A few chapters into this book I was frustrated at not being able to make much sense of it. Then I learned from my paper pastors it is indeed hard to understand, owing to the apostle’s emotional state as he wrote it. 2 Corinthians is a highly personal letter in which Paul opens himself up as he defends himself against the “super-apostles” who had worked their way into the Corinthian church and were discrediting him and his ministry.
A rough outline is this: chapters 1-7: Paul defends himself; chapter 8-9: Paul urges generosity; chapter 10-13: Paul defends himself.
Paul addresses his letter to “the church of God in Corinth”. They may be messed up, but that doesn’t change whose they are.
In 1:3-11, he explains how he lives with suffering, yet experiencing God’s comfort. Having received this comfort, he is then able to comfort others.
2:5-11 deal with an unknown person in the Corinthian congregation. 2:14-17 gives the consequences of the gospel: some people are attracted by its aroma; others are repulsed by it.
In 2:17, Paul draws one of many distinctions between him and the interlopers: that they preach for profit. Further, unlike them, Paul doesn’t need letters of recommendation: the very existence of the Corinthian church is proof enough. Paul also asserts that he was sent by God, who gave him the ability to carry out the task.
Neither does he lose heart despite discouraging responses to the gospel message and despite his own circumstances. He continues to preach Christ, confident that God will make His light shine in darkness. He endures his sufferings in the knowledge that they will pass away, and more than that, that the Christian’s troubles achieve an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (4: 17). He looks forward to our heavenly dwelling and being with the Lord, even as he anticipates judgment.
Why does Paul try to persuade men regarding the gospel? Because he fears God, and is answerable to Him (5:10-11); because Christ’s love compels him (5:14); because the gospel has at its core a message of reconciliation (5:18-21).
Paul talks of his hardships, which his original readers would have seen as weakness (“Surely God can’t be with him if he’s going through all that!”).
This section is bracketed by two appeals to the Corinthians to open their hearts to their apostle (6:13 and 7:2). In rejecting Paul, they’d rejected Christ as well.
In 6:14-7:1, Paul advocates selective separation (possibly in reference to the false teachers?)
Godly sorrow goes beyond remorse to repentance and salvation and leaves no regrets (7:9-10). Worldly sorrow is when you’re sad that you’ve been caught; it never turns to God for mercy. The Corinthians had the former, and Paul was thankful.
Paul urges the Corinthians to be generous. The Greek word for “grace” appears 10 times in these chapters. Anyone who has received God’s gift of grace will be a generous and giving person. Giving is a mark of grace, exemplified by Christ Himself. As we give, we express our fellowship with other believers.
God gives an abundance so that we can be generous on every occasion (9:11). Our generous, cheerful giving results in thanksgiving to God.
10:3-6: We don’t use worldly weapons to further God’s kingdom. Today, these may be violence, political power, etc. 10:7-18: Some said that Paul in person was unimpressive (10:1, 10). He assures them of his integrity, adding that he knows his limits and that he boasts only in the Lord.
The false apostles were teaching another gospel (11:4). As a result, their end will be unenviable (11:15). According to his detractors, he wasn’t wise enough to avoid trouble. Paul therefore boasts in those things that show his weakness (11:21-27). He boldly tells of the ignominious start of his apostolic ministry: being lowered in a basket like agricultural produce in order to escape arrest (11:33).
He goes on boasting, but in the third person (12:1-6). He boasts about his “thorn in the flesh” that displays Christ’s power in him.
He would be returning to Corinth, and wouldn’t spare any of those who’d been previously warned about their sin (13:1-2). He urges them to examine themselves in the meantime. Consider the evidence and make sure your faith is sincere.
In his closing salutation in 13:11-14, Paul reminds his readers of their responsibilities (13:11a) and of their resources (13:11b, 14). The same responsibilities and resources are ours today, centuries later.
Sources: Mark Dever, Brian Elfick, Liam Goligher, Vaughan Roberts.