2 Corinthians 2:1-4

2 Corinthians 2:1-4

Paul’s Painful Visit

Have you ever been so hurt by someone that the relationship is on the rocks, and it’s painful to carry on a relationship with that person? That’s Paul in 2 Corinthians. Paul’s affections, both of joy and sorrow, come through his pen most clearly and passionately in this letter. And as he begins chapter 2, Paul is resolved not to make another painful visit to them.

You may not be aware, but there’s a lot of chronological controversy centered around v. 1. Trying to chart Paul’s visits and letters to Corinth will quickly involve the student in some thick brambles (perhaps a modern-day thorn in the side). Questions emerge: how many letters did Paul write? Is 2 Corinthians one letter or more? (Some say that 2 Cor. 10-13 is a separate letter.) When was this painful visit that he mentions in v. 1? Were Paul’s travel plans in 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians followed? Which route did he take? It’s a lot for the mind to wrestle with and tease out with any certainty. And I won’t be solving all mysteries in this or future posts, but here’s the layout of Paul’s visits and letters to the Corinthians that I am operating under. These visits and letters took place over the course of 7 years (AD 50-57): [1]

  1. Paul’s first visit (50-52; cf. Acts 18:18)
  2. Paul’s first letter (52): now lost (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9)
  3. The Corinthians write a letter to Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1)
  4. Paul’s second letter (Spring, 54): First Corinthians, which Paul writes from Ephesus (cf. 1 Cor. 16:8)
  5. Paul’s second visit (Summer or Fall, 54): Painful visit (2 Cor. 2:1)
  6. Paul’s third letter (Spring, 55): tearful letter now lost (cf. 2 Cor. 2:3-4)
  7. Paul’s fourth letter (Fall, 56): 2 Corinthians, which Paul writes from Macedonia (cf. 2 Cor. 7:5-7)
  8. Paul’s third visit (Winter, 56-57): a three-month stay

That’s a lot to take in, I know. And there are other questions (which we won’t answer here) that ought to be asked as well, such as, “If Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians, and we have only two, do we have all of God’s word?” Ask your pastor. For now, I want to look at Paul’s pain and rightful expectation of joy.

Assuming the aforementioned layout, Paul must’ve made a visit to Corinth, which so affected him that he wrote a letter full of tears and grief and which gave him pause to make another visit so soon. What grieved Paul can be seen from a few passages. Some Corinthian seriously sinned (7:12), which caused much pain (2:5), and this grievous sin may have involved “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (12:20). Another thing that contributed to Paul’s pain was the Corinthians’ dereliction of duty. They didn’t discipline the sinner. In fact, they didn’t act at all. They winked at sin, overlooked it even. It’s no wonder that Paul didn’t want to subject himself to all that in-fighting and animosity toward him, especially from his own brothers and sisters. Would you be on the earliest flight to a city that would “welcome” you thus? Doubtful. Paul, rather, believed that a letter was a better approach with the Corinthians at that time. Thankfully, by the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians (and after the Corinthians had enough time to ponder the tearful letter), the majority of the Corinthians punished the sinner (2:6), and perhaps went a little overboard (more on that next post).

The major motive for not physically visiting the Corinthians, according to Paul, was that if he had visited them, no joy would’ve come from that visit. Only pain. So he says, “who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained?” (v. 2). They were supposed to gladden his heart, and he, theirs. Don’t they know the abundant love that Paul has for them? He is basically saying, “Brothers, my love overflows for you. You are my joy. We need to work things out. You need to work things out.” And by saying what he does in vv. 3-4, he’s connecting his words back to the final verse of chapter 1: “we work for your joy” (v. 24). The cycle ought to be this: Paul works for their joy; they give him joy; he comforts them; they comfort him. That’s one-anothering 101.

It is with this love that Paul models for the Corinthians that we are reminded of Christ’s love for us. Paul really had every right to commission his apostolic authority to serve himself and lay into the Corinthians. We are reminded (well, maybe just I’m reminded!) of the famous line in Grease, when Sandy sings to Danny Zuko, “You better shape up, ‘cause I need a man. And my heart is set on you.” Paul could’ve said, “Look, I’m God’s chosen apostle. Shape up now!” Instead, he approaches them by reminding them of his love that runneth over, and of the fact that they all need to be about each other’s joy and comfort. Paul humbles himself and loves God’s people. Through his life, then, he points us to Christ, who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but who humbled himself and gave his life for his people (Phil. 2:4-8). Paul reminds us of the overwhelming appeal that the love of Christ has for his people, how Christ draws his people to himself and to each other by love. We can thank God for giving us his servant, the much-afflicted-yet-still-loving Paul, who used his life to set our eyes on the Suffering yet Joyful Servant, Jesus Christ, whose name is Love.

[1] This summary is slightly modified from the summary found in The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Contexts (Burge, Cohick, and Green, p. 313).