How to Read 2 Corinthians

The Book of 2 Corinthians

Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application. 

Second Corinthians teaches Christians to live a cruciform life characterized by humility. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book. The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the structure of 2 Corinthians, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use these questions as a guide as you watch this video.  

Now that you have an overview of 2 Corinthians in mind, you can apply what you know to interpret specific passages in 2 Corinthians. Read 2 Corinthians 4:5–18. Utilize observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application to dissect the meaning of this passage. Use the ideas from the videos to inform your answers to the following questions about 2 Corinthians 4:5–18.  

2 Corinthians 4:5-18 (ESV)

5For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.6For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Treasure in Jars of Clay

7But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.11For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.12So death is at work in us, but life in you.

13Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak,14knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.15For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.17For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: We have a treasure in jars of clay.

Observe: As you read the passage, what observations did you make about 2 Corinthians 4:5–18? (Consider the major characters, locations, time period, background information, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters. Also, take note of any information offered in the video.)
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Where an observation determines what the passage says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what the passage means. We’ve asked what the passage says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) We have a treasure in jars of clay. (Interpretation) The treasure we have is the knowledge of Jesus Christ. We possess it not for our own selfish gain, but to glorify God—the one who saved us through Jesus. Compared to almighty God, we are weak, like common clay jars. But in our weakness, we show off God's strength.

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of 2 Corinthians 4:5–18? How does its message connect with the main message of all of 2 Corinthians? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes. Consider insights from the video as well.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative. 

Example: We see instances throughout Scripture of God giving His power, authority, or message to weak humans. Moses couldn't speak well, yet God used him to lead the nation of Israel out of slavery. The prophets were often ridiculed and mocked for the message of judgement God called them to proclaim. And we see in the rest of 2 Corinthians how God used Paul through the power of the Spirit, even though Paul was weak in comparison to Him.

Contextualize: What themes does 2 Corinthians 4:5–18 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the book of 2 Corinthians? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the Old Testament?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: As one who has the Holy Spirit within me, I can glorify God in every circumstance. When I get a job promotion, or lead someone to Christ, or see progress in a sin struggle, I can praise God, acknowledging His strength in me. And when I fail, I can rejoice in my weakness, because His strength shines all the more.

Apply: How does the truth from 2 Corinthians 4:5–18 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week? If you're having trouble coming up with an application of this particular passage, how could you apply the main message of 2 Corinthians to your life this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.   

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about 2 Corinthians, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through 2 Corinthians this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice.

To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.