Lesson Five – Paul’s Literary Style in II Corinthians

Paul’s Literary Style in II Corinthians


II Corinthians is the last letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.  We know about four letters he wrote between the first time he left Corinth and the time he returned to pick up their gifts for the saints in Jerusalem (Acts 18:1-17; 20:2-6; 24:17; I Cor.3:10).  The first letter was about the church’s responsibility for making judgment about maintaining purity in their fellowship (I Cor. 5:12).  Our previous lesson consisted of what could be called an outline of his second letter, commonly identified as I Corinthians.  Actually, the aim was to follow the writer’s style as he worked through several issues.  The main aim of Paul’s series of letters was to curtail the division in the church.  To accomplish his aim he; promoted the development of their faith in the power of the wisdom of God; re-assured the church he was an apostle; told them that without love, they would be nothing.

Summary of our Previous Lesson

The root cause of their division was a lack of spiritual growth (I Cor. 3:1).  Paul wrote; “For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?”  I Cor. 3:4.  This problem is common for mankind.  The church members were dividing around “significant others” and boasting about what can be seen (I Cor. 1:11, 12; II Cor. 5:12).  Since what is seen will pass away, they were boasting about the “wisdom of men.”  I Cor. 3:21.  This is also common for mankind.

“Are you not mere men” is one of the many rhetorical questions Paul posed.   He used this approach to encourage the members to think through what they were doing in relation to what he had taught and they had believed (I Cor. 4:14-17).  He wanted them to judge themselves (I Cor. 11:31, 32; II Cor. 13:5).  Spiritual weakness may have opened the door for some Jewish false apostles to incite weak members to discredit Paul (II Cor. 11:13).

Paul stated the principle of the “law of life” for our spirits under the heading of “everything is permissible” in I Cor. 6:12; 9:21; 10:23.  This was the premise for his great discourse about Christians’ freedom in chapters eight through ten.  The human endowment of conscience was explained in relation to Christians being the Lord’s freedmen; “For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.”  I Cor. 7:22.

Finally, in chapters 12-14, Paul defined a church of God in Christ by using the analogy of a human body.  He then explained how the quality of love Jesus demonstrated is the wisdom of God for the function of the body of Christ.  Love in each member would stop their boasting that was contributing to the division in the church.  Their spiritual growth of love would help them stop acting like children and begin to do everything “in a fitting and orderly way.” I Cor. 14:20, 40.

Signing Off

In chapter fifteen, verse one, Paul connects with the points he made in the first four chapters of I Corinthians.  Please note how many times he used the pronoun “I” in the first eleven verses.  He reminds them of what “I” had preached and the source for what “I” preached.  He was sent to Corinth by Jesus Christ and he preached the secret wisdom of God given to him by the Holy Spirit.  He was an apostle; this means “one sent.”  The precise information logged in this “block of scripture” may have been his way of closing out the issues in the first fourteen chapters.  At the same time, he was preparing the recipients for his next rhetorical question; “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead.”  I Cor. 15:12.  This is the issue in the remainder of this chapter.

Paul wrote, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance (some manuscripts, ‘you at the first’): that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  I Cor. 15:4.  Later he wrote; “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”  I Cor. 15:17.  He appears to be saying to the church; just think it out – you can’t have faith in the death of Jesus and reject His resurrection.  Paul wrote in II Corinthians 11:3; “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”

He also made the point about Jesus appearing to the Twelve, many others and finally him.  It was of dire importance for the stability and unity of the church that Paul’s apostleship be validated (II Cor. 10:8; 12:12, 19).  The content of these eleven verses may also serve “to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about.”  II Cor. 11:12.  There was an effort being made, perhaps “behind the scenes,” to undermine Paul: One way to show he was inferior to the twelve apostles (II Cor. 11:3-6; 12:11-13).

“Now about the collection for God’s people:” I Cor. 16:1.  Titus had been working with the Corinthians for this program; however, we understand Paul, the apostle, was the authority (I Cor. 16:1-4; II Cor. 8:6; 12:17).

In 16:5-9, Paul revealed his travel itinerary.  This became the source of the first troublesome issue he took up in II Corinthians.  After some schooling from Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos visited Corinth. This was after Paul left for Syria at the end of his second missionary journey (Acts 18:24-19:1).  Paul urged him to return, perhaps to help the Corinthian church overcome their “mere men” problem, but Apollos would not go at that time (I Cor. 16:12).  If he had been willing to go it might not have been necessary for Paul to write these letters.  Just think of all the divine wisdom we might have missed.  This is the genius of the Holy Spirit in these letters.  He embedded Christian theology, ethic and practice for us today in the emotion of the letters.  It is revealed as divine truth in this manner.

Paul’s final remarks may carry more weight than merely signing off.  If Paul’s letter had persuaded the church to “greet one another with a holy kiss” it would have solved many of their problems in the church – as it would ours today.  Perhaps the statement, “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand” was meant to reveal his deep concern about their spiritual condition.  Finally, he pronounced
a curse and a blessing.  The curse may have been for the “false apostles.”  The blessing would have been for a church in trouble.

If anyone does not love the Lord – curse be on him.  Come, O Lord!    The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.  My love to all of you in Christ Jesus.  Amen.  I Cor. 16:22-24 


Paul used the six-part standard form in II Corinthians.  Sosthenes was replaced with Timothy as the co-author.  Timothy had been sent to Corinth on behalf of Paul to work on the controversies causing the division (I Cor. 4:17; 16:10).    Evidently, Timothy completed the assignment and had joined Paul as he was working his way from Ephesus through Troas to Macedonia (II Cor. 2:12, 13).  This letter, unlike I Corinthians, was addressed “together with all the saints throughout Achaia.”  The opposition may have influenced weak members in other congregations to oppose Paul.

 Paul’s prayer in the fourth segment of the form starts with praise to God and Jesus and then flowed into an introduction of the body of his letter (II Cor. 1:3-11).  He addressed God as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.”  Under this caption he showed how the suffering of Jesus Christ became the conduit through which God’s comfort flows.  He detailed how he and other servants of God had been comforted because of Jesus’ suffering.   Then he got to his point: the church had received comfort by Paul’s suffering; therefore, “And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”  II Cor. 1:7.  Christians suffer to comfort others.

He appealed to the church to share in his sufferings so comfort would flow through their fellowship.  This is a principle of life in Christ, for where there is no suffering there can be no comfort from God (II Tim. 3:12; Heb. 12:5-8).  Paul informed the churches about his suffering in Asia and asked for their prayers.  Since he will continue to speak of his sufferings in this letter we need to ask; what was his motive?  It may be found in his teaching of the combination of “suffering and comfort.”

Please review the beginning of the lesson in Part II, Lesson Three, entitled, “Boasting in II Corinthians.”  Our study in that lesson was an investigation of the influence of the word “boasting” on Paul’s style.   The aim in this lesson is to track Paul’s “train of thought” in a wider scope.  The first portion of the body of II Corinthians is 1:12 through 7:16.  It is an emotional story about the relationship of Paul and the church with some great theology embedded.  We need to get into this drama with our mind and heart.

1:12-24.  Paul confessed he had changed his mind about his original travel plan to Corinth.  His claim for maintaining a clear conscience “was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth.” Vs. 23.  Our question is “Of what did he want to spare them?”  Asking questions of the text is a part of principled Bible study.

2:1-12.  “So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you.”  Some have interpreted this to say in essence, “I did not come as I said I would because I did not want to experience a painful visit with you.”  Be that as it may, he did make a trip and while there he warned them; “on my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others.”  II Cor. 13:2.  Luke did not record this trip.  Perhaps, it did not fit the leisurely visit Paul had planned; therefore, some members of the church claimed Paul was guilty of saying “yes and no” in the same breath (1:17).  He disclaimed this charge in chapter one.

He wrote a letter:

“I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice.”  II Cor. 2:3.

“… Not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.”  Vs. 4.  The content of this letter has not been recorded in the Bible unless Paul is referring to I Corinthians.

 One member had sinned and grieved the church but he had repented.  The church had not accepted him back into their fellowship (II Cor. 2:5-8).  Somehow, Paul came to know this person had repented, perhaps he learned about it on the second trip.  He urged them in verse eight “to reaffirm your love for him.”  Then he wrote;   “The reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything.” Vs. 9.  If this is a part of what he wrote in verses three and four, this all appears to belong in a third letter.  Of course, verses three and four could be referring to I Corinthians and verse nine could belong in the third letter.  It really doesn’t change the way we read the content of II Corinthians.

What we know is that somehow Paul learned a member had repented and the church had not accepted him back into their fellowship.  What he said in verse nine is included in the thought (paragraph) in verses 5-11.  The content of this thought is not found in I Corinthians; therefore, it is a part of a new letter we do not find in the Bible.  The reason he wrote was to see if they would “stand the test and be obedient.”

We can make a tentative hypothesis that when Paul made his second trip, in addition to warning some members to repent of their sinfulness, he made a request of the church by his authority as an apostle.  What was the request?  We see in our study of the II Corinthian letter, he said; “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him.  Now instead you ought to forgive and comfort him.”  Is this a repeat of the request he had made in the mystery letter?  Evidently, it was a very disturbing letter because he wrote; “Even though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it.  Though I did regret it – I see my letter hurt you, but only for a little while – yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance.”  II Cor. 7:8, 9.  He learned they had repented after Titus arrived in Macedonia.  Finally, we learn Paul’s deeper motive for writing the letter:

So even though I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong or of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are.  By all of this we are encouraged.  II Cor. 7:12, 13

We may never know the details about Paul’s second trip or his third letter.  If we needed to know to properly read and understand what the Corinthian letters mean, he would have provided the details.  We can be sure the Corinthians knew the details.

What we do know is that Paul’s credibility was at stake.  If the opposition had been able to have moved the church to malign Paul’s authority and disobey his request, they would have caused great spiritual damage to the church.  They did repent of their sin and the temple of God in Achaia stood firm.  Obviously, Christians did not walk the line through the ages.  They may have failed in Ephesus, the very place  where Paul was preaching when he received the word from Chloe’s household that the church was dividing in Corinth (I Cor. 1:11; Acts 20:28, 29; I Tim. 1:3, 4; Rev. 2:4, 5).

Where then is the temple of God – the church of God?  It is where the authority of the scriptures has been revered as the wisdom of God.  Paul, in Corinth, stood for the authority of the scriptures given to him by the Holy Spirit.  They did not have the New Testament scriptures.  Consequently, if he was shut out they had nothing but the wisdom of men.  So what is new in the Christian religious world today?

Why do we need to spend time and energy to do all the foregoing exegetical work?  Because these are the issues that set up the drama in the first seven chapter of II Corinthians!  The first rule for reading a letter is to understand what was happening where the letter was received.  Why did Paul say, “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us.”  II Cor. 6:12.   Why did he write “to them in great distress and anguish of heart and many tears?”  We now know enough to move forward in this document.

2:13-17.  Paul had sent Titus to find out the church’s response to his letter.  He did not find Titus in Troas so he went on to Macedonia.  He probably wrote II Corinthians from there.  Titus came with the good news about the repentance of the church in general, not just one man.  Paul was elated to hear “at every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.”  II Cor. 7:11.

Let us consider the significance of Paul’s style in these seven chapters.  He informed the church about his move to Macedonia because he did not find Titus in Troas (II Cor. 2:12).  If Titus had met Paul in Troas or even in Macedonia when he first arrived with his good news, all of this drama could have been deleted from II Corinthians.  Another thought, when Titus did come, why wouldn’t Paul have just torn up what he had written and begin a new letter starting with chapter eight?  Why bother with the heavy drama in the first seven chapters?

He did not start the letter over.  But, why not?  Let us hypothesize that he did not write the letter until after Titus arrived.  Perhaps he had some things he wanted to say and he chose this style to get them said.   What Paul wrote in chapters three through six may have been directed at the more serious problem of boasting about the wisdom of men.  This was leading to division in the body of Christ.

We note, he did speak about the people who taught Moses and the Law (II Cor. 3:13-16).  This could have been the Jewish false apostles’ work.  In chapters four and five he makes a clear distinction between the “inner/outer man.”  This fact about God’s make up of mankind should “hush the mouth” of the world’s boasting about the feats of the outer man.  We have heard someone exclaim, “Oh my, he is going to be six and a half feet tall; No doubt, she will win the Miss America crown with those legs!”  Please read I John 2:15-17.  Why would anyone boast about what is seen, if it is “wasting away?”
II Cor. 4:16.

The drama may have been for the benefit of the church.  What Paul did by writing as if Titus had not come was to keep the drama alive.   He embedded a lot of great theology and Christian ethic in these tension filled chapters.  This can be understood under the heading of “writer’s style.”  He used this same style in I Thessalonians.

II Corinthians 7:5-16.  Paul was comforted by Titus’ report.  God’s comfort followed the suffering of Paul and the church; it does not precede suffering (II Cor. 1:7).  He closed this segment of his letter stating; “I am glad I can have complete confidence in you.”   However, he was still concerned that all sinners in the church in Achaia had not repented at the time he wrote this letter (II Cor. 13:2).  The wisdom of God is that “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”
I Cor. 5:6.

The collection for the Jerusalem saints may have been lagging in Achaia (II Cor. 8:10-12).  The second part of Paul’s structure of II Corinthians is chapters eight and nine.  This is about the collection for the saints in Jerusalem (I Cor. 16:1).  Paul, along with men who represented churches in different provinces, delivered this collection at the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 20:1-6; 21:7).  Titus had worked with the churches in Achaia for this cause (II Cor. 8:6).  Paul sent Titus and a well known brother back to the Corinthian area to wrap up the program (II Cor. 8:16-24).

The last part of the structure of II Corinthians is the last four chapters.  Please review the “You, We, They” chart in Part I, Lesson III.  This should serve as an outline of the content in all four chapters.  We read letters in the Bible in the same way we read a letter out of the Bible.  We study letters in the same manner.  We read them all the way through.  There are no half letters.  We do not start wherever we please.  We see the end at the beginning.  There is no other letter in the New Testament where it is more important to read from the beginning to the end than the Corinthian series of letters.

The members of the church were very low in their spiritual growth.  It appears the “they people” in the chart were taking advantage of the weakness of the “you people” to discredit Paul.  Their motive may have been to get the church’s money and praise (II Cor. 2:17; 11:20, 21).  In order to accomplish their goals they needed to discredit Paul, the apostle.  We need to understand what Paul uncovered for the Corinthians in the last four chapters to help them read all the Corinthian letters properly.  We need the same information.  This is nuance information.  It added color.  It has a subtle quality, but in an ugly form.

We have finished our exegetical work.  That is, we have understood what was happening where Paul’s letters were received.  We have understood they had a spiritual growth problem.  We have some idea of what Paul said they needed to do to solve their problems.  In the Part II, Lesson Three, we investigated the writer’s use of the technical word, “boast.”  We were investigating the writer’s style.  We continued to work with his style or train of thought in Part II, Lessons 4, and 5.

If we have understood everything the recipients understood about Christian theologies, ethics and practices, we are ready to study the Corinthian letters to understand what these scriptures mean.  If we don’t understand the issues he believed the recipients understood, we will need to do some home work.  We know something about what they meant to them, now we want to understand what they mean for us.  This will be our aim in the remainder of this study.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Explain one way the block of scripture in I Cor. 15:1-11 could have functioned to combat the false doctrine about the resurrection of the dead.
  2. How could the foregoing scripture serve to combat those who questioned Paul’s authority to instruct the church?
  3. What was the “two word combination” Paul developed in his opening prayer as it flowed into the body of II Corinthians?  What may have been his aim in this discourse?
  4. Although II Corinthians, chapters one through seven, form a section of this letter; why must we read it as a drama?
  5. Explain one issue that set up the drama.
  6. Give one declaration Paul made on his second trip to Corinth.
  7. How might Paul have learned a member of the church in Achaia had repented of his sin but the church had not accepted him back into their fellowship?
  8. What was the overriding purpose of the third letter Paul wrote to the church in Achaia?
  9. Why was it vitally important that the church do what Paul instructed them to do in the scenario of the first seven chapters of II Corinthians?
  10. What was Titus’ role in this drama?  What other role did he play in II Corinthians?
  11. What is a possible explanation for Paul not re-writing his letter after he learned the Corinthians had obeyed his requests?
  12. Name the program that may have been lagging.  Paul encouraged it in the second section of his letter.
  13. Why is it extremely important to have read the last four chapters of II Corinthians in our preparation for reading all the letters Paul wrote to Corinth?
  14. What do we need to do if we do not know the doctrines Paul mentioned in these letters, but did not explain them because he assumed the church understood them?
  15. What kind of work must we always do before we start trying to determine the meaning of a block of scripture?

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