2 Corinthians 2:1-17

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Paul continued to explain why he had not made another visit to Corinth, saying, “For [But, according to other manuscripts] this I had decided, not again in sadness to come to you.” (2:1) The Corinthians would have known exactly what the apostle meant, but we today cannot be certain. Paul’s words may mean that, besides the initial visit when the community of believers came into existence, he had returned to Corinth. This second visit had occasioned sadness on account of problems that had arisen among the believers, and Paul did not want to repeat such a visit. Numerous translations convey this significance. “So I made up my mind that my next visit to you must not be another painful one.” (REB) “I have decided not to make my next visit with you so painful.” (CEV) “So I decided that my next visit to you would not be another one to make you sad.” (NCV) “And I made up my mind that I would not pay you another painful visit.” (J. B. Phillips)

No mention of a painful visit is included in the book of Acts. This would not rule out there having been such a visit, for one should not expect a comparatively short account to include every detail. At the same time, with no confirmatory details in the book of Acts, one cannot be sure whether Paul made a painful visit before or after writing 1 Corinthians.

On the other hand, there are ways in which to understand the apostle’s words that would not point to his having made a second visit. Although it would not be following the natural word order, the Greek text could be understood to mean that Paul had decided not to make his next visit one that would bring sadness. Another possibility would be that the apostle had resolved not to return to Corinth while he was saddened about the troublesome developments among the believers.

There is no uncertainty about the fact that Paul wanted to avoid having his coming to Corinth occasion sadness. “For,” as he continued, “if I sadden you, then who is the one to cheer me if not the one whom I have saddened?” His visit would have required administering strong discipline, resulting in sadness to the community of believers. So the source of any joy Paul would have experienced would have come from the very ones whom he had saddened. (2:2)

The apostle “wrote” what he did so that he, upon his arrival in Corinth, would not be saddened by those respecting whom he wanted to rejoice. In the phrase “I wrote this very thing,” Paul’s use of the aorist tense for the Greek verb grápho (rendered as a past tense in English [wrote]), may be understood from the standpoint of the recipients of the letter. Another possibility is that his reference is to a severe letter (either 1 Corinthians or another letter that has not been preserved) he had previously written to them. (Compare 2 Corinthians 7:8; 10:9, 10.) Although the Corinthians had conducted themselves in a manner that left much to be desired, the apostle had confidence they would make the required changes that would bring him joy. His joy would then be a joy in which they would be participants. (2:3; see the Notes section.)

In a state of distress and anguish, Paul had written to the Corinthians. At “heart” or in his inmost self, he was greatly troubled about the undesirable condition existing among them. While writing, he shed many tears. His objective had not been to sadden them but to let them know the abundant love he had for them. The apostle’s deep concern for the Corinthians had its source in love, as he wanted them to be found approved children of God. (2:4)

Paul next focused on the one who had been the reason for sadness, pain, or distress. “But if anyone has saddened, he has not saddened me, but in part (not to overburden [epibaréo]) all of you.” The context is not specific in identifying the person responsible for causing grief. Based on 1 Corinthians 5:1, the reference may be to the incestuous man. The manner in which the apostle expressed himself, however, has given rise to the view that the wrongdoer was one who had caused distress for Paul, possibly by defiantly rejecting his apostolic authority in a direct confrontation with him or with a close associate whom he had sent. (2:5; see the Notes section.)

When saying that the wrongdoer had not saddened him, Paul indicated that he had not acted out of personal interests when directing the Corinthians to take action against the individual. It appears that the apostle regarded himself as part of the community of believers and so represented the greater grief as having affected the Corinthian congregation. The expression “in part” (literally, “from part”) may be variously understood. Three of a number of possible meanings are: (1) The wrongdoer had caused sadness to an extent for the Corinthian believers. (2) He had saddened them but not all of them to the same degree. (3) He had pained many, but not all of the members of the congregation. (2:5)

In the context of what Paul did not want to do, the “overburdening” could relate to doing so with words. This would mean that he did not wish to say too much. The Greek word epibaréo has also been understood to mean “exaggerate” or “be too severe.” (2:5) These meanings are reflected in the renderings of modern translations. Hat aber jemand Betrübnis verursacht, so hat er nicht mich betrübt, sondern zum Teil — damit ich nicht zu viel sage — euch alle. (Has someone caused sadness, then he has not saddened me, but in part — that I might not say too much — all of you.) (Schlachter [German]) “If someone among you has brought sorrow, he has not made me as sad as he has all of you. I say this so I may not make it hard for you.” (NLT) “But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent — not to exaggerate it — to all of you.” (NRSV) “If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent — not to put it too severely.” (NIV) “Any injury that has been done has not been done to me; to some extent (I do not want to make too much of it) it has been done to you all.” (REB) “Someone there among you has caused sadness, not to me, but to all of you. I mean he caused sadness to all in some way. (I do not want to make it sound worse than it really is). (NCV)

Not all of the Corinthians had concurred with the disapproval expressed against the wrongdoer. But Paul felt that the censure of the majority had been sufficient to attain the desired objective. Those who had shown disrespect for the apostle must have been the minority. (2:6)

The man responsible for causing grief had repented, and Paul admonished the Corinthians to forgive and comfort him. Their treating him kindly would prevent his becoming overwhelmed (literally, “swallowed up”) with great sorrow, which could have included his being burdened by feelings of guilt and divine rejection. (2:7; see the Notes section.)

In order to assure the repentant man that he was again a part of the community of believers, Paul encouraged the Corinthians to confirm their love for him. (2:8) The previous directive the apostle had written about this wrongdoer served to test the Corinthians, making it possible for him “know” or to determine whether they were obedient in everything. This obedience doubtless meant submissive response to everything pertaining to Paul’s rightful exercise of apostolic authority. (2:9)

As far as the apostle was concerned, anything the congregation in Corinth would forgive he would also forgive. Thus he revealed that he regarded himself as a part of the same community of believers. When it came to Paul’s forgiveness of anything, whenever he extended it, he did so for the sake of the Corinthians “in the presence [literally, face] of Christ.” He could speak of acting for their sake because his forgiveness had as its focus the spiritual welfare of the congregation. He extended forgiveness as one who loyally submitted to Christ and so spoke of having forgiven in his presence. (2:10)

A failure to forgive a repentant sinner and to refuse to show love to him would serve the interests of Satan. The repentant individual could be lost to the congregation. Believing himself to be rejected as disapproved and without forgiveness, the person could sink into a state of despair and take up a life like those in a state of alienation from God. In that case, the congregation, through its harshness, would have fallen into Satan’s trap, for his designs (as the Corinthians knew) were intended to cause believers to experience spiritual ruin. (2:11)

Commenting on his personal situation, Paul referred to his arrival in Troas (a major seaport on the northwest coast of Asia Minor) for the purpose of declaring the glad tidings of Christ. Even though a door had opened up to him “in the Lord,” or the opportunity proved to be favorable for advancing the cause of the Son of God, the apostle found himself in a state of great anxiety. His “spirit” or mind gave him no rest. In Troas, he had expected to meet Titus, whom he had sent to Corinth and from whom he wanted to learn about the response of the Corinthians, but Titus had not arrived. So great was Paul’s concern about the Corinthians that he decided to leave Troas and go to Macedonia, apparently hoping to meet Titus who would have followed the land route from Corinth in the province of Achaia northward through the province of Macedonia. (2:12, 13)

Paul did finally meet Titus somewhere in Macedonia and was greatly comforted upon learning about the favorable response of the congregation in Corinth. (7:5-7) This and probably also other positive developments in the furtherance of Christ’s cause moved Paul to thank God. The apostle then likened God’s action to a procession that celebrated the triumph of a Roman army. “[He], in Christ, always leads us in triumph [thriambeúo] and, through us, makes manifest the fragrance of the knowledge of him in every place.” (2:14)

In this context, the Greek verb thriambeúo has been understood to mean either “to lead in a triumphal procession” or “to lead in triumph.” The ancient Roman triumphal processions included both the captives and the victorious troops. For the captives, the fragrant incense that was burned along the route often portended death, whereas its aroma heralded the future honors to be granted to the triumphant warriors. In view of Paul’s expression of thanks to God, it is more likely that he thought of himself as a sharer in the victory and not as Christ’s captive in the triumphal procession. If the apostle’s use of “we” is to be regarded as a plural (and not as an editorial “we”), he meant also to include his close associates. Both the apostle and his fellow workers were “in Christ” or at one with him as members of his body. (2:14)

In relation to knowledge, the pronoun “him” could apply either to God or to Christ. (2:14) Both meanings are found in modern translations. “God also helps us spread the knowledge about Christ everywhere, and this knowledge is like the smell of perfume.” (CEV) “Now wherever we go he uses us to tell others about the Lord and to spread the Good News like a sweet perfume.” (NLT) “Thanks be to God who leads us, wherever we are, on his own triumphant way and makes our knowledge of him spread throughout the world like a lovely perfume!” (J. B. Phillips) “But thanks be to God who always gives us in Christ a part in his triumphal procession, and through us is spreading everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of himself.” (NJB)

Paul proved to be a vessel containing the vital knowledge about both the Father and his Son. Through the apostle (and also his fellow workers), God spread this knowledge like a fragrant incense. From the standpoint of the message, Paul could speak of himself (and also his close associates) as a being a “fragrance of Christ” to God among those who were being saved and among those who were perishing. The message itself related to Christ and so could be called a “fragrance of Christ.” It was the message God wanted to be spread far and wide in its unadulterated form and, therefore, the bearers of this message were a pleasing fragrance to him. To those who responded in faith, the bearers of the message proved to be like a sweet-smelling incense. Through the messengers, they had learned about how they could be forgiven of their sins and be saved or liberated from condemnation. The messengers were also a fragrance to those who were perishing because of their remaining in a state of condemnation on account of unbelief. (2:15)

The “fragrance of Christ” had the opposite effect on those who were being saved and on those who were perishing. Paul described the aroma as being “from death to death” for those who were perishing and as being “from life to life” for those who were being saved. Unbelievers perceived nothing positive in the message, for it revealed them to be condemned sinners with death in view. Those who believed found it to be a fragrance that had its source in life and led to their being liberated from sin and coming to enjoy a newness of life as God’s approved children. (2:16)

The apostle then raised the question, “And who is fit [hikanós] for these things?” In this context, the Greek word hikanós could mean “sufficient,” “adequate,” “fit,” “competent,” or “qualified” and apparently relates to being in a position to function as a “fragrance of Christ.” (2:16) The implied answer could be that Paul was fit for the task by reason of what God and Christ had done for him. On the other hand, from the standpoint of human qualifications or abilities, no one was adequate to serve in this manner, especially in view of the consequences to which acceptance or rejection of the message led.

Contrasting himself (if not also including his associates) with those who were not functioning as a “fragrance of Christ,” Paul continued, “For we are not like the many [the rest, according to many other manuscripts] [who are] hucksters of the word of God, but as out of sincerity, but as from God, we speak before God in Christ.” The apostle was not like a dishonest peddler or huckster, seeking gain by adulterating God’s word or message. In sincerity or with a pure motive, he made known the truth about God and Christ. Paul spoke as a person sent from God and with an awareness of being in his presence. As a member of Christ’s body, he spoke “in Christ” or as a person at one with him. (2:17)


A literal reading of the Greek text of 2:3 would be, “And I wrote this very thing, so that (when I come) I should not have sadness from those over whom I should be rejoicing. I have confidence regarding all of you that my joy is [that] of all of you.” Modern translations have variously rendered the verse in ways that are more explicit than the Greek text. “This is precisely the point I made in my letter: I did not want, I said, to come and be made miserable by the very people who ought to have made me happy; and I had sufficient confidence in you all to know that for me to be happy is for all of you to be happy.” (REB) “I wrote you a letter for this reason: that when I came to you I would not be made sad by the people who should make me happy. I felt sure of all of you, that you would share my joy.” (NCV) “The real purpose of my previous letter was in fact to save myself from being saddened by those whom I might reasonably expect to bring me joy.” (J. B. Phillips)

The explanation that 2 Corinthians 2:5 relates to the incestuous man dates to ancient times. Based on his belief that the man could not have been forgiven, Tertullian (c. 160-c. 221), however, rejected this understanding of Paul’s words. In his discussion “On Modesty,” chapter XIII, he indicated that the apostle had delivered the incestuous fornicator to Satan, “not with a view to emendation, but with a view to perdition.” Regarding the words, “for the destruction of the flesh,” he interpreted this to mean the “actual substance through which [the man] had fallen out” of the faith. Concluding that there was no hope for the incestuous man, Tertullian explained the saving of the spirit to mean the saving of the congregation, for it “must be presented ‘saved,’ that is, untainted by the contagion of impurities in the day of the Lord, by the ejection of the incestuous fornicator.” Whereas the incestuous man had committed grave sin, there is nothing in Paul’s language to suggest that he had gone beyond the point of repentance. According to 1 John 1:7-2:2, genuine repentance leads to forgiveness, and so Tertullian’s view does not rest on a sound basis.

In 2:7, numerous manuscripts include the word mállon, meaning “rather.” This would mean that, rather than continuing to censure the repentant man, the Corinthians were to forgive and comfort him.