This is a very personal letter, and one that is tied closely to specific problems and issues with the church in Corinth. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot here of broader applicability, but some parts have more of that than others. In that regard, I’ll note that my NIV study Bible provides a useful outline which I’ll use, dividing the letter into four parts: Paul explains his actions (1:1-2:11), Paul defends his ministry (2:12-7:16), Paul defends his collection (8:1-9:15), and Paul defends his authority (10:1-13:14). As you’d expect, parts 1 and 3 have fewer verses than parts 2 and 4 in what I’ve included below. Oh, and if this outline makes it sounds like Paul is a little defensive in this letter, well, there’s some truth to that.
Paul explains his actions:
We are to “comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (1:4) and to help one another with our prayers (1:11).
Paul defends his ministry:
Paul warns that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (3:6).
Don’t lose heart, don’t use deception, don’t distort the word of God (4:1-2).
“[W]e fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen” (4:18) and, likewise, “We live by faith, not by sight” (5:7).
“[W]e try to persuade men” (5:11).
I love this: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (5:16).
From chapter 6: “3 We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (6:14). That doesn’t mean we have nothing to do with them, of course, since for example we are supposed to bring people to Christ — but it does mean we are wary of spending a lot of idle social time with people who can corrupt us.
Paul uses tough love with these people (see, e.g., 7:8-13).
Paul defends his collection:
Paul encourages generous giving. In particular, there’s this famous passage (9:6-7): “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Paul defends his authority:
Here is a list by Paul of some bad qualities (12:20-21): “I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.”
The Lord wants for us to build one another up, not tear one another down (13:10).
“Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace” (13;11).
Note the Trinitarian closing verse (13:14).
Odds and ends:
Titus, the recipient of another of Paul’s letters, is mentioned several times II Corinthians.
Paul uses the striking metaphor “jars of clay” for the human body, later adopted by a Christian rock group.
Paul’s refers to “a thorn in my flesh” (12:7), his mysterious affliction (possibly an eye disease, see Galatians 4:13-15).