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The Crisis in Corinth. The Intermediate Visit

In between his founding visit to Corinth, already described, and his final visit, still to be discussed, Paul made yet another visit, for a total of three visits. It is clear from 2 Corinthians 12:14 and 13:1 that the second visit is past, and the third is contemplated. 

This intermediate visit was made with a sense of urgency, as shown by a change of long held travel plans, in order to make this trip (2 Corinthians 1:15-18; compare 1 Corinthians 16:5-8). 
     

     

     

     

     

     

     

For further details, click on Intermediate Visit.

This change of plans was occasioned partly by internal issues which were “old business,” but mostly by external issues which were  “new business.” Paul already knew about certain internal problems before he arrived in Corinth: disorder and immorality among certain members of the congregation (2 Corinthians 12:20 - 13:2); dissatisfaction over his refusal to accept financial support from them (hence, they allege, Paul does not love them, and does not claim perquisites which a genuine apostle would accept, 2 Corinthians 11:7-12); and rumors concerning possible misappropriation of funds in connection with the collection project (2 Corinthians 12:16-18).
     

The greater threat was external, the presence of rival teachers, ostensibly Christian, who had come with impressive credentials (“letters of recommendation,” 2 Corinthians 3:1). They were preaching another Jesus and another gospel, and the people were receptive (2 Corinthians 11:4). They likely impressed the Corinthians as skilled in speaking and in knowledge. From his own observation, he later characterizes the teachers (ironically) as “super-apostles,” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11). He calls them “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2  Corinthians 11:13);  they are “[Satan’s ministers, disguising] themselves  as ministers of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:15). They have made claims of their Jewishness (2 Corinthians 11:22). A substantial defection to these leaders (or threat of defection) had taken place. 

Thus, Paul must have felt that he had little choice but to make this intermediate visit to Corinth, to address these problems and confront the false teachers directly.
   

   

    

     
Paul concedes that he is no competition as a speaker (2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:6), but claims he is able to hold his own in knowledge.

   
It is unclear whether these Jewish Christians were in some way connected with the rigorists of Antioch, Galatia, and perhaps Philippi.
          

Humiliation at Corinth

By the time Paul reached Corinth, the situation was likely already spinning out of control. The last straw was a nasty incident in which Paul was grievously wronged by a member of the congregation, a situation made worse by the people’s failure to come to Paul’s aid and support. It is possible that the offender was encouraged in this unfortunate act by the rival apostles.

Paul had little alternative but to change his itinerary yet again and return to Ephesus.  But he did not depart Corinth without leaving his forwarding address (Ephesus instead of Macedonia, as planned); without sternly admonishing and warning the Corinthians, especially unrepentant sinners (2 Corinthians 13:2); and without laying upon the congregation the obligation (at least implicitly) to discipline the offender.

     

     

See 2 Corinthians 2:5-10; 7:12, for a retrospective view of the episode. Click on offender

Letter H = 2 Corinthians 10 - 13

Back in Ephesus, Paul made a serious reality check:  he recognized that face to face confrontation with his opponents had not worked, and he determined to play his strong suit and write a letter instead. 

   

     

     

2 Corinthians 10:10   For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”
   

   • In this letter he would address the issues as impersonally as possible, not mentioning the name of the offender who had treated him so shabbily—in hopes eventually of bringing about reconciliation;
     
   • He would establish procedures for disciplinary action to be carried out by the Corinthian believers;
     
2 Corinthians 13:1-3.
   • He would speak his mind quite openly about the intrusive teachers, who were deceiving the people;
     
   • He would abandon reticence about his own personal gifts and accomplishments, and would boast of his apostolic credentials; and
     
2 Corinthians 10:12 - 12:13.
   • He would plead for a return to obedience, at the same time assuring them of his continuing love.
     
2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 11:11; 13:1-11.
This, then, is the kind of letter Paul wrote, as defensive and boastful as he would ever get; the kind of letter which he hoped would assure that his forthcoming visit would not be another painful visit. What else does the letter have to offer? In truth it sets no rich banquet of spirituality and theology such as we will find in the sequel, Letter R. Nevertheless, there are some gems to be found in the wreckage of this polemical landscape.
     
2 Corinthians 10 - 13 is in fact a letter fragment, lacking the customary letter opening elements.

Paul, the Mystic

Of particular interest is the disclosure of the mystical Paul. When he had been pushed to the wall by the Corinthian controversy, he at last opened up a whole area of his life which would otherwise have remained unknown to us. He tells of an experience of ecstasy, when he was caught up to the third heaven (whatever that means). He finds no way to speak of an experience that was ineffable. With reticence, he can only refer to himself impersonally, as “a man in Christ.”

2 Corinthians 12:1-10   1It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

The mystical experience referred to is important in itself, but two other matters in this text invite brief exploration:  Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” and the paradox of grace. 
     

   

   

   

     

     

This ineffability is well summarized by Prof. Furnish (1984:545), “. . . The apostle has provided his readers with very little information about this extraordinary journey . . . . How, precisely, he was taken up to Paradise he does not know, what he saw there he does not say, and what he heard there he must not repeat.”

Paul’s Illness?

The thorn in the flesh seems to be his way of referring to a more or less chronic physical malady, possibly related to the illness which occasioned his first visit to Galatia. Whether it was epilepsy, or some neurological trauma, or an eye disease, or, somewhat more likely, malaria with attendant fevers and headaches, we can only speculate. 

     

    

    

    
Galatians 4:13.

Grace Sufficient

Also worthy of note is Paul’s notion of the paradox of grace, earlier expressed in 1 Corinthians and here elaborated. The paradox of the cross is clearly the pattern for his experience.  

1 Corinthians 15:10   But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10   9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  10  . . . For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 13:4   For [Christ] was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God.  For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

  

   

      

          

 

   

Compare Philippians 2:12-13.


Compare 1 Corinthians 1:23-25; 

Personal Reflections

While there is much that is defensive and boastful in Letter H, these elements actually work to our advantage in that Paul reveals more details of his life story than would otherwise be known.

2 Corinthians 11:21-33   “. . . 24Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26. . .  [in] danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles . . . . 33[At Damascus, during the time of King Aretas,] I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall . . . . 

From this chronicling of his sufferings, we learn a number of things, not all of which are easy to fit into the conventional view of Paul’s life and work.
     

   
   • Paul did sometimes visit Jewish synagogues, and was thus subject to their jurisdiction and punishments, especially the thirty nine lashes.
     
Though an apostle to the gentiles, Paul does not seem to have cut off contacts with the synagogue.    
    
   • Paul was sometimes beaten with rods, a  punishment from which Roman citizens are supposed to be exempt.
     
It is doubtful whether Paul was a Roman citizen, as a later discussion notes.     
   • The episode of his escape from Damascus during the reign of King Aretas IV provides us our only point (and not a very precise one, at that) for establishing an absolute chronology based on the letters for dating events in his life.
     
     
Click on Aretas Datum

Letter H Is Sent

When Paul had completed the letter (Letter H, in the series), he dispatched it to Corinth, most likely in the care of Titus. It is also possible that he deputized Titus to provide interpretation for the Corinthians on any points in the letter that might have been misunderstood, and to assure them of Paul’s good faith and good intentions. As Paul sends Titus off, he gives his lieutenant reassurance and encouragement by boasting of the Corinthians, reminding him that they were basically sound and would get themselves properly turned around and headed in the right direction.
     

     

     

   

   

   

     

2 Corinthians 7:14.
   
     

Paul also gives him directions by which they will rendezvous:  Paul will soon be on his way to Troas, and Titus, after his visit to Corinth, is to meet him there and report firsthand on how the Corinthians have responded to this letter. We do not know whether Paul might have considered calling off his third visit to Corinth if the news brought by Titus had turned out to be unfavorable. It is clear that Paul did not want another gut-wrenching, painful visit to Corinth.
     

     
2 Corinthians 2:12-13.

     

     

     

2 Corinthians 2:1, 3.

     

Click cumulative Sequence Chart 3 for a schematic summary of Paul’s work, through “The Ephesus Years.”

     

Click Next button below to continue, Ephesian Headquarters (7).
     
Revised March 15, 2003

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