IT IS BEYOND THESE BRIEF REFLECTIONS to provide a history of the difficult visits and painful letters that generated deep emotion in the apostle’s relations with the Corinthians. Relations between Corinth and Paul are apparently improving in the opening chapters of 2 Corinthians, but remain a trifle raw.
In this context Paul devotes quite a bit of attention to explaining the nature of his ministry, whether its grand design or discrete decisions he has made. For example, in 2 Corinthians 1, it is fairly obvious that the Corinthians had charged Paul with being fickle. He had said he would come, and then he had changed plans and not arrived. Paul acknowledges that he had indeed changed plans, but insists this does not indicate fickleness (2 Cor. 1:15–17). In his conduct he tries to imitate God’s steadfast faithfulness (2 Cor. 1:18–22). And then he gives the real reason why he did not show up: he was trying to spare the Corinthians, for he knew that if he had shown up at that point he would have had to take action that would have caused even more distress (2 Cor. 1:23–2:2).
In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul is still unpacking various elements of his ministry. Here we note two.
First, Paul understands his ministry to be akin to a device that distributes the fragrance of the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 2:14). Otherwise put, before God Paul himself is an aroma, “the aroma of Christ among both those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15). “To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life” (2 Cor. 2:16). In other words, Paul insists that he does not himself change, depending on his audience. He is the same aroma; he proclaims the same Gospel, the same discipleship, the same Christ, the same way to live. Whether he is perceived to be a sweet fragrance or a foul stench does not depend on some change in him, but on the people who must deal with him. Implicitly, the Corinthians must recognize that some animus against the apostle is the animus of the unregenerate heart. “And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor. 2:16).
Second, many Corinthians (as becomes clear later in this letter) thought that teachers should command substantial salaries, and if they didn’t, they weren’t worth much. In that kind of atmosphere, it would be easy to despise even a gifted apostolic teacher who refused your money. But because he was teaching a gospel of grace, Paul evangelized for free. (He accepted support money from elsewhere.) On the long haul, he did not want to gain a reputation for peddling the word of God for profit; rather, he wanted to be known as a man sent from God (2 Cor. 2:17).