II. Paul’s Explanation of His Apostolic Ministry (2 Corinthians 1:12–7:16)


II. Paul’s Explanation of His Apostolic Ministry (1:12–7:16)

1:12-21 Paul had intended to visit the Corinthians, but events caused him to change his plans (1:15-16). Apparently some had criticized the apostle for this, accusing him of operating by human wisdom (1:12) or in a worldly fashion (1:17). But Paul explained his conduct, insisting that his conscience was clear and that he had acted with godly sincerity and purity toward them (1:12). Paul wasn’t the fickle type. He didn’t indecisively say yes and no simultaneously (1:17-18). Instead, he sought to follow God’s will; therefore, the answer was always yes in Christ. Furthermore, Jesus Christwhom Paul proclaimed—is the fulfillment (the yes) of all God’s promises (1:19-20). Paul’s message and ministry were characterized by consistency and a Christ-centered focus.

1:22-24 Paul and his ministry partners had not operated in a worldly way but in accordance with the Holy Spirit, who was God’s seal on them (1:22). Far from being fickle, Paul had changed his mind about visiting Corinth because he wanted to spare them. He didn’t want to lord it over their faith, forcing them to submit to his apostolic authority, but wanted to come to them in joy (1:23-24). He desired to minister effectively to them rather than simply exercising authority over them.

2:1-4 Someone in the Corinthian church had publicly opposed and sinned against Paul (see 2:5-10), so he wanted to avoid a painful visit like his previous one (2:1). Therefore, Paul had written a tearful letter to them from an anguished heart so that they could deal with the sin, have their joy restored, and know of Paul’s abundant love for them (2:3-4).

2:5-8 Paul insists that the person had caused harm not so much to him but to the whole church (2:5). But he acknowledges that the Corinthians had exercised church discipline (punishment) against the person, so apparently the man had repented (2:6). Now it was time to restore this repentant brother by comforting him, forgiving him, and reaffirming their love for him so that he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by excessive grief (2:7-8).

Biblical instructions on church discipline are crucial for dealing with sin in the church (see commentary on Matt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:3). But it’s also crucial that the church forgive when a sinning believer repents. For the health of the church, sin must be addressed, but love and forgiveness must be shown in response to repentance. We must never put a limit on God’s grace and mercy to sinners. Rather, we must seek to lead them out of sin to a place of spiritual restoration (see Gal 6:1; Jas 5:19-20).

2:9-11 Rather than visit, cause pain, and exercise apostolic authority, Paul had written his letter to test the church’s character in this matter and prompt them to obedience (2:9). He made it clear that he too had forgiven the man, desiring nothing but their benefit (2:10). Satan’s goal is to incite disunity in the church, and this was a perfect opportunity for him to take advantage of them. Don’t be ignorant of his schemes (2:11). He’ll tempt you both to ignore sin and to refuse to forgive.

2:12-13 Paul had been so anxious about this problem in the church that it had become a distraction to his ministry. When he reached Troas, a city on the Aegean Sea in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), he had an open door to preach the gospel (2:12). However, since he had not yet linked up with Titus—who had visited the Corinthians and would be bringing news from them—Paul had no rest in his spirit. So he departed for Macedonia (2:13). Thus, the problems in the Corinthian church had unnecessarily prevented his ministry from moving forward.

2:14 After a victorious battle, a Roman general would engage in a parade that included those whom he had conquered. In addition, incense was burned along the parade route, providing a sweet aroma of victory. Here Paul compares Jesus Christ to a conquering general who leads the apostle and other believers in triumphal procession and in spreading the aroma of the knowledge of Christ everywhere they go. The imagery also reminds us of Old Testament sacrifices that offered pleasing aromas to God (see, e.g., Lev 1:13). Believers are to live in a manner that pleases God so that our lives are “a sacrificial and fragrant offering to” him (Eph 5:2).

2:15-17 Paul and his companions were the fragrance of Christ among those to whom they preached. The message they proclaimed had paradoxical results. To those who believed and were being saved, they were an aroma of life. But to those who rejected the message and were perishing, they were an aroma of death (2:15-16). This is a reminder that a person’s response to the gospel has eternal consequences. When you share the good news of Jesus Christ with someone, eternity hangs in the balance. It’s for this reason that Paul was engaged with a high degree of integrity in authentic ministry. This is no game; heaven and hell are on the line. And he didn’t peddle the word of God for financial gain. Paul acted from authentic motives, knowing that he spoke a message from God and ministered before God for the well-being of the church and for God’s glory (2:17). That should be the motivation of every Christian.

3:1-3 Paul makes it clear that he needs no human validation for his ministry, like some false teachers sought. They praised themselves with letters of recommendation, but Paul didn’t need to engage in self-promotion (3:1). His ministry had received divine validation. The Corinthians themselves—won to the gospel from pagan idolatry—were Paul’s letter of recommendation. This evidence was available for everyone to read (3:2). Just as the new covenant was greater than the old covenant (with God’s law written on human hearts rather than on tablets of stone; see Heb 8:8-10), so Paul’s commendation is greater than any false teacher’s because of the visible effect the Spirit of the living God had on the lives of the Corinthians through Paul’s ministry (3:3).

If no one’s life is being changed at a local church, then the “ministry” taking place there lacks validation. A church’s goal is not the installation of nice carpets and comfortable pews, but the life-transforming work of producing kingdom disciples. Our goal is to facilitate God’s extreme makeovers and the spiritual transformation of his children.

3:4-6 Though his gospel ministry had been effective, Paul understood his own inadequacy. His full confidence was in God who is able to make us adequate to accomplish his kingdom purposes (3:4-5). The Lord had made Paul a competent minister of the new covenant. The letter of the law reveals our sinful inability to keep it and condemns us. But through Christ’s new covenant sacrifice, the Spirit gives life and transformation to those who believe (3:6).

Replace your self-confidence with God-confidence. Regardless of your personal abilities and competencies, you are incapable of producing spiritual results via earthly means. Submit to your omni-competent King and humbly depend on the power of the Holy Spirit so that he can accomplish his kingdom agenda through you.

3:7-11 The old covenant ministry . . . brought death because the sinful hearts of the people were unable to keep the law. Nevertheless, glory accompanied the old covenant when God’s glory rubbed off on Moses’s face as he spent time in his presence (3:7; see Exod 34:29-32). So if a ministry that ultimately brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious must new covenant ministry be since it brings righteousness (3:8-9)? In fact, the glorious ministry of Jesus Christ so far surpasses the old covenant that the latter is not even glorious by comparison (3:10). Thus, any attempt to return to the law and the old covenant for righteousness and transformation is a spiritually backwards step. By contrast, the new covenant transforms sinners into saints and endures forever (3:11).

3:12-13 Paul had great boldness in the power of the gospel to change lives (3:12). Again he mentions the example of Moses, whose face shone with glory after spending time in God’s presence. But the moment he left God’s presence, the glory began to fade, so he wore a veil to prevent the Israelites from seeing that (3:13). Paul uses this incident to introduce a discussion of the transformation God wanted in the lives of the Corinthians (and in our lives), producing a glory that increases and doesn’t fade.

3:14-18 The transforming work that God accomplished through Christ is intended for all believers—not merely for a small subset of super saints—so that we live in spiritual victory and freedom (see John 8:31-32, 36). Notice that Paul says, We all . . . are being transformed (3:18). So it applies to every Christian, and we all undergo this transformation in the same way.

First, let’s be clear about what transformation is not. It’s not the mere accumulation of information. You can attend church and acquire a tremendous amount of Bible knowledge—both of which are important things. But these actions in and of themselves won’t change you. Moreover, transformation is not simply behavior modification. If parents tell their son to take out the trash and he refuses, they can threaten punishment to get him to conform to their instructions. But this won’t necessarily produce internal transformation and a change of character. In fact, as the son takes out the trash, he may be boiling with rebellion on the inside.

What, then, is true spiritual transformation? It’s an internal change that reflects the character of Christ and brings about a corresponding external change. Moreover, though it requires your involvement, you don’t actually transform yourself. Notice that Paul says we are “being transformed.” God accomplishes the transformation. But as Moses climbed the mountain to go where he could access God’s glow, we must position ourselves so that the Lord can do his work in us. We are transformed as the Holy Spirit uses our exposure, openness, and obedience to the Word of God (i.e., the mirror, 3:18; see Jas 1:21-25) to grow us from one level of spiritual development to the next (i.e., “from glory to glory”; see below).

Into what are believers to be transformed? Into the same image from glory to glory (3:18). With this phrase Paul is speaking about being made to resemble and reflect Jesus who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). God doesn’t intend that we look like Jesus physically, of course, but that we look like him in our attitudes and actions, in our character and conduct. Spiritual transformation is the development of Christlikeness within the believer that grows from one level of glory to another so that it expresses itself externally in righteous words and deeds.

This is only made possible by the work of the Spirit in our lives (note that “Spirit” is repeated three times in 3:17-18) as we look at the glory of the Lord (3:18). When we look to the Lord through his glorious Word, transformation is inevitable. But we must approach him with honesty and integrity, turning to the Lord with no veil of unbelief over our faces, as Paul says (3:16). In Paul’s day, many who were still looking to the old covenant of law were coming to God’s Word with a veil over their hearts (3:15)—that is, they were not pursuing an intimate relationship like Moses did. But not to expose yourself to the glory of the Word will result in no change. We must approach God’s Word with unveiled faces as we obediently welcome his truth into our lives (see Jas 1:19-25), giving the Holy Spirit permission to do his transforming work from one level of spiritual development to the next. “Glory to glory” (3:18) is the stage of spiritual development that is usually introduced by a trial (see Jas 1:2-4).

4:1-2 Since Paul had been shown mercy by God and received his new covenant ministry directly from Christ, he would not give up in spite of the struggles he had faced with the Corinthian church (4:1). No matter what other would-be teachers might do, Paul and his companions had no intention of acting deceitfully or distorting the word of God. Though some had attributed false motives to Paul, he engaged in an open display of the truth and commended himself to everyone’s conscience (4:2). No one had a shred of evidence to substantiate an accusation against him. Let the same be true of you.

4:3-6 When people reject the gospel, the truth is veiled from their view (4:3). Their spiritual darkness is facilitated by the devil—the god of this age—who has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to prevent them from believing the gospel of the glory of Christ (4:4). This is a reminder that we do not struggle “against flesh and blood” but “against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens” (Eph 6:12). Therefore, Paul knew he couldn’t wage this battle by proclaiming himself but instead Jesus Christ as Lord (4:5). Only God can cause light to shine out of darkness. Just as he created visible light at the dawn of creation, so also he shines spiritual light into darkened hearts to give sinners the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus (4:6).

4:7 The treasure Paul is talking about is the knowledge of God experienced through Christ that he just mentioned in 4:6. Only through Jesus do we have access to this experiential knowledge, and the closer you get to Jesus, the more of God you experience. “For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ” (Col 2:9), and “in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).

What’s even more amazing is that this treasure is inside every Christian. Paul speaks of our bodies as clay jars, fragile containers made from earth (see Gen 2:7). On our best days, then, we’re just dignified dirt. But the weakness of such humble vessels is set in sharp contrast to their valuable and supernatural contents. And the purpose is so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us. In other words, this experience of the knowledge of God cannot be manifested by your own strength but only by God’s power. Thus, it’s not who you are, but whom you know.

4:8-9 To demonstrate how the glory and power of God are manifested in and through such frail clay jars, Paul describes the trials he and his companions had endured. They had been afflicted . . . perplexed . . . persecuted . . . struck down. Yet in spite of this, they were not crushed . . . not in despair . . . not abandoned . . . not destroyed. How is that possible? Only by means of the sustaining hand of Jesus. Such perseverance in troubles is a clear indicator of God’s power.

4:10-12 Paul adds, We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed in our body (4:10). God lets us experience problems so that the divine life of Jesus is manifested in our mortal flesh (4:11). It couldn’t be more clear, then: Those who claim that faithfully following Jesus brings only blessings and never complications are dead wrong. God will allow the circumstances of 4:9 into your life to force you to rely on Jesus. So how will you know when you’re truly connecting with Christ and allowing him to work in and through you? As Paul says, you’ll be afflicted but not crushed—that is, in the midst of life’s turmoil, you won’t sink into despair.

4:13 What do you do when you’re experiencing such hardship? Paul says, I believed, therefore I spoke. So, speak God’s Word into your situation. Don’t let your words contradict what you claim to believe. Instead, speak and pray only what is biblical.

For example, when experiencing difficulties, remember what James says: “Let the brother of humble circumstances boast in his exaltation” (Jas 1:9). This doesn’t mean that you deny your earthly circumstances but that you praise God who has blessed you “with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ” (Eph 1:3). Furthermore, whatever the outcome of your trial, you can pray Paul’s promise that God “will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19). Through your trial, God may be trying to accomplish something within you (such as the strengthening of your faith, your growth in godliness, or the transformation of your character), or he may want to use you to have a spiritual impact on the lives of others. He knows what you need better than you do.

4:14-15 Paul has confidence (and so can we) that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus (4:14). Our earthly ordeals are temporary: a glorious eternity awaits! When we truly acknowledge this provision of grace, it will lead to increased thanksgiving and bring glory to God (4:15).

4:16 Therefore—in light of the power of God at work on our behalf—we do not give up. We can keep going since we know the truth: Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. If you have not yet experienced signs of aging, be patient. You will! But there’s good news. Though our bodies grow older and decay, we believers are becoming strengthened in “our inner person,” which is where our treasure is (4:7). Believers should be growing spiritually younger (i.e., healthier) as they grow physical older. We are being made fit for our future heavenly home, and this happens through a process that comes “day by day.” As when the Israelites received the manna in the wilderness, the Lord provides you with the grace you need for today. Next week’s grace must wait until next week.

4:17-18 Paul calls his troubles momentary light affliction. How can he possibly refer to such intense, prolonged suffering this way? First, he understands that negative circumstances have a positive effect when we trust and obey God through them. They are producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory (4:17). The pain and suffering of this life can be truly awful. But when the input of affliction is compared to the output of glory that Christ is accomplishing on your behalf, Paul insists that the difference between them is like night and day.

Second, Paul can call his affliction “momentary” and “light” because he does not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (4:18). So if your tribulations seem long and heavy, you’re looking at the wrong thing. To put it another way, if all you see is what you see, then you do not see all there is to be seen! Paul is not saying we must close our eyes to the reality of our suffering; he’s saying we need to open our eyes by faith to unseen realities that will last forever. An eternal perspective gives the believer the ability to handle the struggles of this life.

5:1 When Paul speaks of our earthly tent, he’s talking about our physical bodies. When this life on earth is over, and our bodies return to dust, life has only just begun. Eternity awaits! And for those who trust in Christ, God has an eternal dwelling prepared for our incorruptible resurrection bodies—something Paul had previously explained to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 15:35-57).

5:2-5 In fact, Paul says we groan in our present tent, because we long for our heavenly dwelling (5:2). According to Ecclesiastes 3:11, God has “put eternity in [our] hearts.” Though we operate in time, we ache for what is everlasting because God created us to last forever. He made us for this very purpose (5:5). We do not want to be unclothed but clothed is Paul’s way of saying we don’t want life to end but desire our mortality to be swallowed up by life (5:4). How do we know God will follow through on his promise to grant believers eternal life? Because he has given us the Holy Spirit as a down payment guaranteeing what is to come (5:5).

Every human being is rapidly headed for eternity, whether he or she realizes it or not. So, are you living your temporal days in light of your eternal destiny? Approach your every decision and maximize your earthly time by living from an eternal perspective.

5:6-8 While we live in our earthly bodies, we are away from the Lord (5:6) and have not yet realized the fullness of the glory that will be revealed to us when we are taken into God’s presence. Paul’s preference was to be at home with the Lord (5:8). But until that day, he exhorted the Corinthian believers, we walk by faith, not by sight (5:7).

As the apostle said previously, “We do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:18). Thus, we must live based on what God’s Word teaches us to believe instead of on what we can see. We walk by faith, trusting that God is telling the truth. Though we can’t see the eternal realities that he has promised, we act—living heavenly in a hellish world—because we are confident in him.

5:9-10 Regardless of his circumstances, Paul’s aim was to be pleasing to the Lord in all aspects of his life (5:9). For he knew he would have to give an account for his life as a believer. Indeed, we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be repaid for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (5:10). The Greek word translated “judgment seat” is bema. In the ancient world, it was on a bema that a ruler or person with authority would sit to render judicial decisions. Paul, for example, stood before the judgment seat (or “tribunal”) of Gallio in Achaia when the Jews made charges against him (see Acts 12–13).

One day every Christian will have to stand before Christ’s bema to have his or her faithfulness (or lack thereof) evaluated and recompensed. Believers will be granted or denied rewards based on whether or not they have lived for Christ. There will be no hiding on that day. And there will be no actions in your Christian life that will be overlooked. Therefore, knowing that everything “good or evil” will be repaid, how do you want to spend the few days allotted to you?

5:11 Given that he would appear before the judgment seat of Christ, Paul lived in the fear of the Lord—that is, he took God seriously. He was earnest about the ministry God had given him, so he sought to persuade people to believe in King Jesus and submit their lives to his kingdom agenda. He was confident that the integrity of his ministry was plain to God, and he hoped that his method and motivation were also plain to the consciences of the Corinthians.

5:12-13 Paul insists that he is not commending himself to the Corinthians but instead giving them the opportunity to be proud of the authentic nature of the ministry he and his companions were carrying out on behalf of the church. Some among the Corin-thians were boasting in outward appearances, but Paul made it clear that one’s heart motivation is what matters (5:12). Whatever Paul was accused of, he assures them that his actions were for God’s glory and their edification (5:13).

5:14-15 Paul is compelled by the love of Christ for sinners. Since Christ died for all people (a reference to unlimited atonement), then all died—that is, the penalty for all sin has been paid by Christ’s sacrifice (5:14). Thus, the barrier between God and people has been removed, and Paul wants all people to hear, believe, and receive that good news of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God. Further, if Christ gave his life for us, then our lives are no longer our own. Rather than living for ourselves, then, we ought to live for the one who died for [us] and was raised (5:15).

This is what Paul was doing, what he wanted the Corinthians to do, and what is missing in the lives of many Christians today. The Son of God suffered the wrath of God to purchase our eternal destiny in glory. What greater privilege is there than serving him during our brief pilgrimages on earth as our loving response to his overwhelming love for us?

5:16 In light of these eternal realities, Paul confesses that he no longer knows anyone from a worldly perspective. In other words, Christians are not to evaluate people based on mere physical appearances like age, gender, or ethnicity but based on their eternal destinies. Similarly, we don’t evaluate Christ from a worldly perspective. He is no mere crucified first-century Jewish man; rather, he is the risen Savior and King who is seated at the right hand of the Father. We must see and evaluate things according to their heavenly, spiritual realities—not their mere earthly, physical, racial, and temporal appearances.

5:17 If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. If you are a Christian, you have been born again of imperishable seed and share in the divine nature (see John 3:3; 1 Pet 1:23; 2 Pet 1:4). God has brought about a spiritual transformation inside of you, and your identity is tied to your new birth. You are no longer who you once were: the old has passed away. Therefore, you are called to live in accordance with your new identity.

5:18-20 All of this newness is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ. And as those who have been reconciled to God, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation (5:18). In other words, every believer has a mission—the same mission—to tell others of the good news of Jesus Christ. Thus, we are ambassadors for Christ. An ambassador is an officially designated representative who is authorized to speak in a foreign land on behalf of the country by which he was sent. Therefore, we must speak faithfully for the one who sent us. Since we are Christ’s ambassadors, God is making his appeal through us (5:20). We are to share the message of reconciliation, urging all sinners to be reconciled to God because, through the atoning work of Christ, he is not counting their trespasses against them (5:19-20). There is no more glorious news to be proclaimed!

Scripture declares that God wants “everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). God the Father desires that all people would hear and understand the gospel so that they may have the opportunity to believe for eternal life. The Son of God died on the cross to make this possible. But he isn’t coming down from heaven to do the witnessing directly. Instead, he has committed the message to us. Our job as his ambassadors is to carry out that mission and proclaim that message to the world.

5:21 God the Father made his Son Jesus Christ who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. By his glorious grace, God offers human beings the deal of a lifetime. As a result of our sin, every human being owes a debt to God that he or she can’t repay. Our sin demands God’s eternal judgment. Yet, “because of his great love that he had for us” (Eph 2:4), God acted on our behalf. As Paul says, “The one who did not know sin became sin for us.” The sinless Son of God became our substitute on the cross: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24).

Yet that’s only half the story. Although that addresses our sins, we still have a lack of righteousness to commend us to God. So, in exchange for our sins, Jesus offers to give us his perfect righteousness—that is, when we place our faith in him, he credits our spiritual bank accounts with his own perfection. The theological term for this transaction is imputation. When you believe in Jesus as your substitutionary atonement, your sin is imputed (or credited) to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to you. This is the glorious exchange that the gospel offers to everyone who will receive it. And this is the good news of which we are ambassadors.

6:1-2 The false apostles who were leading some astray in Corinth had been preaching “another Jesus” (11:4) and were Jews (11:22). So they may have been affiliated with the “Judaizers” that Paul addressed in Galatians, those who were telling Gentile Christians that they had to keep the Mosaic law in addition to believing in Jesus. Since Paul urges the Corinthians not to receive the grace of God in vain (6:1), it may be that these false teachers were telling them to focus on keeping the law by their own self-effort, rather than relying on God’s gracious provision to live the Christian life (see Gal 3:1-5). Paul quotes from Isaiah 49:8 to emphasize that the day of salvation has arrived (6:2). Today, we must operate in light of God’s grace if we are to maximize the salvation we have received.

6:3-5 Paul puts himself forward as an example for the Corinthians to follow. He didn’t worry about protecting himself but sought to protect his ministry from accusations (6:3). As God’s ministers, he and his coworkers were representatives of the Lord. So Paul wants to commend his ministry (6:4) and avoid anything that would compromise it and bring spiritual ruin to the lives of others—as many false teachers were doing. Paul lists a series of hardships that he had endured on behalf of his ministry (6:4-5), demonstrating that he was willing to suffer many intense afflictions to honor Christ and see lives transformed for his kingdom.

6:6-10 After listing the adversities he faced, Paul lists the qualities necessary for this kind of faithful ministry. Paul’s service to the Lord and his people was marked by purity . . . patience . . . sincere love, and was fueled by the Holy Spirit . . . the word of truth . . . the power of God (6:6-7). Next Paul lists nine pairs of paradoxes that he experienced. These include glory and dishonor . . . unknown, yet recognized . . . having nothing, yet possessing everything (6:8-10). Through his personal character, the divine affirmation of his work, and his spiritual successes in spite of adversity, Paul’s apostleship was validated.

6:11-13 Paul had not operated in secret among the Corinthians. He had kept nothing from them but had always spoken openly with a heart like an open book (6:11). His ministry was nothing if not authentic and characterized by affection. In contrast, the Corinthians were the ones withholding affection from Paul. So, like a father to his children (they were, in fact, his spiritual children, having been converted under his preaching), he pleads with them to display the same commitment to him that he had to them (6:13).

Paul is an authentic and powerful example not only for all church leaders but for all church members as well. Those who serve in positions of leadership ought to have a deep love for those under their spiritual care. Likewise, the congregation should have warm affection and respect for their leaders who will one day “give an account” to God for the souls of those whom they serve (Heb 13:17). Without this two-way openness, it’s difficult for those within a church to care for and protect one another spiritually.

6:14-18 Quoting from several Old Testament passages for support (6:16-18), Paul exhorts them not to have intimate fellowship with unbelievers. Some of the Corinthians were doing this with the Jewish false teachers who were opposing Paul and sowing discord in the church. To become partners with can also be translated “be unequally yoked” (6:14). The idea comes from Deuteronomy 22:10, in which the Israelites were commanded not to have “an ox and a donkey” plowing together. What’s true among animals is true among humans. Close relationships or partnerships between believers and unbelievers result in an unholy union. After all, what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (6:15).

Whether it’s a romantic relationship, intimate friendship, or a business partnership, such compromise negatively affects your intimacy with God. When you align yourself with those whose beliefs and lives are far from God, you’ll find God distancing himself from you too.

7:1 Therefore, in light of the promises of God’s nearness—“we are the temple of the living God” (6:16)—Paul urges them to cleanse themselves of impurity (through illegitimate partnerships with unbelievers) that may have hindered their sanctification process. Instead, they should be serious about their relationship with the Lord by living in the fear of God.

7:2-4 Regarding any accusations or rumors that the false apostles had made against him, Paul reiterates that he has not wronged or taken advantage of anyone and pleads with them to open their hearts to him (7:2). He quickly explains that he and his coworkers are not attempting to condemn the Corinthians. Their hearts are filled with affection, pride, and joy over them in spite of the afflictions suffered (7:3-4). The false apostles were to blame for the unrest they had caused.

7:5-11 Paul had experienced turmoil, unrest, and fears when he arrived in Macedonia because he had still not heard from Titus regarding his previous letter to the Corinthians (7:5; see 2:12-13). But God provided him with great comfort by the arrival of Titus, who brought good news of how the Corinthians had repented of their previous attitude and had disciplined the man who’d opposed Paul (7:5-7; see 2:1-8).

God often comforts his children through their fellow believers (see 1:3-7). In his providence, he will bring people alongside those experiencing conflict who can offer a sympathetic ear and speak words of truth and encouragement. So when you see a brother or sister in Christ suffering, don’t pass up the opportunity to be used of God to bring them comfort that perhaps only you can provide.

Even if Paul had grieved the Corinthians with his letter, he knew it had been worth it because of the positive spiritual results (7:8). Their grief led to repentance followed by a godly zeal for Paul (7:7, 9). Paul distinguishes between godly grief and worldly grief—the former leads to repentance while the latter leads to death (7:10). Worldly grief is what Judas experienced after he betrayed Jesus. He knew he had sinned and was filled with remorse, but he was unwilling to repent (see Matt 27:3-5). In contrast, Peter experienced godly grief after denying Christ. This led to his repentance and recommitment to the Lord, resulting in his spiritual restoration (see Matt 26:75; John 21:15-19).

7:12-16 The Corinthians’ response to what Paul wrote provided them with the opportunity to demonstrate their own devotion to him in the sight of God (7:12). This, in turn, comforted Paul and his companions (7:13) because it validated the Corinthians’ faith and their desire to walk faithfully before God.

Titus had been a key player in bringing harmony between the Corinthian church and Paul. The apostle had boasted of his confidence in the Corinthian believers, and he was not disappointed by the results (7:14). Titus had been refreshed by them and grew in affection toward them because of their obedience, and this brought much rejoicing to them all (7:13, 15-16).

Notice how both Paul and Titus experienced joy over, encouragement from, and affection for other believers because of their obedience to God. How does the obedience or disobedience of your fellow believers affect you? Are you grieved when they stray from the Lord? Are you willing to intervene as Paul did and have a difficult conversation so that they might be moved to godly grief and repentance? When they honor God through their obedience, do you rejoice and praise God? Kingdom disciples care deeply about the reputation of their King and the welfare of his people.