Commentaries on 2 Corinthians
At the end of his first letter to the Corinthians Paul expressed the desire to come back and see them soon. He was unable to return, and they took this badly.
“Judaizing” preachers, that is to say, those Jews insufficiently converted to Christ, whom Paul had to face all the time, were trying to undermine his authority. Paul sent a messenger whom the Corinthians deeply offended: some members of the community were openly rebelling against the apostle. Paul responded in a letter “written in the midst of tears” (2:4) whereby he demanded the submission of the community. One of Paul’s best assistants, Titus, brought the letter and concluded his mission successfully. Upon Titus’ return, Paul, reassured, sent this “second” letter (in fact it was the third or fourth) to the Corinthians.
What is the content of this letter? What Paul feels with regard to the Corinthians and what he suffers from their lack of understanding. It is not much and yet it is a great deal. Paul is incapable of speaking about himself without speaking of Christ. This restless man, eager for understanding and affection, is so permeated with the love of Christ, that he cannot express a suspicion or a reproach without giving most profound sermons on faith. In trying to justify himself he writes the most beautiful pages on evangelization and on what it means to be an apostle of Christ.
We shall see that this letter includes pages which were not a part of it—fragments of other letters or notes sent by Paul to the Church of Corinth: in particular, 6:14-18 was probably written before our First Letter to the Corinthians; chapter 9 (see com. of 9:1); the chapters 10–13 which should contain a good part of the “letter written in tears” (see preceding paragraph).
• 1.3 From the very beginning, Paul describes his own situation as an apostle of Christ—wandering, persecuted, ill—to the Corinthians who know how to take it easy. While they feel proud of their large community and look for brilliant preachers (as will be seen below), Paul shares in the passion of Christ. Paul suggests that they too will know the true consolation of God when it is their turn to suffer for him.
The word comfort will often occur in this letter. God would not be satisfied by just teaching us resignation: comfort is the experience of the presence of God, but relies in part on the signs that show him acting among us. The two go together. Jesus told us to ask so that God would answer and his responses would be a source of joy (Jn 15:24). In any case, God does not free us of trials but gives strength and perseverance to overcome them.
• 12. The Corinthians did not take it well that Paul put off the promised visit. He feels obliged to confess that he has passed the stage of an apostolate based on human projects. He is a man of the Spirit and does not make decisions in the same way as many others do. The Spirit in him matures his decisions and he knows that he is not alone. He will not be one of those who are precipitate in making decisions or who back-pedal because they are not sure of themselves.
In him all the promises of God have come to be a Yes (v. 20). God fulfilled his promises when he sent his Son among us. Christ also did only what his Father wanted. Thus, Christ is a ‘yes’ consenting to the Father’s plan. From there, Paul draws the consequences for Christians. In baptism we say the first yes to Christ. At every Eucharist we repeat the same yes. The “amen” that we say in prayers means yes, it is true. The opposite of all this is sin which is the same as saying ‘no’ to Christ.
In a first outpouring (v. 22). Paul actually says: he gave us the first payment of the Spirit. See commentary on Ephesians 1:14.
• 23. Here Paul refers to the letters preceding this one and which we mentioned in the introduction. We referred to a previous letter that is perhaps preserved in chapters 10–13 of this “second letter.”
I do not wish to lord it over your faith (1:24): see 10:5-6. May it be that, when I come, I do not feel sad (2:3): see 12:21.
Paul alludes here to the triumph of the victorious Roman generals: the prisoners to be massacred later were dragged behind their chariots. Paul sees himself here as “the prisoner of Christ” (Eph 4:1). Jesus had taken him by force (1 Cor 9:16), making him his apostle. We understand these words as we do for Jeremiah (20:7): this irresistible call of God is in fact the access to a higher form of freedom.
The triumph was the occasion for offering a lot of incense: the perfume was the sign of glory for the one who was being honored rather like a god, a sign of death for the prisoners who were there. This comparison allowed Paul to continue in another direction: for some it smells of death (v. 16). The Gospel divides people. Even without going deeper into the mystery they are able to appreciate the “odor,” namely the style of Christian existence. Some are especially aware of the demands of Christian life, which to them seems a death. Others, on the contrary, envy the mysterious force that animates believers in the midst of their trials, and letting them understand that life is there.
Who is worthy of such a mission? In seeing this, the apostle feels inadequate for his mission. He would like everyone to recognize Christ and the radiance of his love through him, but he is a long way from that! On the contrary, the false apostle does not even think about that, but only wishes to be approved and to make money out of the word of God by hiding its demands: such apostles are famous and are not persecuted by anyone.
• 3.1 The preachers who oppose Paul would show letters of recommendation given by some community or some apostle. Whereas Paul relies on personal authority which doesn’t owe anything to anyone. Christ himself made him an apostle as he said in several places.
The pagans of that time surrounded their priests with honor and esteem, and so did the Jews. Throughout the Bible the honor of teaching the Law of God is highlighted and more so the unique role of Moses, who received the Law from God on Sinai. Yet an apostle of Christ is much greater than these.
How much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be! (v. 8). As Paul showed in Romans 7:1-13, teaching only the Law as the Jewish priests did, was not a great help to people since, because they are sinners, they do not obey the law and deserve their punishment. Whereas Paul brings believers into live communication with Christ and his Spirit so that, from then on, they can also share in the risen life. The apostles and ministers of the Church fulfill a major role if their words and actions are helpful in uplifting people.
In verses 7-13 Paul refers to the traditions found in the Book of Exodus (Ex 34:29-35). These highlighted Moses’ glory, but Paul mentions them to prove that Christ’s apostles are superior. There is a reference to Moses returning from his encounter with God with his face radiant; but Paul remarks that it did not last. Moses had to cover his face with a veil because his face was so radiant, but Paul notes that when a veil must be used, God does not yet fully reveal himself.
Paul underlines the blindness of the Jews who do not recognize Christ as the promised Savior: they have lost the key to their history and for them the Bible remains a closed book until the day when God, through Christ, gives them its true meaning (Lk 24:27; Rev 5:1). All their history should be understood as a mystery of death and resurrection. To enter into a new Covenant they had to welcome Christ without concern for their own privileges, and become his disciples together with other nations.
We are unlike Moses (v. 13). What a daring affirmation! Moses was the founder of the Jewish people and the supreme authority of the Bible! It is a fact that the least among Christians reflects with unveiled face the glory of the Lord. The Christian is the light of Christ and in earlier times those baptized were called “the enlightened.”
The Lord is spirit. Paul says this twice in verses 17 and 18. He does not confuse Lord, Christ, with Holy Spirit but plays with the words spirit and Spirit. He recalls that the person who turns to the Lord (16) goes beyond a first stage of faith (that Paul calls the letter) where he found God through laws and practices. He enters the adult age of spiritual life where, through God’s Spirit, we know ourselves and act towards God like sons and daughters and free persons. So Paul means: To find the Lord is to receive the Spirit and accede to the “spirit” (see Rom 2:29).
• 4.1 It is worthwhile underlining some features of the portrait of an apostle as Paul sketches it:
– We do not lose heart.
– We do not proceed with trickery nor do we falsify God’s message.
– We are more than your servants.
– Let everyone discover in us the glory of God that shines in Christ’s face.
– We carry the death of Jesus so that his life may be revealed in us.
– We believe and that is why we speak.
We carry this treasure in vessels of clay (v. 7). Usually, God carries out his plans by using inadequate instruments. Graham Greene became famous for his book “The Power and the Glory” in which we see a priest achieving heroic things despite his many personal faults.
For we, the living, are given up continually to death (v. 11). The apostle’s death is necessary so that his work may live. When a good job has been done in one sector of the Church, there has to come the hour of persecution, or of obedience to leaders whose authority we cannot reject, in spite of the fact that they may be unjust or mistaken. Nothing grows without having died first.
• 16. Paul has just reaffirmed his faith; for a few instants he confides what he feels within himself, confronted as he is by a thousand dangers and obstacles.
The outer being… the inner self (v. 16). With these two terms Paul takes up again what he has already said in Rom 8:10-11. There, he opposes “flesh” to “spirit” as here the outer being to the inner self. Here he reveals this strange experience that is his: the discovery in himself of a presence of God increasingly active, and at the same time a precocious wearing away.
With that, will Paul last long enough to see the return of Christ as he hoped a few years earlier (1 Thes 4:15)? He had greatly hoped that his glorious body would cover his earthly tent (5:21; see 1 Cor 15:52)! Now he is doubtful: from day to day it becomes more probable that he must pass through death, of which he has a horror, share the lot of those who have had to shed their clothing of flesh and await the resurrection.
He has no doubt that at death he will meet Christ: compare 5:8 with Phil 1:23 and Rev 14:13. We do not cease to exist, as is said by some, until the day of our resurrection.
So we feel confident always (v. 6). No certitude of faith removes the horror of death; it may perhaps provide even further reasons for increasing it. Jesus experienced a strange agony before being arrested. This trial is only temporary and faith is reassuring “Who will separate us from the love of God?” (Rom 8:35-39).
• 5.11 There are many ways of understanding faith: for each one of us, one or other aspect of Christian life makes more of an impact. What Paul sees in Christ is the great messenger and artisan of reconciliation.
His first conviction is that, with the death of Christ, a new age has begun for divided humanity. If he died for all, all have died (v. 14), namely, the whole history and wisdom of people before him have been surpassed and now God works among us in other ways.
We do not regard anyone from the human point of view (v. 16). Paul confides something of his affective life. Those around him love him, even if they make difficulties for him, and in the Church each one has his friends, those on whom he may count. Paul loves them, but doubtless not all in the same way. To begin with, he accepts persons with different criteria and is not guided (as are many Corinthians) by the appearance of fine speakers (v. 12). And his affectivity has been renewed in the measure that he has been possessed by Christ: he loves them as God loves them and as God would like them to be.
Even if we once knew Christ personally… (v. 16). (Paul says: “If we have known him in the flesh” or, as he was in his humanity.) He no longer sees Christ as a Galilean preacher, enclosed in the context of Jewish life, but rather dominating history. Without a doubt he is also alluding to certain adversaries who consider themselves superior to him because they have known Jesus or belong to his family. He says to them: “we must” (which means: you must) see him differently: do not see him as your cousin!
The one who is in Christ is a new creature (v. 17): first because the barriers that divide and separate people no longer exist for him (see Gal 3:27; Eph 2:14-16). Also because it is not human desires that guide him, but the Spirit of God who recreates him at every instant (Gal 5:13-21).
In Christ God reconciled the world with himself (v. 19). Many people like to say: Jesus is love. This is true, but let us not forget that this love is his response to the love of the Father who wishes to reconcile us; we must do away with the idea of an angry God whom Jesus tries to appease (Rom 3:25).
Who entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation (v. 18). Christians are not satisfied with only singing the praises of God, and their supreme aspiration is not to find a likeable community. They do their part in the task of universal reconciliation that supposes a denunciation of injustice and sin, and the effort to overcome them. Today the Church says a great deal about this so that we may better understand our mission in the world and in the conflicts and tensions that tear our nations apart.
We present ourselves as ambassadors in the name of Christ (v. 20). This is not only true of the apostles and Paul. It is also meant for us when we go to visit the sick or the needy; when, overcoming suspicion, we approach our brother or sister to create an atmosphere of confidence, so that, shortly, we may arrive at fraternal fellowship with others who have the same problems but who, in spite of that, often remain locked in their selfishness.
He had no sin (v. 21). It is difficult to translate Paul’s words: “He made sin him who did not know sin,” for obviously Paul here speaks according to Hebrew culture where the same word denotes both the sin and the victim who carries the sin. Paul recalls the mystery of the cross: reconciliation is not achieved without voluntary victims who take on themselves the hatred and the sin of humankind.
• 6.3 A distinctive sign of the apostle of Christ: the contrast between the treasure entrusted to him for others, and his own existence hardly enviable and truly unenvied. Like Jesus, he is a sign of contradiction. Paul recalls what he must endure, but does not hide his pride and his conviction: we enrich many, and we possess everything.
The eloquent appeal beginning in verses 11-13 continues in 7:2-16. It is there we find the commentary.
• 14. This passage interrupts the flow of the discourse 6:13 continued in 7:2. What is the meaning of this sudden invitation not to have anything to do with bad people?
In the “first” letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:9) Paul recalled a previous message in which he was asking them not to mix with people of immoral behavior. It is quite possible that the present passage comes from that message. Paul himself explains how we should understand these lines when he says in 1 Cor 5:10: “I did not tell you to stay away from the sinners of this world (if it were so, you would have to leave this world), but from the believers who went back to their pagan customs.”
• 7.2 Welcome us in your hearts. Here again the affective side of Paul is revealed. This indefatigable missionary, never overcome or discouraged, was at the same time very sensitive. Paul here recalls the incident we have spoken of in the introduction. Thanks to Paul’s letter, which must have been harsh, the Corinthians were converted, followed Paul and dealt with those who attacked him.
• 8.1 The saints (v. 3) are the Christians of Jerusalem. In the year 48 there was a famine in Judea and in Jerusalem (Acts 11:28) due to the poor harvest of the previous year, a sabbatical year (during which the Jews did not sow so that the earth could rest). To remedy this situation of shortage, economic aid for the Christians of Jerusalem was organized. Later, Paul promised to keep the Jerusalem community in mind during his missions among the pagans (Gal 2:10). Here, Paul exhorts the Churches in Corinth and in the province to take up this collection that they had agreed upon.
Paul does not use the word collection in these chapters. Instead he speaks of the liberality and the greatness of generous giving; of the blessed work of grace. It is more a gift for the one who gives than for the one who receives.
Paul takes great care that the collection, involving large amounts, should be duly taken up. It must be collected and held by people who enjoy the confidence of the community.
In chapter 8:18, Paul surely refers to Luke: probably he had not yet published his Gospel, but was already helping the Churches to preach it.
• 9.1 Here again Paul speaks of the collection as if he had not done so in the previous chapter. Some think that at the same time Paul was writing to the Corinthians to invite them to give (chap. 8), he wrote another message for the churches of Achaia, which was the province of Corinth: this message may have been placed here later, at the end of the letter, because the theme is the same (chap. 9).
• 10.1 The tone of violence in these chapters 10–13 does not fit with the reconciliation previously expressed. They may come from the letter Paul had sent before, following the incident in which various members of the Corinthian community rebelled against him.
In this extraordinary page, a few words immediately situate the discussion.
Some members of the community attack Paul’s authority, feeling supported by those who have not been able to set foot (v. 13). Who are these people? They have the title of apostle, that is, of founders of communities, but by chance they always arrive where others have done the work (v. 15). People compare one “apostle” with another and Paul who never wanted to be served, who never pretended to be a great orator, or “doctor in religion” appears as a man of weak personality. His letters are severe and strong, some say, but as he is, he has no presence and he is a poor speaker (10:10).
Do not force me to act boldly (10:2). Paul sees himself as the apostle of the community, the one who has led them to the faith and communicated the Holy Spirit to them: no one could deny that.
Paul speaks of his power and his weapons in a threatening way. Surely the “power that destroys strongholds” is the Word of God. The Word of God gave birth to the Christian communities and gives them the power to stay united and alive in the face of opposition. The Gospel is “God’s power,” and when it is boldly proclaimed, the forces that oppose it collapse.
In this case, however, it is also a question of Paul’s spiritual power. Naturally, we think of Paul’s conviction, the power of his word, the awareness of his mission, all of which made an impact on the Corinthians. It is also in the nature of apostles and prophets to threaten at times, on behalf of God who intervenes in an obvious way to show they are right. Recall the case with Ananias and Sapphira before Peter (Acts 5).
Paul’s firm intention is to destroy arguments and haughty thoughts which that the knowledge of God (10:5). One might see here nothing but a rivalry between persons, but Paul knows what bothers many of them in his leadership: he does not go along with their game of petty interests and makes them live in the truth. If they do not have the courage to continue in that way, they will be nothing more than a religious group among others: they will have lost the path of the knowledge of God.
Faith is obedience (Rom 1:5): we submit to a teaching from God. That always goes together with obedience in a concrete life situation. If God has intended us to be a Church, he has necessarily wanted obedience to a hierarchy and to an established order. It is such obedience that Paul exacts.
Take note: this right to be obeyed is based on the call of Christ that has made him an apostle and on what the Spirit has done through him. When we see a multitude of preachers setting out on a mission, each one for his own church, we would at times have the right to ask who has sent them. We must also remember that it is not a question of Paul reigning over this community or several of them: he has already left to evangelize further afield (15-16).
• 11.7 In chapters 11 and 12, Paul will compare himself to the “apostles” who managed to be appreciated by the Corinthians, and on which his opponents are relying. Paul wants not to treat them as equal to equal: he is conscious of who he is, he can judge them. A dangerous position, even for someone who believes he is truly inspired by God! And yet, see 1 Cor 2:14-15.
To begin with, Paul is sure of a direct call from Christ: this contact with the risen Jesus has given him a transforming presence of Christ. He knows that his criteria, his decisions, his prophetic intuition have bypassed his adversaries. It is precisely because he has reached a superior level of life in the Spirit that he feels free vis-à-vis the “religious obligations” that are given such importance, even first place, by his opponents: compare paragraph 11:4-6 with Gal 2:6-10 and 5:7-12; see also 1 Thes 3:2-11.
Their attachment to the observance of the Jewish Law does not come from a different, legitimate view of matters of faith. They hold to it, because in their own lives, they have not discovered the best of Christian experience. Jesus had already shown, as in the case of the Pharisees that strict observance of religious rites comes from a lack of true faith (Mk 7:6). Whoever has the experience of life in the Spirit, shocks, without wishing to do so, any “religious” people and such was the case of Paul in the Church.
In 11:22-30, Paul speaks of his labors and the risks he has taken, the persecutions he has known. He does not do this to be well thought of. He wants to show others, and remind himself, that he is gifted with an exceptional grace. All are called to follow Jesus and carry his cross, all are called to evangelize. Why is it that so few undertake the true work of evangelization among “those who are afar,” as Jesus and Paul did? That in itself is a grace, and those who have not received it do not perceive the calls and miss the occasions. Paul intends to remain inimitable, not through vainglory but in fidelity to the way on which Christ has placed him.
APOSTOLATE AND CONTEMPLATION
• 12.1 Here Paul briefly alludes to the ecstasies through which he has been formed anew. The word ecstasy seems to many people rather eccentric; for others it is only appropriate for contemplative living apart from the world. It is quite true that ecstasy, if genuine, is relevant to contemplative life. But what is contemplation?
By “contemplation” we often understand the time given to meditation on the things of God and the discovery of his presence in our lives. In this sense we oppose contemplation to action, or we say that both should go together. Yet the word “contemplation” also and more rightly denotes a new stage in spiritual life where the relationship between our spirit and God are profoundly changed.
In this contemplation, it is not we who discover God or who establish ourselves in silence. God is the one who imposes his presence, who, in us, gives birth to our response. Contemplation is a gift of God; it is a way of knowing God, of being guided, reformed by him that is different from what the majority of Christians experience. It is not exceptional. The transforming and sovereign action of the Spirit is there more efficacious, leading always to the same end: the individual no longer belongs to himself.
This contemplation may be given to those who have retired to convents to answer a call from God; it may be given to those who live the normal life of most people; it is given to apostles. Differing from the practice of transcendental meditation and recollection that come from the East, it eludes our efforts; it is not a matter of leading either a more active or a more retired life. What is essential is that God has taken possession of our liberty (see Jer 1:5).
If Paul has been the apostle we know, if he has had an exceptional understanding of the Christian mystery, it is because he has been a great contemplative – in the sense we have just given. The ecstasies about which he has spoken correspond to the early years following his conversion (see Acts 22:6 and 17); they are proper to an advanced stage of contemplative life, but not the last, which is total and constant union with God.
I was given a thorn in my flesh. Many hypotheses have been offered on what this thorn could be: an illness perhaps (2 Cor 1:8; Gal 4:13) of which the unforeseen relapses reduced him to powerlessness? Or a temptation of the “flesh,” a late consequence of his moral education as rigid as the commandments of the Law? What is certain is that we all aspire to a state of peace in which we feel sure of ourselves, but God for his part, whatever the richness of his gifts, refuses to grant it (1 Cor 2:5; 4:7).
• 14. Paul ends his letter in affirming his authority. Jesus had spoken of a testimony coming both from the apostles and the Holy Spirit; in the same way Paul ends his defense appealing to a discernment which will be the work of the Spirit: verify, examine, recognize. Without a doubt it should be the same in the Church and at all levels; we cannot resolve conflicts or decide on orientation by arguments or votes only. We must necessarily have, besides reflection, times of silence, of true prayer and listening to the word of God.
Notice the “trinitarian” formula in 13:13.