July 27, 2018

Four Different Letters

By: Larry Shaffer

Warning, this post is a little longer than most!

2 Corinthians

Four Different Letters

Little known fact: Paul actually wrote four letters to the Corinthians. Two of them are lost. But the lost letters are referred to in the writings that we do have in our New Testament books of 1 and 2 Corinthians. Paul spent 18 months ministering in Corinth on his second missionary journey. After leaving Corinth, he heard of immorality among the members. He wrote a letter to confront this issue. This letter is since lost but referred to in I Corinthians 5:9.

Good news, bad news

Later, Paul heard further reports of divisions within the church (I Corinthians 1:11) and around the same time, Paul received a letter from the Corinthians with a series of questions (I Corinthians 7:1). The book we have in the New Testament, I Corinthians, is his response to the report of divisions and his answers to their questions. The good news is it seems I Corinthians helped in the areas it addressed.  Bad news is that after Paul sent I Corinthians, he got word that false teachers arrived in Corinth and infiltrated the church. In order for them to establish their false gospel, they had to discredit Paul and assault his character and legitimacy.

This is no fun

This was so serious in Paul’s mind that he dropped what he was doing and immediately went to Corinth. This is referred to as the “painful” visit referenced in 2 Corinthians 2:1. From Paul’s perspective, this visit did not go well. Paul was insulted publicly. He was saddened that his people, whom he loved so dearly, did not stand by him. He returned to Ephesus heartbroken and wrote the third letter, since lost, and what is referred to as the “severe letter,” (2:4). Sometime later, Paul heard that his visit and the result of the severe letter actually did have a positive impact. Many had repented and returned to their place of loyalty to Paul and more importantly, loyalty to the true gospel.

Progress, finally!

With this news, Paul wrote what we have as 2 Corinthians, which is actually the fourth letter overall. Consequently, this book doesn’t just deal with problems as the previous 3 books had done. A reader of 2 Corinthians can actually feel Paul’s relief and joy in this book. But he also spends considerable time dealing with the lingering effects of false teachers and systematically and firmly attests to his own apostleship. Without the understanding of this background, one might feel that Paul is talking about himself way too much in 2 Corinthians. It could be construed as pride. However, with the understanding of this background and his need to defend himself, it starts to make sense.

Why does she get all the attention?!!!

Also, with the understanding of the background, one can only imagine the emotional roller coaster and heartache Paul experienced as he heard about the various problems the Corinthians keep getting themselves into. Paul devoted more time, it seems, to the Corinthians than any other of his churches. It’s like a parent that has a well-mannered child and a rebellious one. The well-mannered one gets little attention while the rebellious one captures the time, attention and resources of the parents. These churches were Paul’s children. He risked his life continually and suffered affliction and threats to establish these churches. It was his life and his purpose to live. The physical suffering was tough but as Paul will attest, the emotional burden he carried for his children that strayed was even heavier.

The Four Letters of Paul to Corinth

  1. The first letter was written to confront immorality in the church shortly after he departed. This letter is lost but referred to in I Corinthians 5:9
  2. The second letter is what we know as 1 Corinthians in the New Testament. Paul is confronting divisions and continued immorality in the church. He is also answering a bunch of questions he received in a letter from the church.
  3. The third letter is known as the “severe letter” that is lost. Paul referred to this letter in 2 Corinthians 2:4.
  4. The fourth letter is the epistle of 2 Corinthians in the New Testament.

So, I look forward to 2 Corinthians. There will be a little more joy and optimism compared to I Corinthians. This background will help us appreciate Paul’s words and God’s primary intent even better in this book. Lord, teach us so that we might live better and respond joyfully to your teaching. Amen!