The Global Message of 2 Corinthians

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians unlocks one of the great secrets of Christian life and ministry to believers all around the globe: God’s power is channeled through human weakness.

Second Corinthians and Redemptive History

Throughout the Old Testament we see an ever-heightening anticipation of the coming Messiah—a Davidic king who was expected to wipe out God’s enemies once and for all, restore God’s people, and reign forevermore (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Psalm 110; Jer. 33:14–18; Dan. 7:13–14; Zech. 6:12–13). Mingled in with these hope-filled prophecies, however, are perplexing predictions of a coming one who would suffer on behalf of God’s people (Psalm 22; Isa. 52:13–53:12).

At the pinnacle of world history, God brought about his long-promised restoration through the suffering of his own Son. God brought together these two strands—the triumphant king and the suffering victim—in one person.

The result is that believers all over the world are not required to qualify themselves with any kind of moral goodness or education or family background or anything else they might bring to the table. Rather, all it takes to qualify for God’s favor is to acknowledge that one does not qualify—and then look to Christ. As God’s triumphant Son, Jesus qualified for God’s favor in a way none of us ever can. Yet as God’s suffering servant he allowed himself to be treated as one who was disqualified. Consequently, all people around the world who trust in him, though condemned in themselves, can be counted as righteous in God’s sight.

Universal Themes in 2 Corinthians

Strength in weakness. This is the central message of 2 Corinthians. Throughout the letter Paul turns upside down our natural expectations of the way life works. Contrary to the way the world and our own human hearts naturally function, God takes what is low, despised, and weak to accomplish his purposes. Second Corinthians tells us that comfort comes through affliction (2 Cor. 1:3–7), sufficiency through insufficiency (3:1–6), life through death (4:7–15), blessing through suffering (6:3–10), salvation through grief (7:2–10), abundance through poverty (8:1–2, 9, 14), and boasting through hardship (11:16–30). Chapter 12 then gives the key principle: God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). Weakness is not good in itself, yet it is God’s chosen means of displaying his grace and glory and power.

Reconciliation. One of the main reasons Paul wrote 2 Corinthians was to emphasize the importance of reconciliation among believers. Paul addresses the need for the Corinthians to reconcile with an estranged brother (2 Cor. 2:5–11) as well as with Paul himself (7:2–16). Indeed, to fail to reconcile is to be outwitted by Satan (2:11). As believers face divisions across the global church as well as broken relationships closer to home, Paul’s gentle exhortations to pursue restoration when possible are words worth remembering.

Servant leadership. In both letters to the church at Corinth but especially in 2 Corinthians, Paul gives a powerful example of what it means to lead the body of Christ. Above all, Christian leaders are to do what Christ himself did: pour out their lives in self-giving love for the sake of others. While Christians in no way atone for sin as Christ did, we do spread the knowledge of that atonement in the way he did—through sacrificial love (2 Cor. 4:10–12). “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation” (1:6). “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (4:5). Servant leadership is not optional for the global church. It is not for some regions of the world but not for others. It is the high calling of all who lead God’s people.

The Global Message of 2 Corinthians for Today

The letter of 2 Corinthians provides rich comfort and hope for believers today around the world.

God’s way of measuring success and significance is entirely different than the world’s way. In many places today the church is publicly marginalized because it is seen as silly, or it is persecuted because it is seen as threatening, or it is simply ignored because it is seen as irrelevant. Judged by the world’s standards of influence, the church seems powerless at such times. Viewed with heaven’s eyes, however, it is often precisely in such places of adversity that the Spirit is alive and well and the gospel is advancing (2 Thess. 3:1).

This is hope-giving, but also humbling. In those places around the world today where statistics would seem to indicate that the church is healthy, such health may be hollow. Where the numbers seem to indicate success in evangelism, who knows how many will turn out to have been “rocky ground” (see Mark 4:5)? Where significant financial resources have produced slick programs and impressive services, has dependence on the Holy Spirit been neglected? God will accomplish his work in the world, whether “by many or by few” (1 Sam. 14:6).

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is therefore both heartening and chastening. It encourages those who are struggling while cautioning those whose lives may be outwardly impressive. As the global church continues to pursue our sacred calling to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19), may we do so in the glad knowledge that natural eloquence, impressive resumes, and sparkling educations are not required for the Spirit to move in power. Such things, while good, may even get in the way. All that is needed is sincere openness to the Lord who in Christ became weak himself (2 Cor. 13:4) so that weak sinners can know true strength, by his grace.