2. Preaching Outlines
3. Key Themes and Motifs
4. Problem Passages
5. Commentaries and Resources
6. Preaching Christ from the Book
7. Why You Should Preach This Book
This letter of Paul’s is unique. It is not marked by the same symmetrical shape and structure as many of his other letters. One cannot divide 2 Corinthians up into a neat “Introduction, Doctrine, Application, Conclusion” outline like Romans or Ephesians or Colossians. This is because 2 Corinthians is written as a part of an ongoing dialogue between Paul and the Christians in Corinth. If you can imagine listening to one side of a phone conversation, you can start to get an idea of how this book is laid out. Paul, on one end of the phone call, talks about his plans to come to Corinth, then he talks about church discipline, then he talks about how to read your Bible, and eventually the conversation goes to financial stewardship and the reminder for Christians to marry other Christians. There is another speaker—the Corinthian church—who shapes the conversation just like Paul, but we cannot hear that speaker. We are in the room with Paul, hearing only his answers to their questions, and his comments on their assertions. If 2 Corinthians were the transcript of a speech it would be maddeningly confusing. This is not how speeches are written. But it is how conversations occur. In a way, then, the fluctuation of themes in 2 Corinthians makes the letter all the more relatable. Paul addresses travel plans and church discipline and suffering and money because local churches are, at any given moment, dealing with all of these things simultaneously (as the agenda of topics in just about every elders meeting of every church confirms!). This is a real-life church letter, written to a real-life church, which means that we—as members of real-life churches, dealing with real-life church situations—have much to glean from it.
Since Paul’s opponents are nowhere named explicitly, and since the nature of their criticism is nowhere disclosed in full, we must read between the lines. Paul’s heartache over the Corinthians is near audible in this letter (cf. 6:13, 7:2, 10:1-2). The central tragedy that animates Paul’s emotive language is the Corinthian’s lack of loyalty. A class of teachers critical of Paul had infiltrated the Corinthian church with no apparent objection from the believers there (e.g., “you put up with it readily enough.” 11:4). Their central message is not certain, but the mood and general thrust of their ministry is apparent from Paul’s response. They carried themselves with a swagger and built their platform largely by putting Paul down, stepping on him to elevate themselves. Boasting of super-apostolic status (11:5), they placed a high premium on letters of recommendation (3:1), physical professionality (10:10), and rhetorical showmanship (11:6). Calling attention to Paul’s apparent lack of these qualities served to both belittle him and elevate themselves. As the Corinthians grew increasingly sour toward Paul, his disappointment understandably occasions words of exhortation and rebuke (10-13).
It would be a mistake to assume, however, that Paul’s defense of his ministry is a reactionary expression of hurt feelings. Second Corinthians contains a calculated defense aimed at the Corinthian’s good. Their abandonment of Paul reflected a deeper problem. Paul was far more concerned with repudiating the Corinthians’ idolatry than with preserving his own reputation.
Second Corinthians is actually the fourth letter Paul writes to the Corinthians, and in-between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians is a personal visit, and a “tearful” letter. In 2:1-4, Paul refers to his last visit as “painful.” This painful visit is the occasion for writing his tearful letter. In 2:5, we can start to get an idea of why it was painful. It was painful because someone had caused him pain. Given the context of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians as a whole and what he has to say in this letter, it is probable that someone publicly challenged his authority and questioned his integrity and the rest of the congregation said nothing in his defense. This is a painful thing for Paul, who has invested so much personal, pastoral attention to these people. It is what occasions him saying things like, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affection. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also” (2 Cor 6:12). All this to say, 2 Corinthians is an emotionally heavy letter.
2. Preaching Outlines
Bethlehem Baptist Church
The God of All Comfort | 1:1-7
The God Who Raises the Dead | 1:8-11
Blood-Bought Boasting | 1:12-14
Yes in Christ | 1:15-20
Standing Strong Together in Christ | 1:21-22
The Aim of All Ministry | 1:23-24
Christian Hedonism Is a Community Project 2:1-5
Outsmarting Satan | 2:5-11
Thanksgiving for Spreading Through Suffering | 2:12-14
The Aroma of Christ | 2:15-17
Christ’s Living Letters | 3:1-3
The Sufficiency of the Spirit | 3:4-6
The Greater Glory of the Gospel | 3:7-11
Set Free to See | 3:12-18
The Gospel of Christ’s Glory | 4:1-6
God’s Power in Cracked Pots | 4:7-12
Faith Finds a Voice | 4:13-15
The Hope of Glory | 4:16-18
The Home of Glory | 5:1-5
Pleasing the Lord | 5:6-10
Controlled by Christ | 5:11-15
The Ministry of Reconciliation | 5:16-6:2
Wide Open | 6:3-13
Family Ties | 6:14-7:1
The Hospitality of the Heart | 7:2-4
The God Who Comforts the Downcast | 7:4-7
The Painful Joy of Repentance | 7:8-13
Horizontal Christian Hedonism | 7:13-16
Funding the Filling: Amazing Grace | 8:1-7
Funding the Filling: The Grace of Christ | 8:8-9
Funding the Filling: Finish What You Started | 8:10-15
Funding the Filling: Thanks Be to God | 8:16-24
Gospel-Drenched Giving | 9:1-5
God Loves a Cheerful Giver 9:6-7
Grace Abounding | 9:8-11
Grace Be to God | 9:12-15
Bold Warfare: Tearing Down | 10:1-6
Bold Warfare: Building Up | 10:7-11
Bold Warfare: Boasting in the Lord | 10:12-18
Fooled by Satan | 11:1-11
Fooled by Satan’s Servants | 11:5-15
Fooled by False Leadership | 11:16-21
The Fool’s Boast | 11:21-33
Boasting Like a Weakling | 12:1-10
The Cure for Foolish Thinking | 12:11-21
The Final Visit | 13:1-4
The Final Exam | 13:5-14
Introduction | 1:1-2
The God of All Comfort 1:3-11
The Faithfulness of God | 1:12-2:4
The Dangerous Gift of Church Discipline | 2:5-11
The Aroma of Christ | 2:12-17
A Tale of Two Covenants | 3:1-11
The Glory of Christ | 3:12-4:6
Treasures in Jars of Clay | 4:7-18
The Hope of Heaven | 5:1-11
The Ministry of Reconciliation | 5:12-21
Sorrowful Yet Always Rejoicing | 6:1-13
God’s Temple | 6:14-7:1
God’s Kindness to His Saints Through His Saints | 7:2-16
Gospel-Motivating Giving | 8:1-24
A Cheerful Giver | 9:1-15
Paul’s Defense | 10:1-18
Godly Self-Denial | 11:1-15
Godly Sarcasm | 11:16-33
Power Through Weakness | 12:1-10
Paul’s Pleading | 12:11-21
Final Exhortations | 13:1-14
3. Key Themes and Motifs
God’s Dealing Within the Church – If we learn nothing else from this book, we learn that God ministers to his people through his people. We learn from this letter that God comforts his people through the comforting of others (2 Cor 1:3-11), that he saves and redeems people through the gospel witness of his saints (2 Cor 2:12-17; 5:11-21), that he ministers to his people through the faithful witness of his suffering children (2 Cor 4:7-18), that he encourages his people through the encouraging reports of others (2 Cor 7:2-16), and that he blesses his people financially through the gifts of others (2 Cor 8:1-9:15). This means that the little phrase in 2 Cor 5, “we are ambassadors of Christ,” is paradigmatic; this is who we are to one another. We are instruments in God’s hands to build up and shape one another. God speaks correction and encouragement to us through the voice of our brothers and sisters. God provides for us through the financial generosity of our brothers and sisters. God embraces us with the arms of our brothers and sisters. To journey through this book is to reorient the way members of a church view one another in a God-glorifying way. At the bottom of all our ministry to one another is God, building up his Church.
God’s Purpose for Suffering – This letter of Paul’s develops, perhaps more thoroughly than anywhere else in the whole of Scripture, a theology of suffering. Second Corinthians 4:7-5:10 has made it into more counseling conversations than I can count, and for good reason, because in these verses we are given promises for the suffering saint from God himself. The two greatest mistakes we can make when thinking about suffering are, on the one hand, to minimize or trivialize, and, on the other hand, to catastrophize and despair. Paul will not let us to either with 2 Corinthians. He lets our suffering weigh as heavy as it is, and he refuses to ever let us label it as “pointless.” No, not for the Christian. There is no such thing as wasted suffering for the believer. Suffering is real, and it is sanctifying. Few churches have ever had a shortage of suffering people because the world has never had a shortage of suffering, so taking time as a congregation to consider God’s purposes for suffering is a must. It will help to shape a local church into the kind of people who are “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10)—the kind of people who have biblical reflexes when it comes to suffering. It will shape them into the kind of people who bear the burdens of their suffering members in an informed way—in a way that appreciates the gravity of pain, and the eternal weight of glory that makes it light by comparison (2 Cor 4:17-18).
The Paradox of Power Through Weakness – Paul’s whole paradigm for “successful” Christian ministry can be summed up in the counter-intuitive, apparently contradictory phrase: power through weakness. That is, God’s power through my weakness. This is something that the Corinthians needed reminding of over and over again because, much like our own culture, Corinth valued self-aggrandizement, self-promotion, and boasting. The cultural air they breathed incentivized pride. Paul, on the other hand, fiercely plows in the other direction. In 2 Corinthians, the apostle, like nowhere else in the Bible, advocates for “downward mobility.” Paul will still boast, but he boasts in his weakness for the central reason that it showcases the power of God (2 Cor 12:9). It is not fine china that God stores his treasures in, but jars of clay (2 Cor 4:7). This is true reality for the Christian: power comes through weakness. We are never stronger than when we have despaired of our own strength and have thrown ourselves entirely upon the empowering grace of God. This is crucial for us in our own day. Much like Corinth, our own culture prizes self-promotion and braggadocios boasting. Book publishers practically fall over themselves trying to get more and more to the point with their titles. “You Are a Rockstar,” “Pick Yourself First Because You’re the Best and You Deserve It,” “Girlfriend, Wash Your Head” (note: these are fictional titles inspired by true ones. Let the reader understand). Advance. Boast. Quiet humility is for the birds. Paul, in 2 Corinthians, shows us a better way. In a world that says that up is down and down is up, good is evil and evil is good, strength is autonomy and God-dependence is weakness, we need for our conception of reality to be recalibrated.
Godly Evangelism – There are two places in particular in which Paul gives a powerful attestation of what godly evangelism looks like, and it is not what we might expect: 2 Corinthians 2:12-17, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, the former paints the picture of evangelism in a much more humiliating light than we might imagine, and the latter does the opposite. In 2 Corinthians 2:12-17, Paul thanks God who “always leads us in triumphal procession.” And while it might seem flattering to liken evangelism to a triumphal procession at first blush, that impression quickly dissipates when you realize that Paul likens the evangelizers not to the victorious army returning to a city, but to prisoners of war! “We,” says Paul, “are the captives. Christ conquered us, and is now leading us around where he pleases. Our defeat is his glory.” Which means all that smell drifting from our bodies (i.e., our gospel witness, spoken with our words and corroborated with our lives) that some receive as the aroma of life is the smell of death and defeat. The death and defeat of us who were living in the flesh, which is why those who are still in the flesh consider our “scent” repulsive. On the other hand, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 is almost terrifying in how high and noble it depicts evangelism. When we speak the gospel message, according to Paul, God is speaking through us. The common thread that brings both passages together, though, is simply that in evangelism, we are making a name not for ourselves (the way of the Corinthian culture), but rather for Christ and Christ alone.
Godly Sarcasm – 2 Corinthians 10:1-12:13 is an uncomfortable section of Scripture. It is uncomfortable for us to listen to and just as uncomfortable for Paul to engage in (if not, more so). This section of 2 Corinthians has some of the most biting sarcasm we will find in all of Scripture. Paul is reluctant to use this tone with the Corinthians, but evidently, their affections for him had grown so cold, and the influence of their false apostles had grown so great, that Paul was forced to use extreme measures. This section of Scripture is a bucket of icy cold water intended to jolt them out of their sleepy indifference. And we have to acknowledge that this is holy satire. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul uses the rhetorical device of sarcasm. If we are honest, this is a problem for some of us. It rubs us the wrong way. We get uncomfortable when we come across it in Scripture. But frankly, we are just going to have to get over it. Now, this does not mean we are invited therefore to sink into cynicism and speak sarcastically all the time. If our age has any temptation regarding sarcasm, it is overuse. But this section of Scripture does mean that we do not have the luxury of ruling satire out as an illegitimate form of rebuking communication. It is used intentionally and carefully for this purpose: to expose the folly of idolatry. In fact, whenever satire is used in Scripture, it is used in this way—the Prophets, Paul, and even Christ himself use sarcasm to illustrate and expose idolatry for the fool’s gold that it is. We may not belittle people, but we must belittle idolatry. Sometimes we expose idolatry in a tone of deadly seriousness—with gravity, we show it to be a viper hiding in the bushes. But sometimes we expose idolatry by laughing at it—we show that for all its verbosity and impressiveness, in comparison to the glory and majesty of God, it is a silly, pitiful little thing.
That is what Paul is doing in this section of 2 Corinthians. He is reluctant to do so. It doesn’t give him any pleasure. But the Corinthians are stuck in a delusion, thinking themselves wise when they are actually being foolish. And so Paul embodies their folly for them, so they would see how ridiculous it looks. He becomes their mirror, showing them how unbecoming such boasting is. He puts on his super-apostle hat, acts a fool, and says, “Hey look at me! I’m so special!” But he does even more than this, because he’s actually going to subvert their standards and flip their criteria for boasting on its head. Remember, their folly was thinking that fleshly, boastful, prideful, self-aggrandizing displays of human strength was glorious. They placed undeserved merit in human strength and power and success and financial security and self-reliance and self-sufficiency and self-promotion. That is what they boasted in, foolishly, because as Paul as labored to demonstrate, the glory that comes from that kind of life is a pathetic rival to the glory of God. So he begins this passage by being like them, showing them how ridiculous they look and thereby jolting them out of their folly, and then he turns the table and shows them where glory really comes from: being weak for Christ.
4. Problem PassagesThe Identity of the “Super-Apostles” – As mentioned in the introduction, it is not historically or literarily obvious who Paul’s chief opponents are in this letter. They are given the designation of “super-apostles,” but their exact identity and central teaching is unclear. A lot of theories are out there, and it is clear from 2 Corinthians 3 that whatever materially made up their teaching, they were big fans of Moses. However, whoever they were, we can be certain that their strategy was to curry the favor of the Corinthians by appealing to Corinthian values (boasting, power, wealth, prestige) and by putting down Paul. They sought to elevate themselves by stepping on Paul’s head. This makes Paul’s strategy to compete with them all the more striking: rather than trying to beat them at their own game, he sees their accusations of his weakness and raises them his humiliation (cf., 2 Corinthians 11:16-33).
One letter, or two? – Some have made a big deal about the tonal shift between chapters 9 and 10, insisting that 2 Corinthians is actually two letters (1:1-9:15, and 10:1-13:14). This is because of the closure of thought at the end of chapter nine (i.e., Paul was building up to his point of “fundraising,” which concludes with chapter nine), and the beginning of a brand-new thought in chapter ten. But there is really no solid reason for dividing the letter in two. For as significant a shift there is between chapters 9 and 10, there is just as much coherence that ties the whole letter together (if not, more so). There’s also no manuscript evidence for dividing the two. There may be something to the theory that 2 Corinthians was written in two “sittings”—the idea that Paul wrote chapters 1-9, and then after hearing additional news of Corinth, amended his letter with chapters 10-13. But the point is that we have every reason to believe that the Corinthians received this letter like we do: as a whole.
5. Helpful Commentaries and Resources
Gerald L. Bray, Editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. VII: 1-2 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006).
John Calvin, The Second Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Translated by T.A. Small (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
Timothy B. Savage, Power Through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Murray Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).
Linda L. Belleville, 2 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996).
6. How to Preach Christ from 2 Corinthians
The presence and importance of Christ in 2 Corinthians is too ubiquitous to describe exhaustively. To put the matter simply, if you are not preaching Christ from every passage of this letter, not only are you not preaching Scripture like a Christian, you’re not even getting a surface level understanding of this book. But there is one section of 2 Corinthians that pulsates uniquely with Christological glory, and that is 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6. In this passage, we learn that the image of the glory of the Lord, which Christians “behold,” and to which Christians are transformed “from one degree of glory to another” is “the face of Jesus Christ.” And Paul says that this glory emanates from Scripture—even the writings of Moses. Those who look at Scripture and fail to see the glory of Christ there are not prevented by some intrinsic limitation of Scripture. It’s not as if they are not seeing Christ because Christ isn’t there. No, Paul insists that their inability to see Christ’s glory in Scripture is owing to a Satanic veil that is removed only by the Spirit of God. Since it is the glory of God we see in the face of Jesus Christ, it is effective to save and to create new life.
Second Corinthians 4:6 makes us think of God’s creative speech that brought everything that exists apart from him out of nothing in Genesis 1. However, the language Paul uses also sounds similar to the language found in Isaiah, when the prophet speaks of God’s glorious and luminous presence in the culmination of history, when he will make all things new and re-create the heavens and the earth in glorified fashion. This has prompted the question for some scholars: which is Paul getting at? God’s glory in creation or God’s glory in the future re-creation? And the answer is both, because it is the same glorious God displaying his same glorious creativity at the beginning of history and at the end of history. The same ex nihilo creative power that was at work at the creation of the cosmos, and will be at work at the glorification of the cosmos, is at work in the creation of every Christian. God spoke light into the dark void of nothing and out came a planet teeming with life. God will speak light into the dark void of fallen creation at the end of human history and out will come a new heavens and a new earth teaming with new life. God speaks light (“light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”) into the dark void of the sinful heart and out comes a new heart teeming with new life. The same ex nihilo creative power that was at work when God spoke the universe into existence is present in the conversion of every single Christian. The display of glory in Christ’s face is effective to save because it is none other than the glory of God, who creates life out of nothing. That’s what he’s in the business of doing.
This all has implications for how pastors ought to preach always. The lessons of 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 should cast their glow on the whole of a preacher’s ministry. Since all real and true transformation (be it new birth and saving faith, or progressive sanctification and maturity in the Christian life) happens from beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, the most effective Christian preaching is preaching that calls attention to the glory of Christ. This is what Paul stresses over and over. 2:17, 4:2, and 4:5, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Paul’s opponents came to Corinth with all sorts of flash and gimmicks and impressive resumes. But Paul knows that none of those things can possibly occasion the kind of transformation he’s after in the Corinthians—nothing in the universe can do for the Corinthians what the undiluted glory of Christ can. So he simply preaches Christ. Full proof and unfiltered. And so should we.
7. Why You Should Consider Preaching 2 Corinthians
In light of everything else written in this guide, and to avoid needless repetition, let me summarize my points in numeric form:
- 2 Corinthians is inspired by God, and preaching “the whole counsel of God” looks like preaching this book.
- 2 Corinthians, more than just about any other book, develops a robust theology of suffering. Your people need this.
- 2 Corinthians paints a sober, glorious picture of Christian ministry, which does not look like triumphant boasting or health and wealth. It looks like imitating Christ in his path of descent.
- 2 Corinthians affords the pastor to hit a plethora of issues and topics without leaving the book.