Date and Origin After writing both the “previous letter” (1 Cor 5:9) and 1 Corinthians from Ephesus in AD 55, Paul continued to work there. Sometime during the next year a crisis arose in Corinth. Paul made a quick trip across the Aegean Sea, but he could not resolve the crisis, and due to the personal opposition of a leader in the church (likely an interloper bearing letters of recommendation from Jerusalem), he had to withdraw (2 Cor 2:1, 5). Returning to Ephesus from this “painful visit,” Paul dispatched Titus with a blistering “letter of tears,” his third letter to that church (2 Cor 2:4; 7:8, 12), which led to the excommunication of the leader and the repentance of the church. This letter has been lost. Meanwhile a situation erupted in Ephesus during which death (probably execution) seemed so certain that Paul despaired of life (see Acts 19:23–41; cf. Rom 16:4; 2 Cor 1:8–9). Paul was not killed, but his escape seemed miraculous.
Leaving Ephesus in early AD 56, Paul traveled north to Troas seeking Titus and news of Corinth. Unable to endure without news, he abandoned a promising mission in Troas and sailed to Philippi. There he met Titus, who explained the change of heart in Corinth. Second Corinthians 1–9 responds to this situation, with chapters 8–9 preparing the Corinthians for an upcoming visit. Later Paul received further news from Corinth that renewed opposition to him was present. In response he penned the self-defense found in 2 Corinthians 10–13. Paul followed up the letter with a visit later in the year (Acts 20:2–3). We do not know the response to 2 Corinthians or the outcome of his final visit, but later the troubled history of the Corinthian church continued, with another Christian leader needing to write a letter at the end of the century (Epistle of Clement).
Background The Corinthian house churches always had great diversity. While those who liked Apollos undoubtedly despised Paul’s crude style, others who preferred Peter likely appealed beyond Paul to the more genuine “original” apostles in Jerusalem with their Jewish customs (1 Cor 1). Traveling teachers with letters of commendation from these apostles easily drew a following when they came to Corinth and undermined Paul’s authority and even his character. Furthermore, because of this outside influence, the collection for the poor in Jerusalem that Paul had initiated (16:1–4) was left in abeyance, both because it was connected to Paul and because the teachers themselves were taking money from the church. Paul writes to reaffirm his love and to repair the damage caused by the interloper.
Purpose and Teaching In the first section of the letter, Paul has two main purposes. The first is to cement his restored relationship with Corinth, explaining situations, forgiving those who opposed him, and reflecting on the nature of ministry. For Paul, ministry meant both intense suffering and comfort. Physical and emotional suffering came from the situations and people he worked with, but his knowledge of future reward and his experience of the power of God working in him brought profound joy and comfort. Due to his own recent brush with death, Paul also reflects on what happens at death. His expectation is to receive a resurrection body and be in the presence of Jesus at death.
The second purpose of this section is to get the collection for Jerusalem on track again. In this context he gives major teaching on giving and Christian economics: Christians are to follow Christ in giving freely; economic equality is the principle governing who gives to whom.
The second section of the letter is an impassioned self-defense, refuting the interloper’s claims to superiority. Neither oratory nor pedigree counts in Christian ministry, but only the call of God.
In both sections one observes Paul’s deep desire for the unity of the church, both unity within the local community and unity with leaders appointed by God, such as Paul.
Collection for Jerusalem, 8:1–9:15 In the context of restored relationships Paul turns to the sensitive topic of the collection for the church in Jerusalem, which had been impoverished through famines in Judea in the 40s. This collection was both an act of charity (cf. Acts 11:27–30; Gal 2:10) and a symbolic act of unity and fellowship between the Gentile and Jewish branches of the church.
The impoverished and suffering church in Macedonia (Philippi) had given eagerly. Therefore, Titus was coming back to help the Corinthians complete what they had begun the previous year (and probably dropped during the controversy with Paul, 2 Cor 8:1–7). The principles of the collection are (1) the Corinthians should follow the example of Jesus, who became poor for them; (2) they should give freely what they can without regretting that they cannot give more, for God values the eagerness to give expressed in action, not the net amount of the gift; and (3) there should be an economic equality among sections of the church, no one section being enriched at the expense of another (cf. Ex 16:18). This economic equality extends to the relationship between two churches a continent apart (2 Cor 8:8–15).
Titus and two absolutely trustworthy men appointed by the churches for this work will come to supervise the final gathering—Paul would have nothing to do with the money personally—for it is important that not only God but the world be able to see the honesty and integrity of the way the church handles money (8:16–24).
In this section Paul points out that he does not need to argue the reasons for this collection; they were aware of them when they began to gather money the year before. This letter is not an argument for the collection but an encouragement to finish the work, so that when Paul arrives with representatives of other churches carrying their contributions, the Corinthians would not be embarrassed by their relatively wealthy churches not being ready or able to give generously, despite Paul’s boasts about their previous eagerness. In saying this, Paul shows himself diplomatic and insightful in motivating human behavior; he makes the best assumptions possible about the present situation (9:1–5).
Paul would not want the Corinthians giving out of guilt, although he, like Jesus (Mt 6:19–20), pointed out that the only real value of money is in giving it to help others. Rather, he wanted them so convinced of God’s generosity and ability to provide that they give freely and joyfully. God wanted to enrich them so they could give more. The giving would result in thanksgiving to God by the recipients, who would also pray for those who gave the gift, thereby binding the church together. A closing reminder of the extent of God’s own giving finishes the section (2 Cor 9:6–15).
Because the Corinthians sent material aid, they reaped the intercessory prayers of the Jerusalem Christians who in praising God invoked His blessings on their Corinthian brethren. This spirit of selflessness is a consequence of God’s surpassing grace (cf. “grace” in 8:1, 9; 9:8) supremely expressed in the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ (8:9). This section on giving concludes (9:15) where it began (8:1), with the grace of God
Thanks in 9:15 is the word charis (“grace, favor”). Believers are to bestow “favor” on God because of His favors bestowed on them.
His greatest gift (dōrea) is eternal salvation, spiritual riches, through His rich Son who became poor (8:9).
(anekdiēgētō, “unable to recount or tell fully,” used only here in the NT). Those who have benefited from such a spiritual gift (stemming from God’s grace) should not hesitate to benefit others with material gifts
‘indescribable’ [AB, BAGD, ICC2, LN, Lns, NTC; NAB, NIV, NRSV], ‘beyond words’ [LN], ‘too wonderful for words’ [CEV, NLT], ‘unspeakable’ [HNTC; KJV], ‘beyond all telling’ [NJB], ‘beyond all praise’ [REB], ‘beyond measure’ [WBC], ‘priceless’ [TEV]. This adjective is translated ‘which cannot be described with words’ [LN], ‘which no words can describe’ [TNT].