2 Corinthians – Section 2

ncN.T. Wright’s study guide continues with the text of 2 Cornithians 2:5-3:18. This sectioning off of Scripture is teaching me a highly valuable lesson: consider the more comprehensive thought streams in the text. To chop up the bible into exact chapters is becoming less and less helpful to me. I really appreciate, therefore, the initiative by the Biblica people in creating the Community Bible Experience program. The second study from N.T. Wright is entitled “The Letter and the Spirit”. Here are my thoughts from the study and the text.

Sense of Smell

Because of the “aroma of Christ” comment in this section, N.T. begins with describing the importance of smell to the ancient faith systems. Imagine the smell of the sacrifices, the incense, and the temple. All those smells conjured up divine thoughts to the ancients. To them, knowledge had a smell. Today we might call this the “smell test”.

The opening question, then, is this: What smell brings back the most vibrant and clear memories for you?

I find that considering the sense of smell enriches my study of the Holy Scriptures. As I sift through my memories, looking through the smell of kimchee, I recall the smell of the Catholic church on Sunday. Every Sunday as a child I remember the smell of the cool entrance, almost a holy water smell. The smell of lingering candles and incense all remind me of God.

Study notes

The study again has 12 questions. This time the questions are more like paragraphs, which contain notes about the text. Although I would rather just think about questions, I see that Wright’s comments are not distracting. Instead, he gives comments that are contextual in nature. I don’t see any particular theology or loaded questions, so I am able to continue to trust the study.

Punishment and Forgiveness

In 2 Corinthians 2:1-11, Paul expresses what he calls great distress and anguish of heart. He had previously instructed the church there to discipline one member who had taken his father’s wife. Perhaps Paul is expressing anguish over that event, or perhaps other events as well. In any case, he teaches something of great importance and relevance: the path to forgiveness includes church discipline.

“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. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” 2 Corinthians 2:5-8

The life of a faith community is closely bound up together. A healthy faith community not only has the courage to deal with sin, but also has a willingness to forgive in both the right sequence and the right balance. Punishment and forgiveness are important dynamics to ponder. Does your faith community take church discipline seriously? If so, do they also take forgiveness and restoration seriously? How can Christ-followers talk about forgiveness but skip the discipline part?

Captives in Christ’s Triumphal Procession

Wright reminds us that the ancient world was familiar with the image of a king’s victory procession. During such a procession, a king who had won a notable military victory would parade the prisoners they had captured and display their plunder in a glorious celebration. The prisoners would later be executed. So then what was Paul communicating in 2 Corinthians 2:12-17? Why are Christians presented as the prisoners in the imagery?

This line of thought opened my eyes to see this section of the text in a whole new light. I’ve heard these verses quoted a lot. But it never occurred to me that we are the captives! I only thought about the aroma of Christ and the great victory. But perhaps Paul was communicating a sober reminder to all Christ-followers: You are the prisoners who will be executed. But as captives of Christ, we have much hope and even our execution can be an aroma that brings life. Perhaps a faith community should remember this vivid image of Christ as the king as we live out the discipline and forgiveness paradigm.

Letters of recommendation?

In chapter 3, Paul’s thoughts again turn toward the legitimacy of his ministry.

“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

Here is a sobering thought: the only letter of recommendation that counts for your faith community is the human hearts you have impacted. The result of your ministry is shown by what kind of people are raised up among you. Does your faith community seek out letters of recommendation? What kind of people are being developed among you? When the world reads the human hearts of your faith community, what do they read? Is your faith community focused on the letter of the law or the spirit of the law?

Surpassing Glory

In the last part of chapter 3, Paul draws on text from the Old Testament, such as Jeremiah 31:33 and Exodus 34:29-35. I can sense Paul’s earnest longing for the Corinthians to get out of their rut and move beyond their problems. His longing is so strong that he makes some extremely bold statements about the Old Testament way of life.

“Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” 2 Corinthians 3:7-11

The glory of the obedience/curse way of life presented in the Old Testament has no glory now, according to this text. There is simply no comparison with the surpassing glory of following Jesus, even if following Jesus brings shame, misunderstanding or death. Paul’s anguish is clear. He loves the OT Law. He was a Pharisee. But now he looks to the lasting hope and glory of Jesus the Messiah.

Unveiled Faces

Paul’s thoughts on his vision for the Corinthian faith community continue with amazing imagery.

“Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.” 2 Corinthians 3:12-13

Do people in your faith community wear masks or seem to have a veil over their faces? Do people reveal their authentic self to each other? How can you lift your veil, become transparent, and help build a faith community with unveiled faces reflecting Christ to each other?


Wright encourages us to pray by reflecting on the amazing way the Spirit has made a new covenant in the hearts of Christians around us. Pray with thanksgiving for the transformation of your faith community so that they reflect God’s glory. Remember that human hearts are the only letter of recommendation that matter.

Comments are closed.