Lesson 5 of5
In Progress

Theological Themes in 2 Corinthians

Exchanging sin for righteousness

In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul describes an exchange between Christ and believers, saying, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In his letters, Paul describes the work of Christ in a few different ways. For instance, in Romans 5, Paul says that just as Adam’s practice of disobedience had an impact on all other people, so Christ’s practice of righteousness avails for other people. In Philippians 2, Paul describes Christ as one equal with God who emptied himself, took the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death. The two ideas are present together in 2 Corinthians 5. Here Paul says that God changes Christ’s status so that Christ identifies with the human plight of sin. The result is that humans may identify with Christ’s status as righteous before God.


Two of the thirteen chapters of 2 Corinthians concern a collection of funds for the poorer churches in and around Jerusalem. At the end of Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians, he makes two theological points: (1) God will provide the means by which the Corinthians may be generous, and (2) the very act of sharing possessions with others who are in need is a way of thanking God for the provision one has received.


In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul contrasts the glory of the giving of the law at Sinai (see Exodus 34) with the glory of the new covenant of which Paul is a minister. In the first case, the glory of God was so obvious in Moses’ face that it was shining. He veiled his face so as not to frighten the people of Israel. Paul extends the metaphor of God’s glory transferred to humans as God interacts with them so that, in Christ, it is not just leaders whose faces are shining with God’s glory but “all of us” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Holy Spirit as “first installment” 

In 2 Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5, Paul refers to the Holy Spirit as a “first installment” or a “guarantee.” Paul understood the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers to be something like earnest money given in the present time, anticipating that time when “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4). Fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23), present now among God’s people, is a good faith gesture on God’s part and at the same time only a fraction of what is promised to those in Christ.

New covenant

There is very little language of a “new covenant” in the Bible. Outside the book of Hebrews, the language is only in Jeremiah 31:31-34, in reports of the institution of the Lord ‘s Supper (Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25), and in 2 Corinthians 3. In 2 Corinthians, Paul is interpreting the words of Jeremiah in terms of the work of God in Christ. As Jeremiah had quoted God saying that God would write the covenant on human hearts, so Paul says that the Corinthians are themselves a “letter of Christ” written “not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).


Second Corinthians includes one of the simplest, most elegant statements of the Christian gospel: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19). In Paul’s thought, sin is a power that enslaves humans and is intent on separating them from God. God, in Christ, breaks the hold that sin has on humans and reconciles humanity to God’s self.

Suffering, endurance, and comfort

In his discussion of general affliction (2 Corinthians 4:7-11) as well as his disclosure of a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), Paul’s words provide comfort to readers who are enduring suffering. It is true that the good news that Paul proclaims is glorious. Those in Christ are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is also true, at the same time, that the glory of God exists alongside much in the lives of believer that afflicts, perplexes, and persecutes. To be “in Christ” is to participate in the death of Jesus as well as in his life (see 2 Corinthians 4:8-10).