According to Acts 18 Paul first visited Corinth around 50AD. After writing our 1 Corinthians Paul paid a second visit, around 56AD, which in 2:1 he describes as ‘painful’. So what caused this pain? We get some clues from the second (or rather third) letter. He begins as usual with praise, but in a somewhat backhanded way he thanks God for his compassion and care during painful times.
It appears that people in Corinth are questioning Paul’s authority because they have doubts about his apostleship. Evidently some people had begun teaching that only those who had physically been chosen by Jesus to walk and talk with him for the three years of his earthly ministry were the real deal. Paul was an upstart, and as such who did he think he was to tell them off about the ways they were living their church life? In addition he appears to have changed his plans and not visited them when they were expecting a visit, which served to prove that he was fickle and unreliable. So a great theme in 2 Corinthians has to do with Paul defending his credentials as an apostle. He emphasises his sufferings for the gospel (1:8ff, 6:3-10), his lack of financial gain from his ministry (2:17), and the fruit of his ministry in changed lives and planted churches (3:1-6).
He then attempts to lift their eyes off such pointless arguments and instead focus on the glorious truth of the gospel and the hope of resurrection life. Of course there will be trivial arguments while we are still here on earth, but we need to focus on a bigger reality. In 6:3-10 Paul recounts the number of ways in which he has suffered for the sake of Christ, but has remained resilient through it all.
In spite of this conflict, though, Paul can rejoice that his words have not fallen on completely deaf ears. The ‘sorrowful’ letter which he had written to them (7:8) did seem to make a difference, even though it upset them at the time. In a church where we don’t really like to do conflict Paul reminds us that hard truths can lead to repentance.
Paul then becomes more practical, and deals with generosity in giving, although he is soon back on his self-defence, recounting again the cost of his ministry and his equal status with ‘proper’ apostles. The book ends with a section warning them that he will continue to be hard on them if they don’t listen to his teaching, but that this harsh discipline is to build them up, not tear them down.
2 Corinthians is not an easy or comfortable book, but it reminds us of what is at stake, and raises questions about the place of godly discipline and hard words in God’s church today. Maybe we’re all just a bit too nice, and the mission of the church is weakened as a result. And maybe the lack of suffering for the gospel, at least in the comfy Western church, shows that we might not be trying hard enough to stand out from the culture around us. Discuss!