Book Review – The Message of 2 Corinthians (Paul Barnett)

Paul Barnett is also the author of the much larger volume on 2 Corinthians in the New International Commentary series, so this book is clearly his area of expertise. Having said that, I think that this contribution to the Bible Speaks Today series precedes his work for the NICNT.

2 Corinthians is a more personal and emotional letter than 1 Corinthians, but that does not mean it is without theological contributions. Barnett picks out several of these in his introduction including teaching on the new covenant, the death of Christ, and giving.

As he works through the early chapters, Barnett explains the nature of the opposition that Paul is facing from the “super-apostles”, who he sees as having an Old Covenant mentality. He highlights several places in which Paul’s Damascus road experience is behind what he says.

Perhaps some of the best material is the discussion of the relation of the Old to New Covenants, which he explains as “promise” and “fulfilment” – there is continuity between them. Paul opposes a “back to Moses” program, but is not anti-law. “Until the law had been internalised by the Spirit, it remained a letter, which kills.”

Barnett sees “God’s strength in weakness” as the chief theological theme that ties together the whole letter. The new ministers in Corinth, unlike Paul, had nothing to say about suffering, death and judgment – theirs was a superficial message. They were fixated on Israel, the temple, and the law – “things seen not unseen” (2 Cor 4:18).

He makes an interesting point on 2 Cor 5:11,14 that Paul’s two motivations were fear of the Lord and love – these two are not incompatible. He explains the teaching on the atonement in 2 Cor 5:21 by saying that Christ’s death is for us both as representation and as substitution.

Another strength is Barnett’s comments on the nature of true Christian leadership, which is sacrificial rather than boastful and triumphalist. “Sacrifice is at the heart of the gospel and also at the heart of ministry.”

The age of the book is betrayed as he discusses how Christians are to share their surplus, rather than indulge in luxuries such as microwaves and “videos”, though the point is just as timely:

Through our labours many of us have more than we need. But to what extend to we give to those in need? Instead, those who have one house buy a holiday home; those who have progressed from black and white to colour television add a video; those who have an ordinary oven want a microwave too. The surplus is for sharing; but few of us do so.

This is the only commentary on 2 Corinthians I have read so I have nothing to compare it to, but overall I would say it fulfils the goals of the Bible Speaks Today series admirably. It explains the meaning of the text clearly and brings out plenty of helpful doctrinal and practical application. 2 Corinthians can be a bit neglected since much of the material is directly about Paul and countering the “new ministers” in Corinth, but Barnett shows that the letter still has much to say to us today.

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