Paul and the church in Corinth are at odds. What does he do? Paul comforts them! Go in-depth with the introduction to 2 Corinthians with this excerpt from the New American Commentary.

2 Corinthians 1:3-7

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”

An Excerpt from the New American Commentary

Praise to the God of Comfort

Second Corinthians differs from all of Paul’s other letters by opening with a blessing. “Blessed be [eulogetos] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Comparing this exordium with those in Paul’s other letters offers some clues about the chief concern of this letter.

Three differences emerge.

Difference One: Paul Comforts Instead of Giving Thanks

Paul usually begins his letters with a congratulatory thanksgiving that allows him to tell his readers how he is pleased with them and to identify issues for their spiritual growth. In 2 Corinthians he uses the language of blessing, encouragement, and comfort instead of thanksgiving. Although blessing and thanksgiving are comparable ideas, Paul’s switch to a blessing should not go unnoticed. It offers a clue to Paul’s purposes in this letter.

Difference Two: Through God Instead of Through the Church

Paul normally gives thanks for his readers because of what God has accomplished for and through them.

For example, he begins 1 Corinthians by writing, “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:4).

In these opening thanksgiving segments Paul usually focuses on the particular situation of the church, their faithfulness to the gospel, and their fruitfulness. His thanksgiving to God normally reminds his readers that whatever is praiseworthy about their faith and life comes entirely from God, not from their own feeble efforts.

In 2 Corinthians, however, Paul does not give thanks for what God has accomplished for and through the church. Instead, he offers praise to God for what God has accomplished for and through him. He focuses on himself, not his addressees. At the conclusion of this blessing period he asks them to join in giving prayers and thanks on his behalf for the blessing granted to him (1:11). Instead of giving thanks for the Corinthians, he hopes they will be giving thanks for him.

Difference Three: Prayer Requests at the Beginning Instead of the End

Paul regularly mentions his prayers for the church at the beginning of the letter (see Rom 1:8-15; 1 Cor 4-9; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-8; 1 Thess 1:2-10; 2 Thess 1:3-12; 2 Tim 1:3-7; Phlm 4-7), and a request for prayers for himself usually occurs toward the end (see Rom 15:30-32; Col 4:3-4; 1 Thess 5:25; Phlm 22; see Phil 1:19). Here his request for their prayers for him occurs at the start of the letter.

Why the change in a pattern?

Several explanations are possible and not mutually exclusive. Paul may rejoice because God has so recently delivered him from a grave peril in Asia. This recent trauma brought him to the edge of despair as he felt unbearably crushed with all hope for life draining away (1:8). A break in the clouds of this unrelenting suffering and the ray of hope afforded by the comforting news from Titus about the Corinthians’ response to his “severe letter” (7:5-11) evokes his praise for God’s unexpected grace. Although this explanation for Paul’s use of blessing and comfort language instead of a thanksgiving language makes good sense, the variation may be attributed instead to the letter’s rhetorical purpose.

Mending Relationships: Comforting and Apologetic Tones

He begins this letter differently because of its apologetic nature. The switch from his normal thanksgiving pattern hints that the rift between Paul and everyone in the church has not yet been completely mended. He recognizes that healing after a bitter altercation takes time, and the signs of reconciliation must be expressed in concrete ways. Not until they can offer up prayers and thanksgiving to God for their apostle who experiences abundant sufferings for Christ and abundant comfort will his unshakable hope for them be fulfilled.

Consequently, Paul will not express his thanksgiving for the church until the quarrel has been fully resolved after his next visit (see 12:20-21). Just as the circumstances in Galatia did not warrant a thanksgiving (see Gal 1:6-10), so the current situation in Corinth did not warrant one either.

Mending Relationships: Paul Comforts while Defending Himself

Paul is encouraged by the Corinthians’ genuine repentance after receiving the “severe letter” (7:5-12), but all is still not well. Interlopers continue to lurk in the wings, endangering Paul’s relationship with the church. An opposing faction, perhaps a recalcitrant house church, still exists within the community. Paul therefore continues to defend his integrity and authority in this letter, and he focuses the blessing period on himself as part of his tactics to win back their full confidence and support. How one interprets this blessing period therefore has an impact on the view of the letter’s integrity.

Mending Relationships: Paul Comforts, Paul Confronts

Although Paul lambasted the Galatians for abandoning the truth of the gospel, the situation with the Corinthians is far more ticklish. He writes to the Galatians as an aggrieved parent who feels that he has to give birth to them again (Gal 4:19). He did not believe that his good relationship with them would be irretrievably broken simply by telling the truth. The Galatians, he says, would have been willing to pluck out their eyes for him (4:16).

He therefore could be more forthright with the Galatians; not so with the Corinthians. The Corinthian correspondence reveals that some have not accepted his rebukes well. Some have questioned his motives and put the worst possible spin on his actions. Consequently, he begins this letter more gingerly. Although the relationship is on the mend, Paul saves the rebuke and warning for the end after he has established his case.

The quarrel-filled visit that ended when Paul beat a hasty retreat had not helped matters, but the bitter scolding he fired off in the “letter of tears” did bring a change of heart.

Paul’s Use of Authority in the Letter to the Corinthians

Paul implies in this letter that he could resort to force and domination to exercise his rightful authority (2 Cor 10:6; see 1 Cor 4:20-21), but he prefers that the Corinthians respond willingly. His rhetorical strategy seeks first to win the readers’ sympathy and support before shifting into the attack mode against those outsiders who have sabotaged his relationship with the church and those few who continue in their defiance.

Paul’s Opponents in Corinth

At one time, this church may have appreciated their father in the faith, but they have now “shifted their affections, love offerings, and devotion to traveling missionaries instead.” When they began to compare him unfavorably with the visiting superapostles (12:11, 16-17), it led some to question a range of issues concerning Paul. Those disgruntled with Paul belittled his apostolic gifts, claiming that “his letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account” (10:10). They also distrusted his motives (11:7-11) and accused him of unreliability, duplicity, and cowardice. They even began to call into question his gospel.

Roetzel summarizes the situation well:

“Suspicious and contemptuous of Paul, the Corinthians followed instead the more glamorous gospel of the new apostles and preferred their spirituality and radiant personalities to Paul.”

The Best Way to Defend Yourself: Praising God

Paul’s need to defend himself and commend himself best explains the shift from his usual pattern of opening with a thanksgiving for the church to whom he is writing. Rather than giving thanks for what God is doing through this church, Paul needs them to give thanks for him and what God is doing in and through him. He anticipates that thanksgiving will follow if they are reconciled enough to him to pray for him (1:11). When that happens, they will also recognize how God works in mighty ways through the affliction of God’s servants.

Paul refuses to surrender this church to unscrupulous interlopers or allow the disaffection of some in the church to force him to relinquish his connection to them as their apostle. He therefore begins the letter with an indirectly self-congratulatory benediction. He is grateful for them and proud of them (6:11; 7:4, 14, 16; 9:2) and wants them to be grateful and proud of him in return. His joy will be overflowing when they understand him more completely and give thanks for what God has done and will continue to do through him.

Learn More with the New American Commentary

Did you enjoy this excerpt on Paul and comforting the Corinthian church? There’s a whole lot more like this inside the New American Commentary (NAC)! We currently offer the 42-volume set at olivetree.com. Head on over to our website to learn more and get your own copy.

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