As we continue in these Notes on Prayer for the Fall season, examining prayer in the letters of Paul, we now turn to the references in 2 Corinthians.
2 Corinthians 1:10-11; 9:12-15; 13:7-9
There are three main references to prayer in 2 Corinthians, indicated by the heading above. Paul typically reserves his prayer-references to the introductory (thanksgiving) and concluding (exhortation) sections of his letters. This is also true here, though the situation regarding 2 Corinthians is complicated by certain signs, recognized by many commentators, that the 2 Corinthians may be a composite work—comprised of at least two distinct letters (or parts of letters). Perhaps most common among New Testament scholars is the recognition of 10:1-13:10 as representing a separate and distinct letter (the body of the letter), though some would also view chaps. 8-9 as stemming from a separate letter, and there are other more complex scenarios involving multiple letter-sources (not to mention the thorny question surrounding 6:14-7:1).
Fortunately, these critical theories regarding the composition, structure, and integrity of 2 Corinthians are only marginally relevant to our study on Paul’s references to prayer.
The first reference, in 1:10-11, comes at the close of the introduction (1:3-11), and is typical of the thanksgiving context we saw, for example, in the Thessalonian letters. There is a two-fold emphasis to Paul’s prayer references in this context: (1) the close relationship between Paul and the congregations, and (2) the success of his continued missionary work. In terms of both of these points of emphasis, there is a mutual duty of prayer, between Paul and the congregations.
On the one hand, he prays for them, that they will continue to respond to the Gospel (growing and becoming stronger in faith and virtue), even as they first responded in faith to the message proclaimed by him. And, on the other hand, they are to pray for him, that he will continue to be strengthened and protected in his missionary work of proclaiming the Gospel. It is the second aspect that is emphasized here in the introduction to 2 Corinthians—namely, his request that the Corinthian congregations continue to pray for him:
“…God, the (One) raising the dead, who, out of such a great death (also) rescued us, and will (continue to) rescue, in whom we have hoped [that] even yet He will rescue (us), indeed (with) your working together over us by making (urgent) request [deh/si$] (to God), that, out of many faces, (for) the favor (shown) to us, (and) through many, thanks may be given for (this) favor over us.”
These verses are part of a typically long and grammatically complex sentence by Paul, such as we often find in the introductions to his letters. The thrust in verse 11 is on how the Corinthians believers, through their prayers, “work together” (vb sunupourge/w) with God to protect and rescue Paul in his time of need. It is also a sign of unity that they work together with each other—a unity reflected by the bond of prayer. Paul believes that the prayers by the congregations, on his behalf, play an important role in God’s saving and protecting work.
The noun used here for prayer is deh/si$, which denotes a request made (to God) for a particular need. Here, believers pray, not for their own needs, but for the needs of others—in this case, Paul and his fellow missionaries (“over us,” u(pe\r h(mw=n). It is this selfless and sacrificial quality that makes such prayers both efficacious (meaning God will answer) and meritorious (they result in reward/blessing for the one praying). The sense of blessing is indicated by the verb eu)xariste/w, which often is used for giving thanks to God for the “good favor” (eu) + xari$) that He shows; however, here, the emphasis is just as much on the favor that believers show to Paul by praying to God over him. Thus, as a result, the thanks for this favor falls upon the praying believers (as a blessing).
A similar sort of idea is expressed at the conclusion of chapter 9 (vv. 11-15), even though the focus of the passage is somewhat different. The focus in chapters 8-9 is on the ‘collection for the saints’, Paul’s fundraising campaign to provide much needed relief for the poor and suffering Christians in Judea. Paul mentions this campaign a number of times in his letters—and especially in 1 and 2 Corinthians. It was an important part of his missionary work, and one that was close to his heart, organized throughout all of the territorial congregations that he had helped to found. At the end of Romans (15:31), he mentions how he is taking this relief money to Jerusalem, indicating that the fundraising effort has been completed; but here in 2 Corinthians, it is still in progress.
As with the prayers for Paul by the Corinthians, their generosity in giving money to the relief campaign will result in blessing:
“In every (way) you are being enriched for all (this) single (purpose), which works fully through us (to bring) thanks to God (for His) favor, that the service of this work being performed not only is filling up the (thing)s lacking for the holy (one)s, but is also flowing over through many (expression)s of thanks to God (for His) favor.” (vv. 11-12)
The thanks that is given to God falls to the believers, for their selfless generosity, as well. Indeed, other Christians will give thanks and honor to God precisely because of the work that the Corinthians do in this regard (v. 13). Their single-minded willingness to provide for the needs of the Community (the expression a(plo/th$ th=$ koinwni/a$) is a powerful sign of unity among believers, and of faithful obedience to the Gospel of Christ. This leads other Christians to pray for them, just as they prayed for Paul in his ministry work (cf. above):
“…and (by) their urgent request [deh/si$] (to God) over you, (they are) longing upon you, through the overcasting favor of God upon you.” (v. 14)
Paul’s syntax here is a bit complex and contorted, but the logic of his statement is relatively simple:
- Their prayers to God over your needs are a sign that they are longing for you (vb e)pipoqe/w)
- At the same time, the act of praying only serves to increase and intensify this longing
- This longing over the Corinthians mirrors the favor that God Himself spreads out over (vb u(perba/llw, “cast over”) the Corinthians, and the two actions—longing over (with prayer) and spreading over (with favor)—are related. As noted above, the fervent prayers of believers, for the needs of others, is tied to God’s response, working in tandem with it.
Indeed, it is, in large part, because of the generosity of the Corinthian believers, that Paul can proclaim: “Thanks to God for (his) favor, upon His indescribable gift!” (v. 15)
The final reference to prayer in 2 Corinthians is found at 13:7-9, the close of a major division of the letter (10:1-13:10) that is thought by many commentators to be so different (from the remainder of 2 Corinthians) as to stem from a separate letter entirely. Certainly, the tone and focus is very different in these chapters. The positive and exhortational emphasis gives way to a vigorous and harsh polemic. For commentators who would defend the unity of 2 Corinthians, it is difficult to explain just how chaps. 10-13 relate to the rest of the letter.
Paul’s harsh words in chaps. 10-13 are directed primarily against certain influential missionaries or church leaders whom he disparagingly (and sarcastically) refers to as people “much above (the other) apostles” (u(perli/an a)posto/lwn), 11:5; 12:11; elsewhere he calls them “false apostles” (11:13). Though Paul does not provide us with much specific detail, it appears that he regarded these people as opponents or rivals who were usurping his apostolic authority at Corinth, exerting an undue and negative influence on the Corinthian congregations. He also offers a stern rebuke to the Corinthians themselves for allowing themselves to be led astray by these ‘super-apostles’.
As part of the warning he gives in 12:14ff, Paul also mentions immoral and unworthy behavior among the Corinthians (vv. 20-21), but it is not entirely clear how this might relate to the influence of the ‘super-apostles’. It may simply be mentioned as a way of adding to the rebuke—i.e., not only have the Corinthians turned away from Paul (in favor of other leaders), but, at the same time, they have allowed immorality to take root within the congregations.
Paul repeats much the same warning in the closing section (13:1-10), mentioning again instances of blatant sinning among the Corinthians. It is in this context that we find the reference to prayer (vv. 7-9); and here the focus of prayer is on the restoration of unity within the Corinthian congregations, and between Paul and the Corinthians. This restoration will only be possible if the Corinthians examine themselves and repent of any misconduct or attitudes that have damaged the bond of unity among them (verse 5). His prayer for the Corinthians is that the relationship will be restored and that their behavior will be reformed:
“But we speak out toward God (for) you not to do anything bad–not (so) that we would shine forth as accepted (by God), but (so) that you would do the beautiful (thing), even (if) we might be (seen) as without acceptance.” (v. 7)
Here the expression for prayer is the verb eu&xomai + pro$, equivalent to the compound verb proseu/xomai (“speak out toward [God]”) that is regularly used to express the idea of prayer. Paul makes clear that his desire for them to do good (“the beautiful [kalo/$] thing”), and to avoid evil (“anything bad [kako/$]”), is for their own sake, and for the sake of truth (v. 8), regardless of how it makes himself look. This selfless (and sacrificial) mindset represents prayer in it purest form, expressed by Paul most poignantly in verse 9:
“For we rejoice when we should be without strength, but (when) you should be powerful; and (indeed) this (is what) we speak out (to God for): your being made fit.”
The noun kata/rtisi$ is difficult to translate concisely; the related verb (katarti/zw) means something like “make completely fit, put (completely) in order”. Here it is related to the idea of the Corinthians being “powerful” (dunato/$). Paul would rather give of himself and become weak (“be without strength,” vb a)sqene/w) if it meant that the Corinthians would become strong. This strength can only be achieved through turning away from sin (repentance) and the restoration of unity within the congregation. This, indeed, is the focus of Paul’s prayer. As noted above, such selfless prayer, praying for the needs of the others (rather than one’s own needs) is assured of being answered by God, and will result in much joy and blessing.