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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 2

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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The apostle Paul wrote much like some people talk; one thing led to another; and he often digressed from a line of thought, coming back to it only after a parenthetical discussion of something else. This trip through 2 Corinthians is as exciting as a drive down Oak Creek canyon, with one sensational view following another. Paul concluded his explanation of the change in his plans (2 Corinthians 2:1-4), recommended leniency to the Corinthians in a disciplinary problem (2 Corinthians 2:5-11), touched on his waiting for Titus at Troas (2 Corinthians 2:12-13), and penned a masterpiece regarding the nature of gospel influence, drawing a rather rough analogy from the spectacle of a Roman triumph.

Verse 1

But I determined this for myself, that I would not come again to you with sorrow.

Regardless of how little we know of any sorrowful visit Paul had paid the Corinthians, the plain meaning of several passages in this letter demands the conclusion that it was made and that it cannot be identified with the original visit which led to the founding of the church. Paul wrote: "This is the third time I am ready to come to you (2 Corinthians 12:14); and he repeated it, "This is the third time I am coming to you" (2 Corinthians 13:1). Even the verse before us contributes to the certainty that Paul had already made two visits to Corinth when 2 Corinthians was written; because it is very difficult to imagine that Paul here referred to his original visit to Corinth, which had resulted in one of the most successful preaching experiences of his whole life and the gathering of a mighty congregation of believers. No; there had to have been another visit, a sorrowful visit.

Come again to you with sorrow … But, cannot this have the meaning of, "My second visit to you should not be a sad one," rather than "I would not pay you a second sad visit"? Theodoret, Farrar and other learned commentators say that it can, and that "The notion of three visits to Corinth, one unrecorded, is a needless and mistaken inference."(F1) Despite this, Paul’s double mention of his proposed visit as the "third" one (cited above) declares the certainty of a second one already made. The thing that upsets the commentators is that no one knows anything about that second visit, except as indicated here, that it was a sad one. We admire the frank honesty of David Lipscomb who said, "But this (2 Corinthians 13:1) with 2 Corinthians 12:14, makes it clear that he made a visit of which we have no record."(F2) Extreme caution should be used, however, in accepting the wild and irresponsible assertions of some recent exegetes with regard to "what happened" at that unrecorded visit. It is the ridiculous postulations of some on what took place at that visit that have made it impossible for some scholars to admit that it took place; and, as regards the KIND OF VISIT alleged and in which Paul "was insulted,"(F3) etc., etc. That VISIT did not occur, being nothing but the fruit of a fertile imagination!

The silence of Luke in Acts with regard to that "second visit" "should not be taken as being in conflict with the natural interpretation of what Paul said here; many things are omitted by Luke."(F4)

Regarding the question of when that other visit (the second) took place, this too is a disputed problem. Hughes, Alford, Denney, Lightfoot, Zahn, Sanday and many others regard it as having occurred before 1 Corinthians was written, rejecting out of hand the proposition that it took place in the interval between the two Corinthian letters of the New Testament. After reading all of the material available on the question, this writer simply does not know when it took place, but finds no fault with placing it between the letters, IF at the same time we reject totally the speculative allegations of imaginative critics whose arrogant assertions of what took place at that meeting are pure nonsense. How could any responsible scholar tell what happened at a meeting which might have happened before either of the Corinthians was written, and of which not one authentic syllable is anywhere recorded, either in the New Testament or anywhere else? Reluctant as arrogant scholarship may be to confess that it does not know, the certain fact of total ignorance on this point must be respected by all who regard the truth.

Verse 2

For if I make you sorry, who then is he that maketh me glad but he that is made sorry by me?

Farrar’s discernment of the meaning here is this: "Paul was unwilling to pain those who gladdened him, and therefore would not pay them a visit which could only be painful on both sides."(F5)

Verse 3

And I wrote this very thing, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice, having confidence in you all, that my joy is the joy of you all.

I wrote this very thing … This is most suitably understood as a direct reference to 1 Corinthians 16:5 ff where he told the Corinthians of his revised itinerary."(F6) Some have referred these words to the "lost letter"; but such a reference is arbitrary. Besides, the understanding of these words as a reference to First Corinthians "has been the understanding of the church through many centuries."(F7) Hughes, wise comment on this place is:

The further we are removed in time from the original events, the more we should, as a matter of principle, hesitate to entertain novel theories in the face of a strong tradition of interpretation and in the absence of anything fresh in the way of external evidence. In a case of this kind, the probability is all in favor of the earlier exegesis being correct rather than the later conjecture.(F8)

Verse 4

For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be made sorry, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you.

This continues to be a reference to 1 Corinthians, nor can this be construed as any sort of proof of a second lost letter between the canonical Corinthians. The notion that 1 Corinthians could not have been written out of "anguish of heart" betrays a total insensitivity to the things which most assuredly can cause anguish of heart to any Christian, especially to the apostle who had converted them and had such love for them. The conditions at Corinth, described in 1 Corinthians, were exceedingly deplorable. Incest, heartless lawsuits by the members before pagan judges, drunkenness at the Lord’s table, arrogant self-seeking among the members, denials of the resurrection, warring, loveless factions, etc., etc. "Any one of these things was sufficient to cause Paul real distress and the severest grief."(F9) McGarvey also understood this verse as a reference to 1 Corinthians.

Verse 5

But if any hath caused sorrow, he hath caused sorrow, not to me, but in part (that I press not too heavily) to you all.

The traditional interpretation of this makes it a reference to the incestuous person of 1 Corinthians 5:1-8. McGarvey saw in 2 Corinthians 2:3-5 above a plain hint of the connection between the two passages, since, he said, "By referring to 1 Corinthians 4:21; 1 Corinthians 5:1, it will be seen that the threat of correction at his coming and the case of the incestuous person were twin thoughts in his mind."(F10) Although this writer began these studies in 2 Corinthians with the firm conviction that the offender mentioned in this passage is not the same as the incestuous person of 1 Corinthians 5:1 ff, extensive study of the question has inclined more and more to the traditional view that they are one and the same.

For nineteen centuries, the almost unanimous position of scholars was that of accepting the two offenders as the same person; and no hard evidence of any kind has been discovered that could refute it. Some made the deduction that "deliverance to Satan" in 1 Corinthians likely caused the death of the incestuous person, but such a deduction cannot be proved. In the light of this passage in 2 Corinthians, if applied to him, he did not die. As was pointed out in the comment on 1 Corinthians 5:1 ff, there are many things about that episode which are simply unknown and unknowable.

In all history, until very recent times, only one voice was ever raised in denial of the identity of the two offenders as one; and that was that of Tertullian who lived only about a hundred years after the times of Paul. Yet, even in his case, it appears that the universally held conviction of that time was denied by nobody except Tertullian; and he was able to offer no proof whatever to support it. As Hughes reasoned:

If Tertullian had had any knowledge of a tradition or even hypothesis that a scandalous affront had been offered either to Paul or his deputy Timothy after the delivery of First Corinthians, or that Paul had paid an intermediate visit to Corinth during which his authority had been treated with contempt, and that he had afterward written an intermediate letter demanding the punishment of the offender, it is incredible that he should not have welcomed it as a corroboration of his own view that Paul did not here refer to the incestuous man.(F11)

How strange it is that Tertullian’s denial of the identity of these two offenders as being the same person should itself have become the most positive evidence of the very thing he denied. The ways of the Lord are not the ways of human beings. After considering this ancient voice from the sub-apostolic age, this writer feels the utmost confidence in receiving the long sustained opinion that the same offender appears in both passages. A corollary of this is the rejection of the notion that Paul’s second visit occurred between the Corinthian letters, and also that of "the severe letter" being anything other than a reference to the canonical 1 Corinthians.

He hath caused sorrow, not to me … Paul could not possibly have said this about some buffoon’s contemptuously insulting him in the public assembly at Corinth, which is the gist of most of the speculative descriptions of that alleged meeting.

But in part … to you all … The scandalous conduct of the incestuous person was a public disgrace to the whole church; and to suppose that such an affront to Christian morality had not caused deep sorrow to the whole church is to suppose an impossibility. Paul too was sorry; but the scandal was not an affront to him, but a public calamity to the whole church. Every minister can recall incidents of great moral failure in a congregation and the heartache that inevitably came upon the whole congregation as a result.

In part … indicates that not all of the congregation grieved; some "puffed up" libertarians did not have enough sense of Christian morality to cause them any grief whatever.

Verse 6

Sufficient to such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the many.

The tact and consideration of Paul are evident in his unwillingness even to mention either the name of the offender or to identify the shameful sin of which he was guilty.

Inflicted by the many … This indicates that, according to his instructions (1 Corinthians 5:4), the whole congregation had dealt with the offender in a public gathering. There was no way to ease sin like that out of the church privately.

Sufficient … This requires the understanding that the guilty man had put away his father’s wife, acknowledging his sin, and returning to the congregation with a plea for forgiveness.

Verses 7-8

So that contrariwise ye should rather forgive him and comfort him, lest by any means such a one should be swallowed up with his overmuch sorrow. Wherefore, I beseech you to confirm your love toward him.

Forgive … comfort him … The notion of some, going all the way back to Tertullian, that the man’s sin was in any sense unforgivable is founded on a lack of perceiving the fact that the blood of Jesus Christ is more than sufficient to the cleansing of "all sin" (1 John 1:7), even of Christians. As a matter of truth, the incestuous person was hardly any greater sinner than many of the other Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6:8-11). The failure to believe Paul was here speaking of the incestuous person also stems from the failure to view a sin forgiven as being something infinitely removed from a sin unforgiven.

I beseech you to confirm your love toward him … Nothing could be more unbecoming to a church, or to Christians, than to withhold forgiveness from a penitent Christian needing and asking it. It should be noted that Paul’s request that forgiveness be extended is made in this letter and that there is no mention of a prior request to that effect.

Verse 9

For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye are obedient in all things.

The "painful visit" and "severe letter" theorists have misread this verse.

To this end also did I write … refers to the clauses following and not to the request of forgiveness, that is, the proof of obedience, which should be referred to his order of discipline for the incestuous man. Of course, if "to this end" is made to refer to a request for forgiveness for the offender, it would demand the postulation of an intermediate letter, there being no request of forgiveness for the offender in 1 Corinthians, as there had been no repentance at the time 1 Corinthians was written. Thus, another supposed "proof" of the intervening "severe letter" is nothing but an improper reading of this verse.

Verses 10-11

But to whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also: for what I also have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, for your sakes have I forgiven it in the presence of Christ; that no advantage may be gained over us by Satan: for we are not ignorant of his devices.

Titus had informed Paul of the successful issue of the order of discipline enforced upon the incestuous man, only with the exception that some of the church seemed unwilling to forgive and reinstate him. Paul added the record of his own forgiveness of the man’s sin, "in the presence of Christ" as an added inducement to making his forgiveness and reinstatement complete.

His devices … The device of Satan which surfaces in this paragraph is that of a super-piety that will not forgive offenders even when they have put away their sin, repented, and asked forgiveness. This device is still being used by the devil.

Verses 12-13

Now when I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ, and when a door was opened unto me in the Lord, I had no relief for any spirit, because I found not Titus my brother: but taking my leave of them, I went forth into Macedonia.

I had no relief … Paul had gone to Troas after the riot at Ephesus (on his way to Macedonia) as recorded in Acts 20:1; and, from what is said here, it is clear that great opportunities for the gospel strongly inclined Paul to take advantage of those opportunities; but the anxious uncertainty that he felt because of the still unresolved situation in Corinth made it impossible for him to remain. Titus’ meeting with him there, as evidently planned, did not occur; and as almost a year had passed since his epic letter had been sent (1 Corinthians), he decided to press on into Macedonia in the hope of meeting Titus on the way. That reassuring meeting with Titus came to Paul’s mind as these words were written; and the news was so encouraging that he burst into an extended expression of praise and thanksgiving to God, forming a rather lengthy parenthesis between this mention of Titus and the resumption of his line of thought again in 2 Corinthians 7:5.

Verse 14

But thanks be to God, who is always leadeth us in triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest through us the savor of his knowledge in every place.


Suddenly, in the light of the good news brought by Titus, Paul sees the glorious triumph of the gospel through him; and he compared it to a glorious triumph, like those for Roman emperors, with Christ as the great Conqueror and himself as a captive participating in it and sharing in the glory of it.

The Corinthians knew about triumphs, for the triumph of L. Mummius over the conquest of Corinth was one of the most splendid spectaculars the world had ever seen; and then in A.D. 51, only five or six years before 2 Corinthians was written, Claudius had celebrated his triumph over the Britons; "and their king Caractacus had been led in the procession, but his life was spared."(F12)

Such a triumph always featured the conquering here, whose many captives were led behind, some to be freed, others to be slaughtered as a feature of the spectacle; and Paul’s appeal to the triumph metaphor envisioned Christ as the great Conqueror who leads all people, whether they will or not; Paul’s view of himself in this was that of his being willingly led in the train of Christ and expecting to receive his mercy at last. "The haughty Cleopatra had said, `I will not be led in triumph’";(F13) and there are many like that with regard to Christ.

Verses 15-16

For we are a sweet savor of Christ unto God, in them that are saved, and in them that perish; to the one a savor from death unto death; to the other a savor from life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?

Vast quantities of incense were burned along the route of a Roman triumph; and those who were in the heroic procession found the meaning of that odor an assurance of their death on the one hand, or of their life, if they were spared, on the other hand. The overwhelmingly delicious odor that marked the triumph meant death for some, life for others. Paul here affirmed that it is like this with the gospel. It saves some, destroys others. In a similar way, the parables of Jesus enlightened some, but hardened and destroyed others. Not the gospel, but people’s response to it, is the determinator.

McGarvey pointed out the extremely significant phrases "from death" and "from life" as used in this passage. To the unbelieving, the news of the gospel is from one who was crucified and is dead; so, for them, it is an odor from death unto death, even eternal death; but to Christians, the news (odor) is "from life," that is, from One who is alive forever more. Hence, the news of the gospel is "from life unto life" in them that are saved.(F14)

Paul’s use of this analogy is somewhat loose, for he made several applications of it. In 1 Corinthians 4:9, he pictured the apostles as bringing up the rear of the triumphal procession, which was the position of those appointed to die in the arena. Nevertheless, this is one of the most effective and instructive analogies in the Pauline writings.

Who is sufficient for these things …? The meaning of this is: "What kind of ministry could be adequate for such a task?"(F15) And Paul’s unhesitating reply is, "Ours is!" And why is the ministry of Paul the apostle sufficient for such heavenly usage? The answer is thundered in the next verse being this, that he was preaching the pure gospel of God without adulteration like that practiced by the false apostles and teachers who were hindering the Corinthians.

Verse 17

For we are not as the many, corrupting the word of God: but as of God, in the sight of God, speak we in Christ.

Corrupting the word of God … The figure here is originally that of a tavern keeper who mixes poor wine with good to increase his profits."(F16) In such a comparison as this, two things appear: (1) there is the disclosure of the true motive of false teachers who are in the gospel business for the profit they can make for themselves, and (2) there is the usual method of such teachers, that of adding to the gospel substances that are no part of the true gospel with the intention of making it more acceptable to sinners who rebel at the true gospel.

As Carver said of this:

The first leads to the second. To approach the ministry with motives of personal profit, ambition, or vanity, is already to adulterate it. He who makes the word serve his advantage rather than being a servant of the word changes the very character of the gospel.(F17)

Paul’s quadruple affirmation of the integrity of his own ministry is the profound declaration that it was conducted: (1) in sincerity, (2) of God, that is, by his direct authority and order, (3) in the sight of God, that is, openly and in view of all people as well as in the sight of God, and (4) in Christ, which means, as a pure and faithful member of the spiritual body of Christ (the church), and in full compliance with all Christian duties.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/2-corinthians-2.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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