2 Corinthians

The great missionary apostle Paul established the Church in many of the great cities of Greece and Asia, but none was perhaps greater than Corinth. This ancient city was the crossroads of Greece, lying on the isthmus between Attica and the Peloponnesian peninsula, and between the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.  A century after the Romans destroyed the ancient town; Julius Caesar commanded its rebuilding, so the bustling city Paul knew was relatively modern and newly prosperous.  Paul succeeded in establishing a flourishing branch of the Church there on his second missionary journey.

Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for the seeds of apostasy to take root in the Corinthian branch.  Some time after Paul’s departure, some members of the Church at Corinth began questioning the authority of Paul (2 Cor. 10-11). This group was following the lead of an intrusive set of “false apostles” (11:13) who claimed some kind of higher knowledge or greater authority than Paul’s. Frustrated at this development, Paul wrote a rebuke in Greek to the Corinthians from his base at Ephesus in Asia Minor.  Most scholars consider this letter to be preserved in 2 Corinthians chapters 10-13.

Paul sent the letter to Corinth with his emissary Titus. So anxious was Paul about the reaction of the Corinthians, for whom he had a deep affection, that he traveled to Macedonia in order to meet Titus on his return. Titus told him that the letter had a sobering effect on the Saints at Corinth. Relieved and happy, Paul wrote another letter, now preserved as 2 Corinthians 1-9, to reconcile himself to the Corinthians.

The grand theme of 2 Corinthians is the reconciliation of God to his children, and of brother to brother, brought about by the Atonement of the Savior Jesus Christ.  Paul teaches three key doctrines about the Atonement:

  • The promise of the Atonement is the key to overcoming all adversity.
  • We must forgive others if we expect to benefit from the forgiveness that God extends through the Atonement of Christ.
  • “Godly sorrow” for our sins enables us to claim the promises of the Atonement.

Why was Paul able to avoid despair despite being troubled, perplexed, persecuted, and cast down?

In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul gives an account of the troubles he has endured as a missionary. He does so reluctantly, but he wants the erring Corinthians to understand the price he has paid to bring them the true Gospel of Christ.  Whether whipped, starved, or in utter deprivation, he has gone forward with his work:

“Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (2 Cor. 11:24-27).

If the physical trials and harassment weren’t enough, Paul also had to endure anxieties because of the faithlessness of his friends: He suffers “beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.” However, Paul has a deep source of consolation in the care of his Savior, who compensates for Paul’s problems by His power. Indeed, Paul says, “I glory of the things which concern mine infirmities” (2 Cor. 11:28, 30) because of the strength of the Lord that makes up for them.

Severe adversity is often the lot of the humble followers of Christ and afflicts the true prophets of the Lord in all ages. Joseph Smith, for example, was not unaware of the similarity between his own sufferings and those of Paul: “And as for the perils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me, as the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; . . . But nevertheless, deep water is what I am wont to swim in. It all has become a second nature to me; and I feel, like Paul, to glory in tribulation, for to this day has the God of my fathers delivered me out of them all, and will deliver me from henceforth; for behold, and lo, I shall triumph over all my enemies, for the Lord God hath spoken it” (D&C 127:2).
Joseph enjoyed the same consolation as Paul, in his knowledge of the promises of the Lord to those who suffer for the Gospel’s sake.

The source of this consolation is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which enables us through our faithfulness to triumph over all obstacles–even death itself–to attain to eternal life. Paul and Joseph never despaired in spite of the pain, the poverty, and the betrayals they endured.

Why not? What exactly is the basis of Paul’s hope? In what way does he draw on the power of the Savior to sustain him through the pain and the peril?

First, he finds comfort and peace in his relationship with Heavenly Father, a relationship made possible through the reconciliation brought about by the sacrifice of Christ.  “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).  It is only in the spiritual comfort that comes from Heavenly Father that we derive lasting peace in the face of tribulation.

Second, Paul notes that his consolation comes from service to others. He recognizes that God comforts us “that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” “Whether we be afflicted,” he points out to the Corinthians, “it is for your consolation and salvation” (2 Cor. 1:4, 6).  This is the highest and holiest calling of a missionary: to comfort those who stand in need of comfort through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Third, Paul is consoled by the promises of God made possible through the Atonement of Christ. “Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God; who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts” (2 Cor. 1:21-22). The anointing and sealing up to eternal life is an inexpressible gift available to all through the ordinances of His holy house, as the Prophet Joseph Smith taught:

“Now for the secret and grand key . . . [to be] sealed in the heavens and [have] the promise of eternal life in the kingdom of God. Then, having this promise sealed unto them, it was an anchor to the soul, sure and steadfast. Though the thunders might roll and lightnings flash, and earthquakes bellow, and war gather thick around, yet this hope and knowledge would support the soul in every hour of trial, trouble and tribulation.” [1]

Paul also had faith in the promise that would put him beyond pain, of the endowment promised to all the faithful of a celestial body: “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven. . . . For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened; not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life” (2 Cor. 5:1-2, 4).  The root of the Greek term “to be clothed upon” is endusis, translated into English asendowment. To be “clothed upon with our house which is from heaven” is to be endowed with the same kind of glorified body Christ enjoys and to be enrobed with the same robes of power, as indicated in the Doctrine & Covenants:

“Mine apostles . . . shall stand at my right hand at the day of my coming in a pillar of fire, being clothed with robes of righteousness. . . . [for] they shall come forth–yea, even the dead which died in me, to receive a crown of righteousness, and to be clothed upon, even as I am, to be with me, that we may be one” (D&C 29:13). Paul knew that he would be among the apostles to be endowed with a celestial body and a robe of righteousness like unto the Savior’s [my italics].

Furthermore, this promise is to all, as Joseph Smith prayed at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, “that our garments may be pure, that we may be clothed upon with robes of righteousness, with palms in our hands, and crowns of glory upon our heads, and reap eternal joy for all our sufferings” (D&C 109:76) [my italics].

Finally, Paul actually had the opportunity to view the glories of eternal life when he was caught up to the celestial kingdom. Most authorities believe that Paul was speaking of himself when he recounted the story of “a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. . . . how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor. 11:2, 4).

Of this obscure reference, Joseph Smith observed: “Paul ascended into the third heavens, and he could understand the three principal rounds of Jacob’s ladder–the telestial, the terrestrial, and the celestial glories or kingdoms, where Paul saw and heard things which were not lawful for him to utter.” [2]   The strict prohibition against speaking of those sacred things reminds us of the care we must take and the reverence we must give to the holy promises made to the faithful in the temple of God.

Although Paul suffered more than most ever will of the anxieties, frustrations, and physical privations of discipleship, he rejoiced in the knowledge he had of the promises of God and sought all his life to comfort others with those same promises.

We can do likewise. No adversity we face is beyond the comfort our Father in Heaven can offer through the consoling peace of the Spirit, through the unselfish service we can offer others, and most of all through the “unspeakable” promises of eternal life and exaltation through the Atonement of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Paul admonished the Saints to forgive each other. Why is it important that we forgive others? What can we do to become more forgiving?

Each of us can receive forgiveness of our sins through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. This forgiveness is all encompassing on condition of repentance, for the Atonement is infinite in its scope–nothing can bar the repentant soul from the full benefits of the Atonement except one thing: a refusal to forgive others.

After accepting Paul’s rebuke, the Corinthian Saints apparently continued to hold hard feelings for some among them who had erred. Paul pleaded with them to forgive, “lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.”  He says, “If I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:7, 10).  (The original Greek phrase en prosopo Christo, “in the person of Christ,” probably ought to be translated “in the presence of or before the face of Christ.”) Unmerciful feelings toward others automatically disqualify us from His presence. Why is this so?

In modern revelation, the Lord has said, “Ye ought to forgive one another, for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:9-10).

No one who wants the blood of Christ to apply to him or her can stand in the presence of the Lord Jesus without forgiving others; such a position would be totally unthinkable. Could anyone in good conscience refuse to extend mercy to others while pleading for mercy for himself from the One who died for us?  Therefore, it is required of us to forgive all trespasses against ourselves; otherwise, we voluntarily exclude ourselves from the circle of His redeeming love.  Withdrawal from that circle constitutes a refusal of eternal life and of the embrace of a loving Father in Heaven. This is “the greater sin”–what a price to pay to hold on to a useless grudge!

For many who have been deeply wronged, forgiveness is the hardest thing they will ever do. Those who rise to the challenge of forgiveness thus become very close to the Lord; they understand His atoning sacrifice in a sacred sense, and what it meant for Him to forgive those who tortured and crucified Him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

What does it mean to have “godly sorrow” for our sins? Why is godly sorrow an important part of repentance?

The Corinthians received Paul’s rebuke in the right spirit, and he was pleased with their repentance because it was motivated by what he called “godly sorrow.”

“Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner. . . for godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (2 Cor. 7:9-10).

The distinction between godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world is particularly important for us.  We are surrounded by the sorrow of the world: lives devastated by drugs, cruelty, abusive behavior, and greed. Corrupt executives whose greed and deceit destroy the lives of thousands are only sorry when they get caught. Millions of marriages are broken, crushing the tender feelings of family and children, but selfish husbands or wives are only sorry that “it didn’t work out,” as if they have no choice in the matter.  Abusive men destroy their families and then court public sympathy for their “sorrow.”  Through their illicit behavior, many people run the risk of AIDS and then are shocked into sorrow by their choices.

The sorrow of the world brings no peace and no redemption. When the Nephite civilization began its tailspin to destruction, many of the Nephites lamented their situation and Mormon hoped that their sorrow would lead to repentance. “But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin” (Mormon 2:13). This is the kind of sorrow that, as Paul points out, “worketh death.”

“Godly sorrow,” on the other hand, is sorrow unto repentance and eternal life. Paul watched closely for the signs of godly sorrow among the Corinthians and was satisfied with what he saw: “For behold, this selfsame thing that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all these things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Cor. 7:11). (The Greek word here translated as “revenge”–ekdikisis— should probably be translated as “punishment.”)  Everyone truly stricken by conscience and by the conviction of the Holy Ghost knows to some degree what these feelings are like. The repentant soul is truly grieved, not only because of the cost of sin to himself, but also because of a deep desire and zeal to be clean before the Lord.

The delightful promise of the Gospel to those who “sorrow after a godly sort” is complete forgiveness and reconciliation to God.  There is a power in the Atonement of Christ that makes the repentant soul new again: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17-18). This dream of a new life, a new start, a new chance is made reality in the Atonement of Christ.

The word reconciliation literally means “to sit down together again.” We are reminded of the Prodigal Son, who was invited back into the bosom of the family to sit down once again as one of the family. This is the promise of reconciliation to God: to be embraced once again by our Heavenly Father, to be welcomed back into the sacred family circle, to find home again. For this reason, Paul sums up his work this way: “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).

President Harold B. Lee described in a tender way what it means to be reconciled to God: “Imagine when we meet Him that a smile lights up His face. He puts out His beckoning arms to us, and says to us, ‘My son, my daughter, you’ve been faithful on earth. You’ve kept the faith. You’ve finished your work. There’s now a crown prepared for such as you in my kingdom.’ I can’t think of any ecstasy in all the world that will transcend that kind of a reception into the presence of the Almighty, in that world to come.” [3]

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[1] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Ed. Joseph Fielding Smith, Deseret Book Co. 1974, 298.

Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 304-305.

Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee. Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2000, 228.