My congregation and I recently completed a 7-month, 23-message journey through the book of 2 Corinthians on Sunday mornings. Like past Forum contributor Jeff Manning, I believe that expositional preaching is the most effective means of communicating God’s truth in a faithful, balanced way over time. While this approach to preaching doesn’t exclusively require going through entire books of the Bible, I find that the expositional approach lends itself naturally to working through books.
Our study of 2 Corinthians was challenging, but rewarding. While one could say this about many biblical books, this one is unique in several respects. Let me mention three.
First, it is an often overlooked book. Everyone thinks about the profound doctrinal significance of Romans, or the practical church conflicts that 1 Corinthians addresses. Of course, Galatians and Ephesians offer powerful exposition of the Gospel and its implications for believers. However, wedged among these books is the third longest letter in the New Testament.
Second, it is a exceptionally personal book. Some commentators have argued that, with the possible exception of Philemon, this book is the most personal letter Paul ever wrote. Though this quality may attract Christians looking to identify emotionally with biblical figures, the majority of the personal experiences recounted by the apostle are painful, awkward, and sometimes downright bizarre (cf. 2 Cor. 12).
Finally, it is a repetitive book. Unlike some New Testament books which seem to have a discernible, logical order, 2 Corinthians does not reflect such qualities (at least not to the extent of others). While I’ll comment more on this below, suffice it to say that it isn’t the type of book that one is able to move through in the same neat, linear way that they may with other epistles. Themes arise, recede, and then reemerge in the text throughout the epistle.
So why study 2 Corinthians? What are the distinct themes and benefits to such a lengthy, congregational engagement with this ancient letter? Moreover, what challenges will one confront with this letter? We’ll consider these questions in this essay. My desire is that preachers and teachers of the Word will be motivated to give this book a closer look in future ministry.
Key Themes & Issues
Even a novice to Scripture will realize that 2 Corinthians is not the first contact the apostle Paul had with the Corinthians. Closer study of the background and language in 1-2 Corinthians will reveal that 2 Corinthians was most likely the fourth letter written to Corinth. Most conservative biblical scholars believe that the first and third letters are both missing, and thus the modern church actually has the second and fourth letters.
We need not wring our hands over these “missing links.” God’s providential preservation of Scripture means that we have just what we need of the Corinthian correspondence for life and godliness. We need only to focus on what these letters do say that (a) helps us understand the complex and sometimes controversial relationship between Paul and the Corinthians, and (b) enables us to translate the timeless, apostolic teaching into our contemporary context. Here are five key themes addressed in 2 Corinthians:
The Nature of Apostolicity
It’s easy for Christians to refer to the “apostle Paul” in a passing way without thinking about the theological nature of apostolicity, or the tensions that this unique calling often created in the first century. To be an apostle was to be called and commissioned by none other than the Lord Jesus Himself. Part of the early church’s ability to discern faithfulness to Christ’s teaching was tied up with whether the messenger had apostolic authority. Additionally, the canon of Scripture was later formed partly through the church’s recognition of which Christian documents bore the marks of apostolicity, so as to receive them confidently as words given by the Spirit (cf. 2 Pt. 1:21).
Apostolicity, however, was not without its tensions. This was especially true when some inside and often outside the Christian community were able to discredit apostolic ministry. For Paul, this was a major obstacle among the Corinthians. A significant section of the book is devoted to the emergence of false apostles among them (2 Cor. 11). Additionally, his administration and oversight of church discipline to the Corinthians was not always seen as a necessary spiritual component of his ministry. Often, it was seen as a mean-spirited and disingenuous act which lacked sufficient authority (e.g., 2 Cor. 2:5-11; 10:1-10).
The Character of Suffering
One need not turn to Job or Lamentations to learn about suffering. Second Corinthians is a choice destination for reflection on this topic. Paul had a profound theology of suffering rooted in Christ, as well as personal experience. Two passages provide some of the most memorable and richest meditations on hardship anywhere in Scripture, namely 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 and 6:3-10.
Not only does 2 Corinthians speak about suffering as a fact of Paul’s life, but it is explained in a way that reveals its design in the Christian life. God’s comfort, uniquely manifested in the midst of our affliction, enables us to comfort others (2 Cor. 1:3-10). It points to the eternal promises of the life to come (2 Cor. 5:1-9). It even reminds us that God’s grace is always sufficient (2 Cor. 12:8-10).
The New Covenant
New Testament scholarship on the New Covenant tends to focus on select Gospel pericopes, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. However, one of the most profound expositions on the New Covenant is found in 2 Corinthians 3:4-18. While it comes in a somewhat unexpected place in the letter, it provides some of the theological groundwork necessary for a person (especially pastors) to develop clarity and confidence about the nature of their calling. They are not peddlers of idle truths. They are not super apostles out to make a profit. They minister the Gospel which lifts the veil from human hearts in order that others might see Jesus.
Few church leaders probably engage in significant Scripture study before planning capital campaigns. However, Paul certainly had a way of challenging the church about their commitment to give and do great things through their giving. For most of two chapters (2 Cor. 8-9), Paul’s focuses on the collection for the Jerusalem church that the Corinthians had purposed to contribute to over a year prior to the letter’s reception. Yet as circumstantial an example as this is, numerous principles for financial giving and stewardship in general can be mined from this lengthy section of the letter.
Though some of the personal language of 2 Corinthians is layered onto other themes, this letter has much to offer about the wisdom and love required to navigate relational conflict. While these portions would be especially relevant to pastors’ ministerial struggles, all Christians are offered a treasury of wisdom about issues with personal accountability, transparency, sincerity, trust, and restoration. By delving deeply into 2 Corinthians’ “less doctrinal” parts, one discovers that many of the uncomfortable and confusing dynamics of relating to others (especially in the church) aren’t just modern struggles.
The challenges with preaching and teaching this letter stem partly from the translation of these themes into contemporary Christian living. Pastoral authority is significantly different from apostolic authority. Most Christians, at least in the West, won’t experience the types of sufferings that Paul did. The relevance of the New Covenant is a sometimes complex theological reality to unpack. Not all financially sound churches give in the form of large offerings. Even Paul’s approach to personal integrity, credibility, and transparency won’t be applicable to many situations. It will be insufficient, then, to explain 2 Corinthians’ statements on these topics without digging deeper and meditating on their intersection with the life in the world today.
The second cluster of challenges here is largely found in studying and preparing to preach any biblical book. We must discern a document’s structure so as to forge some sort of outline for tackling it. One will have to exercise discernment about handling supposed fragments in the final form of the text, how many “mini-series” to include when themes persist for lengthy sections, and related hermeneutical and homiletical issues. However, there are many wonderful opportunities alongside these challenges.
Most churches occasionally have conflict that stems from unrepentant sin. Many churches can lose focus in their financial plan for giving. The authenticity and sincerity of other believers is often questioned, implicitly if not explicitly. Sometimes ministry plans change due to unforeseen circumstances. When they do, how do Christians respond? These are just a few of the thousands of specific issues and questions that are addressed throughout the pages of 2 Corinthians.
In short, then, 2 Corinthians is just like any book of Scripture: It is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Because of this, it will never cease to be profitable and useful for the work and worship of the Church in this world. I encourage all readers to embrace this remarkable portion of God’s Word.
Resources Consulted in Study of 2 Corinthians
Paul Barnett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament
Ernesbt Best, 2 Corinthians, Interpretation
Gerald Bray, editor. 1-2 Corinthians, The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture
Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, Word Biblical Commentary
Robert E. Picirilli, 1-2 Corinthians, The Randall House Bible Commentary
Mark Seifrid, 2 Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary*
*I found Seifrid’s work to probably be the most helpful among these resources.
 Readers will note from these numbers that I did, on a few occasions, preach on other themes on special days (Christmas, Easter), and I also was out of the pulpit on a couple of occasions.
 Despite the lack of comparative order in the book, I would disagree with those scholars who argue that 6:14 – 7:1 is actually a fragment which was inserted later, or that later portions of the book constitute portions of others letters that have been included by an editor of some sort.
 Readers will notice that I haven’t offered any definitive outline here to utilize! However, if any reader is interested, I’ll be happy to provide by outlines and titles of my messages if they will leave their email in the comment thread following the essay. But I would simply use these alongside other reliable resources as a way of helping you the teacher arrive at what you feel is the most sound and reasonable outline.