As we pointed out in our introduction to 1 Corinthians, the Corinthian church would have been challenging. This one gave him the most grief and heartbreak of all the churches he started. You see this culminating in Paul’s admonition in 2 Cor. 13:5, when he said to them, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (ESV) Undoubtedly, Paul is beginning to question their salvation and connection to Jesus.
This is a church that continually struggled with moral and doctrinal issues. The influence of false teachers and misunderstanding about doctrine, culture, and pagan religions seemed to plague them. Like some Christians and churches today, despite their great advantage of having great teachers and leaders, they never get it together spiritually.
So, in this last epistle to Corinth, you will see a side of Paul that was not evident in 1 Corinthians. On the one hand, it is more personal (due to the strained relationship), but on the other hand, it is stricter and harsher (due to the false teachers and the church’s apparent tolerance of them).
In chapters 1-10, we find Paul trying to be encouraging and expressing his joy for their spiritual progress. Paul was always looking for the good in the church. We should learn from him and always think the best of each other. In chapters 11-13, the tone of the letter changes. He expresses his dismay over the influence of the false teachers and will get as pointed as he has been in any letter.
While we cannot be sure of the identity of the false teachers in Corinth, they have gotten a foothold in the church and, as a result, are using that connection to discredit Paul and his mission in Corinth.
Several facts about the false teachers stand out. First, they claimed a connection to Jesus Christ and an apostolic authority superior to Paul. This tends to show up in letters of recommendation to the church. Second, they were boasting of their Jewish heritage, eloquence, boldness, missionary accomplishments, ecstatic experiences, miracles, and exceptional knowledge from visions. Third, they criticize Paul as being weak, having poor speaking skills, and subject to suffering hardships. This was construed as God’s lack of approval and protection of Paul.
On the other hand, they claimed that since they had not suffered, God was with them and protecting them. Never mind the testimony of Jesus’ life that stood in stark opposition to this point. The Corinthians agreed with it.
A powerful and important lesson for us all: for false teachers to get a foothold in the church, they must first separate you from the teachers and authority that the Lord has given you. As such, 2 Corinthians is a powerful and challenging read. Let me encourage you to read it afresh and let the truths of God’s word influence how you interact with your leaders and how submissive you are to His words.