The contents of this Epistle are naturally divided into three parts:
I. Review of Pauls Relation’s with the Corinthians, 2Co_1:1-24, 2Co_2:1-17, 2Co_3:1-18, 2Co_4:1-18, 2Co_5:1-21, 2Co_6:1-18, 2Co_7:1-16. After the usual epistolary introduction, 2Co_1:1-11, the apostle vindicates himself with respect to the change in his intended visit, and with reference to what he had written respecting the offender, 2Co_1:12-24, 2Co_2:1-13. Having done this, he takes up the discussion of the apostleship. In the first place he considers the office of an apostle, comparing the ministry of the Law with that of the Gospel, 2Co_3:6-18, and vindicating his own position as an apostle of the New Covenant, 2Co_2:14-17, 2Co_3:5; 2Co_4:1-6. Then he treats of the sufferings of an apostle which are inseparably connected with his work, but are alleviated by the hope of future glory, 2Co_4:7-18, 2Co_5:1-10. Next the life of an apostle passes the review, which finds its constraining motive in the love of Christ, has its spiritual basis in the life of the Redeemer, and is marked by sufferings, dishonor and poverty, on the one hand; but also by longsuffering and kindness, by knowledge and righteousness, on the other, 2Co_5:11-21, 2Co_6:10. This is followed up by an appeal of the apostle to the Corinthians that they should give him place in their hearts, and should not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers, 2Co_6:11-18, 2Co_7:1-4. Finally the apostle tells the Corinthians that he had been comforted greatly by the coming of Titus, by whom his fears that the former letter might have estranged them, were allayed and made place for rejoicing, 2Co_7:5-16.
II. The Collection for the Judean Christians, 2Co_8:1-24, 2Co_9:1-15. The apostle points the Corinthians to the example of the Macedonians who gave abundantly for the poor at Jerusalem, 2Co_8:1-7; and to the example of Christ who became poor that the Corinthians might be enriched, 2Co_8:8-15. He commends to them Titus and the two brethren that are sent with him to gather the collection, 2Co_8:16-24; and exhorts them to give abundantly for this worthy cause, 2Co_9:1-15.
III. Pauls Vindication of his Apostleship, 2Co_10:1-18, 2Co_11:1-33, 2Co_12:1-21, 2Co_13:1-14. In this part Paul deals directly with his opponents. First of all he points out that the ministry entrusted to him also extended to the Corinthians, 2Co_9:1-15. Then he replies to his opponents that he had been perfectly loyal to the cause of Christ, 2Co_11:1-6; that he had not dealt deceitfully with the Corinthians, when he refused support from them, 2Co_11:7-15; that he had far greater things in which to glory than they could boast of, 2Co_11:16-33, 2Co_12:1-10; and that it had never been and was not now his aim to make a gain of the Corinthians, 2Co_12:11-18. Finally he gives them warnings in view of his coming visit, and closes his epistle with final salutations and benediction, 2Co_12:19-21, 2Co_13:1-13.
1. II Corinthians is one of the most personal and the least doctrinal of all the letters of Paul, except the one written to Philemon. The doctrinal element is not altogether wanting; the great truths of salvation find expression in it, as well as in the other letters of the apostle; but, though they enter into its composition, they have a subordinate place and are, as it were, eclipsed by its large personal element, in which we see the very heart of the apostle, with all its varying moods of courage and anxiety, of love and aversion, of hope and disappointment. Alford says: “Consolation and rebuke, gentleness and severity, earnestness and irony succeed one another at very short intervals and without notice.”
2. The second characteristic of this Epistle is closely connected with the preceding one; it is the most unsystematic of all the letters of Paul. How greatly it differs in this respect from the Epistle to the Romans and from First Corinthians, becomes perfectly evident, when one attempts to give an outline of the contents. This irregularity is due to the fact that in this letter we do not find a calm discussion of doctrinal subjects or of certain phases of Christian life, but above all an impassioned self-defense against unjust charges and calumnies and insinuations. However humble the apostle may be, and though he may regard himself as the least of all the saints, yet in this letter he finds himself constrained to boast of his sufferings and of his work.
3. The language of this Epistle has been judged variously, some criticizing it severely and others praising its excellencies. We cannot deny that it is more rugged and harsh, more obscure and difficult of interpretation than we are accustomed to in Paul’s other writings. “Parentheses and digressions often intersect the narrative and disturb its sequence.” (Davidson) Meyer says beautifully: “The excitement and varied play of emotion with which Paul wrote this letter, probably also in haste, certainly make the expression not seldom obscure and the sentences less flexible, but only heighten our admiration of the great delicacy, skill and power with which this outpouring of Paul’s spirit and heart, possessing as a defense of himself a high and peculiar interest, flows and gushes on, till finally, in the last part, wave on wave overwhelms the hostile resistance.” Comm. p. 412.
The external testimony to the authorship of Paul is inferior to that of I Corinthians; yet it is so strong that it leaves no room for honest doubt. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and many others, from all parts of the early Church, quote it by name.
But even if this were not so strong, internal evidence would be quite sufficient to settle the question of authenticity. In the first place the Epistle claims to be a product of the great apostle. In the second place it is written in a style that is in many respects characteristically Pauline, notwithstanding its unique features; it contains the doctrine of salvation, as we are wont to hear it proclaimed by the apostle of the Gentiles; and it reveals his character, as no other Epistle does. And in the third place the thought of this Epistle is closely interwoven with that of I Corinthians. In 1Co_16:5 Paul speaks of his plan of travel, and in 2Co_1:15-24 he comments on it; in 1 Corinthians 5 he urges that discipline be applied to the incestuous person, and in 2Co_2:5-11 he says, with reference to this case, that they have inflicted sufficient punishment, and restrains their evident severity; respecting the collection for the Judean Christians which he enjoins on the Corinthians in 1Co_16:14, he gives further directions in 2Co_8:1-24, 2Co_9:1-15; to the Judaizers who cast doubt on his apostleship he refers in 1Co_4:1-21, 1Co_9:1-27, and speaks of them more at length in 2Co_10:1-18, 2Co_11:1-33, 2Co_12:1-21, 1Co_13:1-14.
The authenticity of the Epistle too was attacked by Bruno Bauer and by the Dutch critics that we mentioned in connection with the first Epistle. But their work failed to convince anyone but themselves. Godet truly says: “—the scholars who cannot discern, across these pages, the living personality of St. Paul, must have lost in the work of the study, the sense for realities.” Introd. to the N. T. I p. 337.
1. Occasion and Purpose. In order to understand the occasion that induced Paul to write this Epistle to the Corinthians, we must bring it in connection with the first letter, which was in all probability borne to Corinth by Titus, Paul’s spiritual son. After it had gone forth, the apostle pondered on what he had written in that letter, and it caused him some uneasiness of mind, 2Co_7:8. He reflected that he had written in a rather severe strain regarding the divisions at Corinth and the incestuous person, and feared for a time that his words might be misconstrued, that his letter might create a false impression, and that his severity might provoke resentment and thus injure the cause of the gospel that lay so near to his heart.
We are aware that some scholars, as Hausrath, Schmiedel, Kennedy, Baljon, Findlay, Robertson (in Hastings D. B.) and Davidson hold that 2Co_2:4; 2Co_2:9; 2Co_7:8 refer to a second lost epistle of Paul, the so-called Painful Letter; but with Zahn, Holtzmann and Bernard (in Expositors Gk. Test.) we believe it to be a rather gratuitous assumption that such an epistle ever existed.
Shortly after Paul had sent I Corinthians, he left Ephesus for Troas, where a splendid opportunity for work offered. Yet he was keenly disappointed, for he had expected to find Titus there with tidings from Corinth; and when he did not find him, his very anxiety caused him to sail for Macedonia that he might meet his beloved brother and co-laborer the sooner and be reassured by him, 2Co_2:12-13. The mere change of the field of labor brought him no relief, for he says: “When we were come into Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears.” 7:5. Soon, however, he was comforted by the coming of Titus, 2Co_7:6; the painful uncertainty now made place for calm assurance, yea even for joy and thanksgiving. But his happiness was not unalloyed, since the report of Titus was not altogether favorable. The Corinthian congregation as a whole had taken kindly to the warnings and directions of the previous letter. The words of reproof had made a deep impression on them, had saddened their hearts, had filled them with sorrow,—but it was a godly sorrow that worked repentance. Hence the apostle had occasion to rejoice and did rejoice, 2Co_7:7-16. The enemies of Paul, however, had been embittered by the former Epistle and had increased their sinister work, attempting to undermine the apostolic authority of Paul by charging that he was fickle and vacillating, 2Co_1:15-24; that he was controlled by fleshly motives, 2Co_10:2; that he was bold at a distance, but cowardly, when present, 2Co_10:10; that he was dealing deceitfully with the Corinthians even in taking no support from them, 2Co_11:7-12; and that he had not shown himself an apostle by his works, 2Co_12:11-13.
The question may be asked to which one of the four parties mentioned in I Corinthians the enemies belong with which the apostle deals in 2Co_10:1-18, 2Co_11:1-33, 2Co_12:1-21, 1Co_13:1-14. It is quite clear, and scholars are generally agreed, that they were in the main, if not exclusively, ultra-Judaists. But there is no such unanimity in classifying them with one of the divisions of which the first Epistle speaks. Following F. C. Baur many, such as Baljon, Davidson, Weiss, identify them with those whose watchword was: “I am of Christ!” Others, however, as Meyer and Zahn regard them as belonging to the party that professed special allegiance to Peter. To this view we give preference; however, with the provisos that in this letter Paul does not deal with the whole party, but rather with its leaders, who had probably come from Judaea with letters of commendation, 2Co_3:1, and whom Paul qualifies as “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves in apostles of Christ,” 2Co_11:13 ;—and that it is quite possible that some of his words refer to those who, ignoring and despising all human authority, claimed to be of Christ, and did not uphold the honor and faithfulness of the apostle against the false teachers. Cf. 2Co_10:7.
This being the situation at Corinth, when the apostle wrote his second letter, he was naturally led to write with a twofold purpose. In the first place it was his desire to express his gratitude for the way in which the Corinthians had received his former letter, and to inform them of the joy he experienced, when they had manifested their willingness to mend their ways and had been filled with godly sorrow. And in the second place he considered it incumbent on him to defend his apostleship against the calumnies and the malignant attacks of the Judaeistic adversaries.
2. Time and Place. In view of the account we have given of the course of events that followed the writing of 1 Corinthians, it is not very difficult to establish approximately both the time and the place of writing. We may assume that, in accordance with the plan expressed in 1Co_15:8, the apostle remained at Ephesus until Pentecost of A. D. 57. On leaving Ephesus he went to Troas, from where he crossed over to Macedonia. There he soon met Titus, presumably in the summer of that same year, and therefore some time before he was ready to visit Corinth, and received information from him regarding the condition of the Corinthian church. Overjoyed by what he heard, but at the same time apprehending the danger that lurked in the agitation of the Judaizers, he immediately wrote II Corinthians, and sent it to Corinth by the hand of Titus, who was accompanied on his journey by two of the brethren, whose names are not recorded, 2Co_8:18; 2Co_8:22. The letter was written, therefore, in the summer of A. D. 57, somewhere in Macedonia.
The integrity of the letter has been attacked especially on two points. It is claimed by some that the verses 6:14—7:1 do not belong, where they stand, but form an awkward interruption in the course of thought. A few scholars regard them as a part of the lost letter to which 1Co_5:9 refers. Now it is true that at first sight these verses seem out of place, where they stand, but at the same time it is very well possible to give a plausible explanation for their insertion at this point. Cf. Meyer, Alford, Expositors Greek Testament.
Several critics opine that 2Co_10:1-18, 2Co_11:1-33, 2Co_12:1-21, 1Co_13:1-14 did not originally form a part of this letter. Hausrath and Schmiedel advocated the theory that they constituted a part of the so-called Painful letter that intervened between I and II Corinthians. The reasons why they would separate this section from the other nine chapters, are the following: (1) 2Co_10:1-18 begins with the words Αὐτός δὲ ἐγὼ Παῦλος, which δὲ marks these words as an antithesis to something that is not found in the preceding. (2) The tone of the apostle in these last chapters is strikingly different from that in the other nine; from a calm and joyful tone it has changed to one of stern rebuke and of sharp invective. (3) Certain passages found in the first part point back to statements that are found in the last chapters, and thus prove that these are part of a previous letter. Thus 2Co_2:3 refers to 2Co_13:10; 2Co_1:23 to 2Co_13:2; and 2Co_2:9 to 2Co_10:6.
But to these arguments we may reply, in the first place, that δὲ often does no more than mark the transition to a new subject (cf. 1Co_15:1; 2Co_8:1); in the second place, that the change of tone need not surprise us, if we take in consideration the possibility that Paul did not write the whole Epistle at a single sitting and therefore in the same mood; and the fact that in the last chapters he deals more particularly with the false teachers among the Corinthians; and in the third place, that the passages referred to do not necessitate the construction put on them by the above named critics. Moreover, if we adopt the theory that another letter intervened between our two canonical Epistles. we are led to a very complicated scheme of Pauls transactions with Corinth, a scheme so complicated that it is its own condemnation.
The ancient Church was unanimous in accepting the Epistle as a part of the Word of God. Of the apostolic fathers Polycarp plainly quotes it. Marcion included it in his canon, and it is also named in the Muratorian Fragment. The Syriac and old Latin Versions contain it, and the three great witnesses of the end of the second century quote it by name.
This Epistle too has permanent value for the Church of God. It is inseparably connected with I Corinthians, and as such also brings out that it is not the wisdom of the world but the foolishness of the cross that saves; and sheds further light on the application of Christian principles to social relations. More than any other Epistle it reveals to us the apostles personality, and is therefore a great psychological aid in the interpretation of his writings. It also has considerable doctrinal interest in that it exhibits a part of the apostles eschatology, 4:16—5:8; brings out the contrast between the letter and the spirit, 3:6-18; describes the beneficent influence of the glory of Christ, 3:18—A:6; and contains an explicit statement of the reconciliation and renovation wrought by Christ, 5:17-21.