Chapter 4: The Second Letter to the Corinthians
First Corinthians was a failure. It has been so useful and popular in every other age of Christian history that it is hard to believe that it did not accomplish the main purpose for which it was written.
The factions in the church at Corinth, so far from sinking their differences and blending harmoniously into a unified church life, shifted just enough to unite all who for any reason objected to Paul, and then faced him and each other more rancorously than ever. His letters, they told one another, might put things strongly, but after all he was, when you actually met him, a man of ineffectual speech and insignificant presence. The old doubt of his right to call himself an apostle still prevailed at Corinth. What right had he to set up his authority against that of Peter and the apostles at Jerusalem, who had been personal followers of Jesus in Galilee? If he were indeed the apostle he claimed to be, he would have expected the Corinthians to give him financial support during his stay among them. His failure to do this suggested that he was none too sure of his ground. While a few remained loyal to Paul, the majority of the Corinthians yielded to these views.
News of this state of things was not long in traveling across the Aegean and reaching Paul, and stirred him profoundly. Perhaps he went so far as to visit Corinth and face his accusers in person. But if he did so, he was not successful in meeting their doubts of him and restoring their confidence, and he must have returned to his work at Ephesus in the deepest discouragement. Yet he was in no mood to give up in defeat or to rest under the slanders of his enemies, and he made one final effort in a letter to regain his lost leadership at Corinth. This letter is what we know as the last four chapters of Second Corinthians.
The chief characteristics of Paul’s letter is its boldness. So far from apologizing for himself, he boasts and glories in his authority, his endowments, and his achievements. In indignant resentment at their persistent misconstruing of his motives he fairly overwhelms them with a torrent of burning words. His authority, he declares; is quite equal to any demands they can put upon it; as the recognized apostle to the Gentiles he can without stretching his authority exercise it over them; and disobedience to it will bring vengeance when matters are settled up between them. Conscious that he is quite the equal of those "superfine apostles," as he ironically calls them, whom the Corinthians quote against him, he warns the latter against the teaching of such apostolic emissaries. His policy of self-support in Corinth was designed to save him from any suspicion of self-interest and to make the disinterestedness of his work perfectly unmistakable. The false apostles whom they are now following would find still more fault with him had he let the Corinthian church pay his expenses.
Foolish as boasting is, he will for once outboast his opponents. In purity of Jewish descent he is fully their equal, and in point of services, sufferings, and responsibilities as a missionary of Christ he is easily their superior. More than this, in the matter of those ecstatic spiritual experiences, visions and revelations, which the early church considered the very highest credentials, he can boast, though it is not well to do so, of extraordinary ecstasies that he has experienced.
For all this foolish boasting they are responsible. They have forced him to it by their ingratitude. He has shown himself an apostle over and over again at Corinth, but they have not been satisfied with that. Now he is coming to them again, but not to live at their expense. He prefers to spend and to be spent for them; he and his messengers have asked nothing for themselves. He writes all this not for his own sake but for theirs. They must put aside their feuds and factions if they are to remain in Christ. Paul is coming again to Corinth, and this time he will not spare offenders against the peace of the church, but will exert the authority they have denied.
Paul dispatched this letter to Corinth by the hand of Titus. While waiting for news of its effect he busied himself with concluding his work at Ephesus. Days came and went, and it was time for Titus to return, but there was no news of him. Paul’s thought went back again and again to the situation and the letter he had written in such distress. Had it been a mistake? He began to think so, and was sorry he had written it. If it did not win the Corinthians, matters would not be the same as before; they would be much worse. If the breach was not healed by the letter, it would be widened. Paul was still full of these anxious thoughts when the time came to leave Ephesus. He had planned to go next to Troas, and now expected Titus to meet him there, but to his great disappointment Titus did not appear. Conditions were favorable for undertaking missionary work in Troas, but Paul’s anxiety would not let him stay, and he crossed the Aegean to Macedonia, still hoping to find Titus and learn the result of his mission to Corinth. There at length they met, and to his immense relief Paul learned of his messenger’s success. The Corinthians were convinced. Titus and the letter together had shown them their blunder. They realized that Paul was the apostle he claimed to be, and that his course toward them had been upright and honorable. In a powerful revulsion of feeling they were now directing their wrath against those who had led them to distrust and oppose Paul, and especially against one man who had been the leader of the opposition to him. They were eager to see Paul again in Corinth, to assure him of their renewed confidence and affection, and were even a little piqued that he had not already come.
Paul’s relief and satisfaction found expression in another letter, the fourth and last of which we know that he wrote to Corinth. It constitutes the first nine chapters of Second Corinthians. He wishes to tell the Corinthians, now that they are ready to hear it, how much the controversy has cost him, and how great his relief is at the reconciliation. He acknowledges the extraordinary comfort which Titus news has given him, coming as it has after the crushing anxiety of those last days at Ephesus. He is satisfied with their new attitude, only he does not wish them to misunderstand his continued absence. He had intended to visit Corinth on his way to Macedonia, but their relations were then too painful for a personal meeting and he had put it off. When he leaves Macedonia, however, it will be to come to Corinth. He refers in a touching way to the anguish and sorrow in which he wrote his last letter to them, and to his purpose in writing it. His chief opponent whom they are now so loud in condemning must not be too harshly dealt with. Paul is ready to join them in forgiving him.
Paul describes his anxious search for Titus and the relief he felt when at last he met him and heard his good news. He no longer needs to defend himself to the Corinthians, but he does set forth again in a conciliatory tone, his ideals and methods in his ministry. In every part of this letter Paul shows that warm affection for the Corinthians which made his difference with them so painful to him.
Paul had been engaged for some time in organizing among his churches in Asia Minor and Greece the collection of money to be sent back to the Jerusalem Christians as a conciliatory token that the Greek churches felt indebted to them for the gospel. Such a gift Paul evidently hoped might help to reconcile the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem to the rapidly growing Greek wing of the church. In preparation for this the Macedonians have now set a noble example of liberality, and Paul seeks to stimulate them further by his report that the district to which Corinth belongs has had its money ready for a year past. He wishes the Corinthians to show the Macedonians that he has not been mistaken.
It is natural to suppose that this painful chapter in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians was not put in circulation at once, probably not at all while the men who were involved in it still lived. The Corinthians could hardly have wished to publish the evidence of their own even temporary disloyalty to Paul, and visitors from other churches probably had little desire to take home copies of a correspondence so hotly personal. But when toward the end of the first century the letters of Paul came to be collected, the bitterness of the old misunderstanding had been forgotten, and anything that survived from Paul’s hand was thought worth including in the collection. So these last letters to Corinth were given forth together, but with the letter of reconciliation first, to take the bitterness off and commend the writing to the reader by the fine note of comfort with which it begins. Second Corinthians has never rivaled First Corinthians in usefulness and influence, but no letter of Paul throws more light upon his character and motives. It is in these last letters to Corinth that we come nearest to Paul’s autobiography.