2 Corinthians 1:1-2

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. [1]

The city of Corinth in Paul’s day looked and felt much like the bustling cities of the American West just before the turn of the 20th century – cities like Chicago, Denver, or San Francisco. You might recall from our study of first Corinthians, the original city of Corinth had been destroyed in 146 B.C. by the Romans. It remained uninhabited for 100 years, until 44 B.C. when Julius Caesar rebuilt it as the regional capital of the region of Achaia. When Paul first visited Corinth in A.D. 50, the city was about 80 years old and had a population of some 100,000 souls.


By Paul’s day, Corinth had become the third most important city of the Roman Empire, behind Alexandria and the city of Rome. You might recall that Corinth was situated on the isthmus of Greece. It was often called “the master of harbors,” “the crossroads of Greece,” and “a passage for all mankind.” Corinth embodied an economic miracle and was the envy of the lesser cities of the Empire. Its population was largely immigrant and opportunist, people seeking a better life. [2]

Like many of America’s cities during the age of western expansion, Corinth was an answer to Rome’s overpopulation. Former slaves, known as “freedmen,” became Corinth’s largest demographic. It was also a destination for former Roman soldiers seeking a better life. The city attracted a wide amount of ethnic diversity. Doctor Luke tells us in Acts 18 that there was a substantial Jewish community who had the freedom of self-governance (vv. 8, 17).

Smack dab in the middle of the 1st century, Corinth was a young Roman city with shallow roots. Traditions were few, and society was relatively open. There was no city in the Roman Empire more open to social and economic advancement. Since there was no landed aristocracy in Corinth, wealth was the sole factor for gaining respect and social power. One scholar writes:

Corinth was a free-wheeling “boom town,” filled with materialism, pride, and the self-confidence that comes with having made it in a new place and with a new social identity. The “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-boot-straps” mentality that would become so characteristic of the American frontier filled the air.[3]

Like the modern West, Corinth was a sports and entertainment culture. Julius Caesar reinstated the Isthmian games, held every two years, and considered second only to the Olympics in athletic talent and popularity. Corinth’s theater could accommodate 18,000 people. It had a concert hall with a 3000-person capacity. commerce, tourism, sex, and religious pluralism we’re all part of new Corinth’s culture. While the emperor Nero never visited Athens or Sparta, he spent considerable time in Corinth. Had Paul written this letter in our day, he could easily have entitled it “Second San Antonians.”

The self-made ethos of Corinth, combined with rugged individualism, nouveau riche worship of health and wealth, and religious pluralism were considerable challenges to the apostle Paul’s style, method, and message in presenting the gospel. It didn’t take long after Paul left for the Corinthian believers to import their pagan culture into their gospel community, making their relationship to Paul a stormy one.

He had a good enough beginning when he first arrived in A.D. 50. With the help of Aquila and Priscilla and his disciples Timothy and Silas, he established the church in about 18 months (Acts 18:1-17). Despite some opposition from the local Jewish community, Paul resolutely preached the gospel, leaving behind a very diverse and vibrant church. During the three years after his initial visit, he went on to Ephesus, then to Jerusalem, then back to Ephesus where he wrote First Corinthians.

At that time, he planned to visit Corinth again to gather the collection for the poor in the Jerusalem congregation. Because of the problems we examined in First Corinthians, Paul sent Timothy to visit them (1 Cor. 16:1-11). By the time Timothy arrived, the situation in Corinth had grown even worse. Paul’s old enemies, the Judaizing anti-missionaries from the Jerusalem congregation (for whom Paul was still gathering donations!) had infiltrated the Church of Corinth, fomenting disdain for Paul and warping the gospel message even more than the Corinthians had originally done on their own.

The dire circumstances in Corinth forced Paul to pay them a visit much earlier than he had planned. He described it in this letter as an “painful visit” (2:1). If Paul was really an apostle, why did he have so much suffering in his life? Why was his ministry so lackluster compared with that of other preachers? If God was really directing his plans, why did he change his travel itinerary? If he really was an apostle, why didn’t he accept money like all the other traveling speakers? Why didn’t he come with letters of recommendation like all the other speakers? Such questions led many of his Corinthian converts to reject him and his preaching for “a different gospel” (11:4).

The apostle Paul left Corinth wounded and broken. He wrote in 2:1, “I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you.” Anxious and stunned, Paul returned to Ephesus, from which he wrote them another “severe” emotional letter that Titus would carry to them (2:5). “For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2:4).

By the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, the Corinthian church read Paul’s painful letter and the majority of them repented. He writes in this letter: “For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.

Some members of the congregation, however, still rejected Paul’s authority. So, in A.D. 55, he wrote this letter we call Second Corinthians and began making plans to return for a third visit (12:14; 13:1). Paul Barnett, in his commentary, sums up the letter:

Second Corinthians… is a window into Paul’s soul and expresses his feelings …as he prepares to make his final visit to them. Thus, …(i) he answers their criticisms of his spiritual integrity, (ii) he defends his ministry in the new covenant against those who question his “sufficiency,” (iii) he admonishes them to separate themselves from Corinthian temple worship, (iv) he rejoices in their acceptance of his discipline through the “Severe Letter,” (v) he exhorts them to complete the collection, and (vi) he urges them to correct false attitudes to him as they prepare for his third visit. Viewed in this way, the letter is written against the background of an unsuccessful second visit in the light of new difficulties that have now arisen (especially the arrival of the Jewish Christian “false apostles”) with the intent to make the Corinthians ready for Paul’s last visit, when he and they can be reconciled before he finally leaves the Aegean region.[4]

Second Corinthians is the most emotional of all Pauline writings. “Nowhere is Paul’s heart so torn and exposed as in this letter. Second Corinthians bears a fierce tone of injured love, of paradoxically wounded, relentless affection. Toward the letter’s end Paul will say, ‘And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?’ (11:28, 29).”[5]

If you have ever invested your time getting to know someone and seeing them accept the gospel only to watch helplessly as others lead that one astray, then this letter is for you. This epistle is about the nature of the gospel and authentic ministry. It is about what a missional heart looks like. If you care about the gospel message and the souls who receive it, or need to receive it, this is a fascinating work. For those who don’t care, who don’t have a heart for mission, this letter is about what you ought to be about.

GREETING (1:1-2)

In his salutation, there is a distinct emphasis on the words, apostle, and church. He writes, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia….” It’s easy to miss the high claims that the apostle makes about his authority. He disregarded the customary thanksgiving of a traditional greeting and got right to the heart of the controversy in Corinth. He declared he was “an apostle of Christ Jesus,” emphasizing his call had come directly from the risen Christ on the Damascus Road.

Also, he explicitly declares that he was “an apostle of Christ Jesus, rather than the more customary “of Jesus Christ.” His emphasis is on Messiah Jesus, THE unique Apostle sent from Heaven in whom all the promises of the Old Testament found their fulfillment. As Messiah, the chosen one, he was also “Jesus,” meaning “Jehovah is salvation.” Only the risen and ascended Christ Jesus could live the perfect law keeping life and offer it to us as our righteousness. Only Christ Jesus could die the eternal death our sins deserve and impute that payment to his people. Only the person and work of Christ Jesus, apart from any works of the law, can save people from their sins.

Paul bore the apostleship of the Apostle-Messiah who personally commissioned him and his message. He was an apostle “by the will of God,” the same will that sent Jesus is the same will that Christ displays in sending Paul to represent him. To reject the authority of an apostle of “Messiah Jesus by the will of God” is to reject the authority of God himself. The anti-missionaries from Jerusalem were leading the Corinthian congregation into a terrifyingly dangerous situation.

Not only did the apostle Paul have a high position, but the church also had an exalted position in Christ. Paul addresses them as “the Church of God that is at Corinth, with all the Saints who were in the whole of Achaia” (v. 1b). “Today the word ‘church’ carries many meanings—a building for religious worship, a congregation, a denomination, worldwide Christianity, the Christian faith—to mention only a few. But in Paul’s day—as used by Luke in an everyday sense in Acts 19—it bore the meaning of ‘an assembly,’ whether an occasional assembly (such as the ‘assembly’ of Ephesians in the city theater—Acts 19:32, 41) or an official assembly…. It is presumed that these Corinthian readers would have understood ‘church’ as meaning the plenary assembly of believers—as opposed to the constituent house meetings—in Corinth (cf. 1 Cor 11:18–22; 14:23).”[6]

Literally rendered, Paul’s original words are “the assembly of God, which has its being in Corinth.” Since, as Paul told the Thessalonians, their church was “in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1), we see the church is an eschatological reality that, though now hidden “in God,” will be revealed at Christ’s return (2 Thess. 2:1; Col 3:3). The local church is the anticipatory manifestation in history of the gathered, end-time people of God (Matt 16:18; Heb 12:22).[7] At the same time, by using the Old Testament language of “assembly,” Paul links them to the historical people of God who gathered to hear his Word from leaders like Moses.

Paul also calls them “saints.” But these saints had sinned greatly against Paul and, more importantly, against God. They were certainly not saints by virtue of their behavior, but only because they were in Christ, the Holy One of God. Christ alone was their sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). They treated Paul with utter contempt, yet he calls them both “saints” and “the assembly of God”! As in First Corinthians, these exalted and fundamental truths about this rebellious grace community formed the ground for Paul’s persistent appeals to be reconciled to his gospel. Because Christ Jesus will not let Paul go, Paul cannot let this church veer away from its gospel foundations.

It seems likely that there were a series of splinter groups with points of difference as great if not greater than points of agreement. One group was interested in the “Judaizing” message of the “false apostles” (11:4), while another was involved in sexual immorality (12:21) and probably in worship in the local demonic cults (6:14–7:1). Nonetheless, Paul addresses them solemnly the ekklēsia of God to encourage them to become what God graciously saw them to be. Paul may have planted it, but Corinth was not his church. It was God’s church alone. Their mutual God-ordained function was to be an assembly of God’s people gathered in God’s presence to hear and obey God’s word.

Our modern culture maybe different from the 1st century Greco-Roman world, but our identity as “The Church of God” gives the continuity and relevance for Paul’s words. We share the same father and the same Lord. We are brothers and sisters “with all the Saints who were in the whole of Achaia.” This letter is for us! From his introduction to his conclusion, Paul’s passionate letter includes two elevated terms: the apostle himself and the church. The “assembly of God” must listen to the “apostle of Messiah Jesus by the will of God.

His deliberate application of “saints” to include Gentiles may be pointed, given the Judaizing thrust in Corinth at that time. In Paul’s mind the churches of God were the inheritors of Israel’s sacred vocation as God’s “holy ones.” Paul’s first letter repeatedly told the Corinthians about the holiness they enjoyed in God’s sight, which they were to display in practical living (1 Cor 1:2, 30; 3:17; 6:11–12; 7:14). If the phrase “the church of God” told them of the unity they were expected to express, that they were deemed by God to be “saints” or “holy ones” was his call to live distinctively in Corinth as God’s covenant people, separated from evil and dedicated to him (6:14–7:1; 12:21; 13:5–6).[8]

The apostle Paul’s greeting concludes with his prayer-wish for the Corinthian assembly: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” We miss a cultural word play at work in this prayer-wish. “It is impossible for us today to hear the word play here — Paul always replaced the Greek word for ‘Hello’ (charein) with the Christian term for ‘grace’ (charis). So, when Paul’s readers expected ‘Hello,’ Paul wished them ‘Grace.’[9] God’s shalom always flows from his gracious loving favor.

Paul’s wish has a sense of poignancy and pain about it. Only those who accept Paul’s greeting as an expression of his genuine apostolic authority will receive what “God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ” desire for them.


“The letter that ensues for the next 257 verses is passionate and uneven, and sometimes explosive. The most compelling defense of Paul’s apostolate and ministry in all his letters extends from the middle of Chapter 2 and continues to the beginning of Chapter 7 (2:12 – 7:1). Then chapters 7 — 9 lay out the implications for the repentant Corinthians, while chapters 10 -13 describe the implications for the unrepentant.”[10]

The letter contains some of the most magnificent expressions of spiritual truths in all biblical literature. Here are a few samples to whet your appetites:

15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?[11]

17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [12]

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [13]

28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? [14]

The melodic theme running through this letter is the nature of ministry under the new covenant of Christ. A prominent motif that emerges throughout this letter is that weakness is the source of strength and suffering is the vehicle for God’s power and glory. In 4:7-12, Paul describes his gospel ministry this way:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. [15]

In 6:3-10, Paul again describes his ministry with the motifs of suffering and weakness:

We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. [16]

The motifs of suffering and weakness resurface in 11:23-30 and in 12:9-10. This theology was considered ridiculous in Corinth with its worship of self-made wealth and power and social hierarchy. Only regenerated hearts can understand such a concept and embrace it. It is no different for us today. Most of the time, we prefer a theology of victory (where we get to define what “victory” means), rather than the very upside-down theology of the cross.

As in Paul’s day, some who claim to be a part of Christ’s congregation today find the theology of the cross to be just as unbelievable. They preach a gospel of health and wealth and success. There is no room for Paul, no place for the new covenant, and no place for the surpassing power of Christ. Hear Paul’s heart of mission!

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [17]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 1:1–2.

[2] Hughes, R. Kent. 2 Corinthians. Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[3] Scott J. Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, The NIVApplication Commentary (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 23.

[4] Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 17.

[5] Hughes. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.

[6] Barnett, 59–60.

[7] Id., 60.

[8] Id., 61.

[9] Hughes, Kindle Edition.

[10] Id.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 2:15–16.

[12] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 4:17–18.

[13] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 5:17.

[14] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 11:28–29.

[15] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 4:7–12.

[16] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 6:3–10.

[17] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 12:9–10.