his own apostolic ministry. His goal in doing so, because of his confidence in the power of the Spirit in those in whom Christ dwells (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; 5:17; 13:1–5), is to give the rebellious one more chance to repent, thereby showing that they are in fact a new creation (5:16–6:2). Thus, like Paul’s earlier tearful letter, 2 Corinthians aims, yet again, at the repentance of those who have accepted a different gospel in order to spare them God’s judgment (cf. 2:9; 10:6; 12:19; 13:1–10). At the same time, Paul’s apology provides an opportunity for those who have already repented to demonstrate the genuine nature of their faith (6:14–7:4). Specifically, he calls the repentant to separate from the unbelievers in their midst and to participate in the collection for Jerusalem (6:14–7:4; 8:1–9:15).

This dual purpose explains the mixed nature of 2 Corinthians. In it, Paul strengthens the repentant majority, while at the same time seeking to win back the resistant minority. Moreover, behind the Corinthians stand Paul’s opponents, whom he addresses indirectly throughout his letter as the immediate source of the current problem. His goal in writing is to prepare for his upcoming visit to the Corinthians, at which time he will punish those who persist in rejecting him and his gospel (6:1; 10:6–8; 13:1–10). This is their last chance to repent, just as Paul’s letter also provides a concrete opportunity for those who have already repented to demonstrate their faith.

As part of the ongoing history of the Corinthian church’s stormy relationship with Paul, her apostle, 2 Corinthians is anything but an abstract treatise written into a vacuum. Neither is it merely an expression of “practical theology” aimed at the “bottom line.” It is simply impossible to divorce Paul the theologian from Paul the missionary pastor. But neither is it adequate to speak of Paul as a theologian and a missionary, as if Paul’s theological reflection and pastoral ministry operated out of two separate spheres. As we will see throughout this letter, his apostolic ministry and his reflections on the history of redemption form an inseparable unity. As Peter O’Brien has observed:

The notion that Paul was both a missionary and a theologian has gained ground among biblical scholars. . . . Yet Paul’s theology and mission do not simply relate to each other as “theory” to “practice.” It is not as though his mission is the practical outworking of his theology. Rather, his mission is “integrally related to his identity and thought,” and his theology is a missionary theology.

Paul was a theologically driven missionary and a missiologically driven theologian. His theology was missiological and his missionary endeavors were theological.

Learn more in Scott J. Hafemann’s introductory lecture to 2 Corinthians on MasterLectures.

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