Helpful Insight to 2 Corinthians

As a study aide to the messages I am preaching from 2 Corinthians, the following blog will seek to shed light on the historical background of this New Testament letter. To watch or listen to my sermons from 2 Corinthians at Mobberly Baptist Church, visit
The city of Corinth was the third largest city in the Roman Empire behind Rome and Alexandria. It was known for its hedonism, sexual promiscuity, gambling (especially on sports), and it was the entertainment capital of the Roman Empire. Sounds like America! This letter could be addressed to us because, like those early Christ-followers, we are called upon to share a counter-cultural message of Jesus in a sex-driven, sports-focused, and entertainment-obsessed culture.
A thorough investigation of the historical background or Paul’s 2 letters to the Corinthians is saturated with intrigue. In fact, it even carries with it considerable controversy. The letters indicate additional correspondence and visits. Keeping them in chronological sequence is helpful. The following is a suggested sequence of events according to expert New Testament scholar, John Phillips (Exploring 2 Corinthians, 2002, p.10-15).
•    Paul arrived in Corinth from Athens during his 2nd missionary journey. He had been roughed up at Philippi, chased out of Thessalonica and Berea, and laughed out of court at Athens. He was under considerable stress. When he first arrived in Corinth he was alone, his colleagues Silas and Timothy having been sent back by him to strengthen and encourage the fledgling Macedonian churches.
•    Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months (A.D. 50-51). His ministry was crowned with success. Although the bulk of his converts came from the lower classes, he did win a number of notable citizens to Christ. His ministry at Corinth appears to have overflowed to the nearby seaport of Cenchrea, where a church was started, and possibly elsewhere as well.
•    On July 1, 51, Gallio, a noble Roman with high contacts, arrived in Corinth, as proconsul of the Roman province of Achaia. The leading Jews of Corinth, infuriated by Paul’s success, tried to prosecute Paul before Gallio on the charge of propagating an illegal religion. Gallio contemptuously threw the case out of court and turned a blind eye to some consequent mob violence directed against the Jews. Gallio’s court ruling was in keeping with the general attitude of fair play shown by Roman officials in these early contacts with Christianity.
•    Paul left Corinth, probably in the spring of 52, from the port of Cenchrea. While there he appears to have become ill. Phoebe seems to have had a share in nursing him at this time (Rom. 16:1-2). At some point, Paul made a vow (perhaps in connection with his illness) which involved shaving his head (acts 21:23-24).
•    The church Paul left behind at Corinth soon feel prey to rivalries and squabble, to a Judaizing cult, to pride, lawsuits, confusion, abuse of spiritual gifts, and to immorality.
•    Meanwhile, Paul visited Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem. Sensing a receptive spirit in the synagogue, he left his colleagues Aquila and Priscilla there to prepare the ground against the time of his return. While he was away, Apollos visited Ephesus, was well received, and was encouraged to go on to Corinth, which he did.
•    Paul’s reception at Jerusalem was a cold one. This was his 4th visit to this city which seemed to draw him as a magnet, despite the fact that he was mistrusted there by the Jewish believers and hated by the authorities.
•    He left Jerusalem and returned to Antioch to make preparations for his 3rd missionary journey. He was now about 52 years old. Only eight years later he could describe himself as “Paul the aged.” Hardship, sickness, and persecution had left their indelible mark.
•    Paul now made for Ephesus, where he remained three years (Acts 19:1; 20:31) and where he had remarkable success.
•    Sometime during his ministry at Ephesus he received disturbing news from Corinth. Some of the believers there had not made a complete break with immorality – an “alternative lifestyle” in that pagan city.
•    Paul wrote them a letter (1 Cor 5:9-11), of which no trace now remains, in which he warned the Christians to have no fellowship with fornicators. For the sake of convenience, we can call this the lost letter. It would not have been difficult for Paul either to have received this news or to have responded it. Communications between Corinth and Ephesus were easy and frequent enough by both land and sea.
•    This lost letter seems to have prompted a reply. Either by means of a letter, or else a result, perhaps, of a visit to Paul by some members of Chloe’s household (perhaps a house-church) questions were raised.
•    Paul responded by dictating the epistle we now call 1 Corinthians. To distinguish it from other Corinthian correspondence, we can call this letter the long letter. Indeed, it was the longest of all Paul’s letters. Moreover, it appears to have been written in stages. He began by reproaching them for their shortcomings and promised to visit them soon. In the meantime, he was sending Timothy – indeed, Timothy may already have left.
•    Paul had written chapters 1-4 and, perhaps, was preparing to send them when he received another communication from Corinth in the form of a letter seemingly brought by Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17). In this letter, the Corinthians assured Paul that they remembered his teaching and were doing as he said. They also raised a number of questions about marriage, meat offered to idols, spiritual gifts, and the collection Paul was raising for the impoverished Jerusalem church.
•    There were grounds for anxiety in this letter, but that was nothing compared with the story Paul’s visitors had to tell which, hypocritically, had been passed over in silence by the Corinthians. The church was rent by schisms. Worse still, there were grave scandals, severe disorders, and above all, flagrant disregard of even the most common standards of decency and morality. Paul added more chapters to his letter. First, he dealt with the verbal reports he had received about their list and litigations (chps. 5-6) and finally answered their questions one by one (chps. 7-16). When finished, this letter was taken to Corinth by Stephanus and his associates or perhaps, as some think, by Titus.
•    This long letter, dictated in stages, probably took several weeks to complete. It was finished some time before Pentecost (16:8) during Paul’s last year in Ephesus (probably A.D. 55).
•    It seems that Paul planned to remain in Ephesus for a little while longer, probably until Pentecost. Then he wanted to go to Macedonia and remain there during the summer and fall months. From there, he wanted to come on to Corinth and possibly spend the winter there (16:5-9). This would be the winter of 55-56.
•    Soon after, however, he changed his mind. He would visit Corinth twice. He would come there on his way to Macedonia. He would come there again on his way back from Macedonia. Then he would embark for Judea (2 Cor 1:15). He hoped it, it seems, that by then the collection for the Judean churches would be complete and he could take it with him when he went.
•    Still another change of plans, however, intervened. For one thing, a fresh crisis had reared its head at Corinth. Evidently Paul’s long letter had not accomplished its purpose. Moreover, Timothy was no Paul and was unable to quell the revolt. It seems likely, indeed, that Timothy returned to Paul about this time full of bad news.
•    As a result, Paul seems to have made a flying visit to Corinth (the 2nd visit referred to in 2 Cor 13:2). It proved to be a stormy one, painful for both Paul and his converts. The incipient rebellion against Paul and his authority seems to have come to a head. Reading between the lines, it seems to have been led by one man in particular. With remarkable restraint, for the power vested in an apostle was awesome, as Simon Magus and Elymas the sorcerer both learned, Paul appears to have simply left for the time being.
•    However, the Corinthians had by no means heard the last of him. When he arrived back at Ephesus he wrote them another letter, also missing from our New Testament. Indeed, there must be a voluminous Pauline correspondence of which no trace remains, just as the book of Acts gives us but the barest details of Paul’s travels, sermons, sufferings, successes, and miracles. This latest letter was sharp and to the point and also drenched with tears (2:3; 7:12). Since he seems to have regretted it the moment it was on its way, we can call this letter the lamented letter.
•    The bearer of this letter, if this sequence of events is correct, seems to have been Titus. Judging from hints dropped here and there in our canonical 2 Corinthians, Paul almost seems to have wished he had not written it. He seems to have tempered his deep and sincere expressions of love with dire warnings directed primarily toward the man who led the opposition against him. IT would seem, too, that before dispatching Titus with this fiery letter, he had told him that he believed the gold of the Corinthians’ love for him to be genuine metal. Now that the letter was gone beyond recall, he seems to have had second thoughts.
•    A severe depression came over Paul. As though this were not enough, he found himself in terrible danger. He was belabored by fears within and fightings without. Indeed, the threatening outward circumstances were so severe that Paul seems to have despaired of his very life (1:8-9). He appears to have regarded his escape as a veritable resurrection from the dead, so remarkable it was (1:9-10).
•    From Ephesus, Paul went to Troas, evidently hoping Titus would show up with news from Corinth. He saw great opportunities for evangelism at Troas, and it says much for his state of mind that he was too unsettled to take advantage of them. It appears he waited at Troas, straining his eyes for a ship from across the Aegean until the onset of winter made it certain Titus would not come that way. Finally he headed north, taking the land route toward Macedonia.
•    Then Titus came! He had good news too! The offending bother had been dealt with, so much so, indeed, he was in danger of being overwhelmed.
•    Paul seized his pen again, this time to wrote the epistle we call 2 Corinthians. For the sake of clarity, we could call it the last letter. He began to pour out his heart.
•    But then the full story came out. It seems there was another side to the picture. Paul still had enemies. His change of plans over visiting Corinth was still being held against him as proof of his fickleness, even his cowardice. Disparaging remarks were being made about his lack of eloquence, his personal appearance, the fact that he had no letter of commendation from the “mother church.” It was being said that he was mad.
•    Paul put down his pen. He seized it again in a new mood. The startling difference in tone, beginning with chapter 10, has been noticed by all. Varied are the explanations. Some have even suggested that chapters 10-13 constitute yet another, later, letter or, perhaps, a surviving fragment of Paul’s earlier lamented letter.
•    There is a better explanation. The more Titus talked, the more evident it became that there were two factions still at Corinth. There was the majority party and the minority party. The majority was on Paul’s side and was full of goodwill toward him. The minority party, made up of the Judaizers and their adherents, remained hostile to the great apostle. Chapters 1-9 appear to have the majority in mind. They are buoyant and conciliatory. Chapters 10-13 seem to have the minority in mind. They are sad and severe. Indeed, these chapters may well have been written after a pause in composition, after Paul had allowed himself sufficient time to digest the additional information leaked out by Titus.
•    When the letter was finally finished it was taken to Corinth, probably early in 56, by Titus and two of Paul’s other colleagues, of whom one seems to have been Luke (8:6, 16-19, 22-23).
•    In the meantime, Paul seems to have visited Illyricum (Rom. 15:19). Luke barely mentions this in Acts, simply saying that Paul “came into Greece” (Acts 20:2). Paul then went back to Corinth, where he stayed for about three months as the guest of Gaius (Rom. 16:23).
•    Things seem to have calmed down by this time. Paul was able to compose his mind for writing his monumental epistle to the Romans. Perhaps Paul was able to sense that his missionary days were drawing to a close and that it was high time for him to commit his gospel preaching to writing. When it was finished, Paul entrusted this priceless manuscript to Phoebe, his friend and a deaconess of the church at Cenchrea, to take to Rome for him.
•    Meanwhile, Paul’s presence in Corinth was not overlooked by his old synagogue foes. Gallio had rebuffed them on the occasion of Paul’s first visit. They would get him this time. Somehow, they received word that Paul was planning to be a passenger on a ship (possibly a pilgrim ship) bound from Cenchrea for Palestine. They hatched a plot. Paul would either be murdered at Cenchrea or, if he succeeded on embarking on the boat, at a convenient time he would be thrown overboard. Evidently, Paul learned of the scheme because he changed his plans. Instead of sailing from Cenchrea, he would take the overland, northern route by way of Philippi (Acts 20:3). Another “change of mind” for the Corinthians to think about indeed!

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