Second Corinthians is arguably the most personal of Paul’s nine letters to local churches (not including those to Timothy, Titus, or Philemon). Over thirteen chapters he shared his physical and emotional distress, he encouraged a volatile group of believers as he defended his apostolic authority over them. The first section (chapters 1-5) contains the major key to the letter’s theme (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) and reveals the apostle as weak and sickly, battling heartache and depression. In this letter, Paul truly wrote out of his pain. (See the introduction to 1 Corinthians for more information regarding this church.)
Paul’s exact location at the time of this writing is uncertain, but his account of waiting for Titus at Troas then going to Macedonia (2 Corinthians 2:12-13; 7:5-7) seems to place him in Macedonia (near Philippi, Thessalonica, or Berea) in Acts 20, so he probably wrote this letter around A.D. 55-56. Since he was in Ephesus headed for Macedonia when he wrote 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:8), it is probable he was still traveling on that itinerary.
Chapter one breaks slightly from the traditional letter format of ancient times. Following the writer’s name and intended recipients, we find Paul’s standard blessing of “grace and peace” (2 Corinthians 1:2). Often there would be a short prayer of thanksgiving for the readers as well (see Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; et al.), but Paul chose to focus his attention immediately upon God, the Great Comforter. Paul was quick to declare a major reason that they were comforted “in all our troubles” was “so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble” (2 Corinthians 1:4). The cliché, “Blessed to be a blessing,” is more appropriately stated, “Comforted to extend comfort.” This is not only a major theme of this letter, but it is also a timeless principle that believers would do well to remember and faithfully live out today. Whenever we gain comfort in a time of testing or trial, God wants us to hold onto that so we can share that with others.
The reason for Paul’s introductory remarks is obvious very quickly: he and Timothy were sick and discouraged (2 Corinthians 1:8-11). Consider his description of their current state: “affliction . . . burdened excessively, beyond our strength . . . despaired even of living . . . sentence of death . . . so great a risk of death.” Whatever the situations they faced that combined to bring them to that point, Paul’s only hope was that the believers would join with him in prayer and that God would deliver them from death again.
Paul revealed the second purpose of his letter in 2 Corinthians 1:12-22. He had intended to visit Corinth again, so he could provide them with a spiritual blessing and experience mutual comfort and growth (2 Corinthians 1:15; see Romans 1:11-12). While he was with them, he expected that they would help him get to Macedonia and back to Judea. Although he deliberately chose to not ask for ongoing financial support, Paul knew he had that right and was not hesitant to seek monetary help when he thought it necessary (see 1 Corinthians 9:1-12). However, as he would explain shortly, he had to change those plans. Unfortunately, it appears that someone in the church had used Paul’s delay to malign the apostle and make it seem that he was two-faced, promising one thing yet doing something else. Paul questioned his accusers and those who listened to them: “Is this my normal method that you have to come expect? Is this the gospel I preached to you, how I presented Christ? Have my co-workers, Silas or Timothy, ever given you that impression?” His answer was, “Of course not. God speaks only truth, and we glorify him by doing the same.” Paul claimed that the truth of his promises (and plans) was based on God’s strength, our unity in Christ, and the Spirit’s indwelling and sealing (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).
What a great reminder for us that speaking the truth is the very work of the Trinity in our lives.