Pastor Roger Ellsworth gives an excellent introduction to 2 Corinthians in his very helpful book, The Guide – The Bible Book by Book.
“In the conclusion of 1 Corinthians we
find Paul anticipating Timothy making a visit to the
After returning to
That which is central in 2 Corinthians is the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ as our great Substitute. We cannot understand the message of this Book until we understand the message of its key verse (). Indeed, we cannot understand the Bible until we understand the message of 2 Corinthians 5:21. ― “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
What profound truth, what stupendous grace, what wondrous mystery those words contain! ― “He,” God the Father, “hath,” in holy justice and infinite mercy, “made,” by divine imputation, “him,” the Lord Jesus Christ, his infinite, well-beloved, only begotten, immaculate Son, “to be sin,” an awful mass of iniquity, “for us,” God’s elect, helpless, condemned, sinful rebels! Now, as the result of Christ being made sin for us, and suffering all the horrid wrath of God as our Substitute to the full satisfaction of divine justice, all for whom he died are made to be the very righteousness of God in him by that same divine imputation.
2 Corinthians declares the great, glorious, and effectual substitutionary work of Christ upon the cross, as “he bare our sins in his own body upon the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet. ). This is the foundation truth of Christianity, the rock upon which our hopes are built. This is the only hope of the sinner, and the only joy of the true believer.
“The heart of the gospel,” wrote C. H. Spurgeon, “is redemption, and the essence of redemption is the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.” The great substitutionary work of Christ, the mighty transfer of sin from the sinner to the sinner’s Surety, the punishment of the Surety in the sinner’s place, the pouring out of the infinite, indescribable wrath of God, which was due to us, upon our Substitute ― This is the greatest transaction that ever took place upon the earth, the most marvelous sight that men ever beheld, and the most stupendous wonder that heaven ever executed. Jesus Christ was made to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Jesus Christ, the spotless Son of God was made to be sin; and every sinner who trusts him is made the righteousness of God in him!
2nd Corinthians is clearly the most personal and emotional of all Paul’s letters. These thirteen chapters are filled with passion. They contain far more personal information about Paul and his labors for the gospel than any of his other Epistles. But it is a great mistake to imagine that Paul wrote this Epistle merely to defend himself, or to give us an account of what he did and suffered for Christ. Paul was far too concerned for the glory of God, the souls of men, and the gospel of Christ than that. His defense of himself and his ministry was not a personal defense. Rather it was the defense of Christ and the gospel of his grace that Paul preached.
Jesus Christ and him crucified is the message of 2nd Corinthians. The theme throughout these thirteen chapters is, as in all his Epistles, the glory of Christ in redemption and grace. 2nd Corinthians is filled with Christ and the glory of God's free grace in him. Every argument for obedience, every promise of grace, every hope set before us in these chapters, and every motivation by which Paul inspires us to live in this world for the glory of God is built upon the mercy, grace, and love of God in our all-glorious Christ. Let me show you.
When Paul speaks of grace and peace from God the Father, he tells us that it is “from the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). When he speaks of the blessedness of God, “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforteth us in all our tribulations,” he tells us that our mercies and consolations come to us and abound from our Lord Jesus Christ and his sufferings for us (1:3-5), and that as surely as he was raised from the dead, our God will deliver us from all our woes by his grace (1:8-10). What blessed titles Paul here gives to our God: ― “the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.”
In the 10th verse of chapter 1 Paul speaks of God’s gracious deliverance in three tenses. He is telling us how the Lord continually delivered him from death. Though he had the sentence of death in himself and was so troubled that he “despaired even of life,” he learned not to trust in himself, but “in God which raiseth the dead.” Then he tells us how the Lord had delivered him, was delivering him, and would deliver him. ― “Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us.”
In these things we have a magnificent picture of every believer’s experience of grace. Though we once despaired of life, living under the sentence of death in ourselves, the Lord God graciously saved us. But it is a great mistake to think of salvation only as something we experienced in the past. “Salvation” is a very big word. It includes all the work of God in bringing his elect from the ruins of fallen humanity into “the glorious liberty of the sons of God” in heaven. Salvation includes God’s past works of grace, his present works of grace, and his future works of grace.
The Lord our
God has saved us. There is a very real sense in which it must be said that
every believer’s salvation is a completed work in the past. Our God saved his
elect in his eternal purpose of grace in Christ, the Lamb of God slain from the
foundation of the world (Rom. -30;
Eph. 1:3-6; Rev. 13:8). Election, predestination, and adoption are works by
which God saved us in eternity. He saved us by the sin-atoning sacrifice of
The Lord is saving us now, ever supplying us with grace, preserving and keeping us, because he has declared that we “shall never perish” (John 10:28). His daily providence and his all-sufficient grace are constantly engaged in saving us.
There is also a sense in which it must be said that our salvation is future, “for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed” (Rom. ). There is a day appointed when Christ shall come again. When he does, our salvation will be complete in resurrection glory. All who have been saved are being saved, and shall yet be saved. He who has kept us will keep us unto the end. And, at the last day, he will raise us up into heaven in the perfection of resurrection glory.
The Promises of God
When Paul declares his own veracity as the servant of God, he turns our attention immediately away from himself to the veracity of God our Savior and all the promises of God in him (1:18-22). He declares, “all the promises of God in Christ are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.” Then, he tells us of four great works of grace, by which all the promises of God are verified to us (vv. 21-22). — (1.) He has established us in Christ. — (2.) He has anointed us with his Spirit. — (3.) He has sealed us in his grace. — And (4.) he has “given us the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.”
In chapter 2, when Paul asserts the certain and constant acceptance and triumph of gospel preachers and their message, he says, “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ” (vv. 14-16). He asserts that this is true regardless of the response of men to the message of the gospel. “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life.” Then, in the light of this awesome fact, the apostle declares his own sense of utter insufficiency to engage in such a labor by raising the question, ― “And who is sufficient for these things?” The answer to that question is given in chapter 3. ― “And such trust have we through Christ to God-ward: Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God” (vv. 4-5). The gospel is a trust given into the hands of men made sufficient to the work by God’s grace.
declares that unbelieving men and women read the Scriptures with a blindfold
over their eyes, and therefore cannot see the things of God, he asserts that
that “veil is done away in Christ.” Once God gives faith in Christ, the
blindfold is taken away, and we are able to see and enter into the
A Trusted Treasure
Paul looked upon the ministry God had given him as a heavenly treasure trusted to his care, to which he was determined to be faithful. In chapter 4 he declares that the message he preached, the message we must preach, is “the glorious gospel of Christ,” that by which God gives light and grace to chosen sinners.
“But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:3-7).
Beginning with verse 8 (chap. 4), Paul tells us the he had trouble everywhere, all the time. For him, heartache and woe were relentless. He was “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus” (). Yet, when he speaks of his countless afflictions, he declares them to be but light afflictions and momentary compared to the glory awaiting us in heaven with Christ (4:8-5:9). Blessed is that man or woman who learns to live constantly in the immediate prospect of eternity. It would lighten our load, brighten our days, drive away our gloom, and cheer our hearts to live every day as though we were on the doorstep of heaven.
“Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God. For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor -5:1).
In chapter 5, knowing the terror of the Lord awaiting sinners at the judgment seat of Christ, the apostle seeks to persuade all who read this Epistle to be reconciled to God. How does the inspired writer persuade sinners to trust Christ? By declaring to them the finished work of and redemption accomplished by the crucified Son of God (-6:2).
“For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again. Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain. (For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.)”
Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 have been terribly
misapplied by many to teach that believers are to separate themselves from
unbelievers in their daily lives and normal earthly connections. But that is
not the meaning of this passage. Paul is calling for all who trust Christ to
come out of
When Paul instructs the saints at
There is an abundance of instruction in the New Testament about Christian giving. All of 1st Corinthians 9 and 2nd Corinthians 8 and 9 are taken up with this subject. But there are no commands to the people of God anywhere in the New Testament about how much we are to give. Tithing and all systems like it are things altogether foreign to the New Testament. Like all other acts of worship, giving is an act of grace. It must be free and voluntary. But there are some plain, simple guidelines laid down in 1st and 2nd Corinthians for us to follow.
1. Christian giving must be motivated by love and gratitude towards Christ (2 Cor. 8:8-9). Love needs no law. It is a law unto itself. It is the most powerful and most generous of all motives.
2. Our gifts must arise from willing hearts (2 Cor. ). If that which we give arises from a willing heart, if it is given freely and cheerfully, it is accepted of God. The Lord is not concerned with the amount of our gift, be it great or small; he looks to the motive behind it.
3. We should give to the work of the gospel in proportion to our blessings from the Lord (1 Cor. 16:2). We are expected to give generously in accordance with our own ability.
4. All of God’s people should give (“everyone,” 1 Cor. 16:2; — “every man,” 2 Cor. 9:7). Men and women, rich and poor, old and young, ― all who are saved by the grace of God are expected to give for the support of God’s church and kingdom.
5. We should be both liberal and sacrificial in our giving (2 Cor. 9:5-6). We have not really given anything until we have taken that which we need, want, and have use for and have given it to the Lord (Mark 12:41-44).
6. Our gifts must be voluntary (2 Cor. 9:7).
7. Our gifts must be purposed. — “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give” (2 Cor. 9:7).
8. We are to give as unto the Lord (2 Cor. 9:7; Matt. 6:1-5). We give, not to be seen of men, but for the honor of Christ, hoping for nothing in return.
9. This kind of giving is well-pleasing to God. — “God loveth a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7; Phil. ; Heb. ).
In the 10th
chapter Paul tells us that the weapons of our warfare (prayer, faith, and
gospel preaching), by which we bring rebels to the obedience of faith, are not
carnal, but spiritual (10:3-5). God’s church is an army at war in hostile,
enemy territory. Our battle is not political or social, but spiritual. We are
engaged in a war for the souls of men and the glory of God. In this great army
there are five ranks of
soldiers: the foolish, the weak, the base, the despised, and the things which
are not (1 Cor. -29).
And the weapon by which the
In chapter 11 the apostle Paul shows great concern, lest anyone be “corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ,” by those who preach another Jesus, another, spirit, another gospel, and another righteousness (11:2-5, 13-15). He was fearful that the influence of false apostles (men who claimed to speak as God’s messengers, but were really Satan’s messengers) might turn some away from the singular hope of faith ― Christ.
It is very important that we see how Paul describes these messengers of hell, by whom the souls of men are deceived with a false gospel, preaching “another Jesus” and “another spirit.” They are not described as promoters of licentiousness, immorality, and open blasphemy. They are far more subtle than that. These men are wicked men who, as “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light,” present themselves as “the ministers of righteousness.” They promote righteousness, devotion, morality, and religious works. But the righteousness they preach and promote is self-righteousness, righteousness produced by men, not the righteousness of God in Christ.
When Paul describes his temporary
translation into heaven, he says very little about that experience and focuses
our attention instead upon the lessons he had learned about the all-sufficient
grace of God in Christ (12:2-10). The things he saw and heard in
Though he did not look upon it as such at the time, Paul tells us that this thorn in the flesh was God’s gift to him (Phil. ). At the time, it was so aggravating, painful, and hard to bear that Paul earnestly prayed for the Lord to take this thorn from him.
We must not miss the lesson here given about prayer. None of us knows what is best for the glory of God, the good of our own souls, or the accomplishment of God’s purpose of grace in Christ (v. 8). Because we do not know what is best, we do not know how to pray for anything as we ought. It is written, “We know not what we should pray for as we ought” (Rom. ). Prayer is not for the gratification of our carnal lusts. It is not the means by which we obtain what we want from the Lord. Prayer, true prayer, involves submission to the will of God. It is the cry of the believer’s heart to his heavenly Father to do what is right and best. If I am God’s child, if truly I know him and trust him, I want what he has purposed. I bow to him, surrendering my will to his will, my desires to his purpose, my pleasure to his glory, knowing that his will is best. Therefore, when we pray (in our ignorance) the Holy Spirit cleans up our prayers and presents to the Father the true groanings of our hearts (Rom. ).
Our Lord Jesus taught us ever to surrender our will to the Father’s will. When the will of God appears to contradict that which might appear to be most pleasing to our flesh, we ought always to follow our Masters example, saying, “Not my will, thy will be done.” (See John 12:27-28.)
In this passage Paul tells us plainly that, though the Lord graciously refused to give him what he asked for, he graciously granted him what he really wanted and needed. “The Lord always hears and answers his people sooner or later, in one form or another, though not always in the way and manner they desire; but yet in such a way as is most for his glory and their good. The apostle had not his request granted, that Satan might immediately depart from him, only he is assured of a sufficiency of grace to support him under the exercise, so long as it should last” (John Gill).
The Lord graciously assured Paul of his all-sufficient grace. ― “He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). Here God’s elect are assured of his grace in Christ and the absolute sufficiency of it always and in all things. One of the names of our great God is El-Shaddai, which means God All-sufficient. The grace of God in Christ and that alone is our sufficiency. Nothing but the grace of God in Christ is sufficient grace; and that is sufficient for all his elect, all the time, and in all circumstance.
Look at verse nine again. In the second part of the verse our Savior declares that his strength is made perfect in our weakness. Obviously, our weakness contributes nothing to the perfection of Christ’s strength. He is the omnipotent God. The meaning of this statement is that the strength of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ appears to be, or is manifestly perfect through the weakness of those sinners who are saved by his grace. Paul writes in another place, “When we were yet without strength, in due time, Christ died for the ungodly.”
Read the last sentence of verse nine one more time. ― “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” It is only when we are brought to acknowledge our weakness, infirmity, frailty, nothingness, and insufficiency that the power of Christ and his all sufficient grace rests upon us. The moment we flex our muscles, straighten our backs, lift our chins and say, “I can do this,” we are in trouble.
Pleasure in Infirmity
In 2nd Corinthians we read, "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." Here, writing by inspiration, Paul obeys the admonition given in Joel 3:10, where it is written, “Let the weak say, I am strong”. He that is weak and sees himself to be so is strong in Christ, and has the blessed experience of renewed strength from him day by day. May God give us grace, always, in all things, to know our weakness, that we may have his strength.
When he calls for us to examine ourselves (13:5-6), the one thing to be determined is whether or not we are in the faith, whether or not we trust Christ. ― “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? But I trust that ye shall know that we are not reprobates.”
We are not to examine one another. And we are not to subject ourselves to the examination of others. If we examine others, we will become hardened in self-righteousness, harsh and judgmental, arrogantly making ourselves the standard by which we judge others. If we subject ourselves to the examinations of others, we will have nothing but the words and opinions of men as the basis of our faith. Our assurance, if we get any, will be nothing but a temporary, self-righteous confidence, varying with the opinions of the person to whom we are listening.
The point of examination is this one
thing: — “Whether ye be in the faith.” It does
not matter when, where, or how you came to be in the faith, or even who was
preaching when you believed. It only matters that “ye be in the faith.”
For most of God's people conversion is not a climatic experience, but a gradual
process. Some, like Saul of Tarsus, have great, climatic experiences. But most
are brought to Christ one faltering step at a time. And even those who have
“Prove your own selves.” — The only way to know “whether ye be in the faith” is to bring your faith to the Word of God, crying with David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try (prove) me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me (see if I am in the way of the wicked), and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psa. 139:23-24).
If God will “say unto my soul, I am thy salvation” (Psa. 35:3), I want no other proof. Does the Lord God give such a word to believing sinners, a word by which we may be assured of his grace? Indeed, he does. ― “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:1-13).