A Letter for the Church Today (4)
A Study of 2 Corinthians 10-13
2 Corinthians 11 is one of the most important chapters about ministry in the New Testament. In addition, it reveals information about the Apostle Paul — details about his work and sufferings — that is not recorded anywhere else. It is significant for the subject of ministry precisely because of those details and what Paul makes of them.
To briefly review, we are taking a few Sundays to look at 2 Cor 10-13, a section of Scripture in which Paul engages in an all-out effort to protect and save the church at Corinth from a group of intruders: “ministers” who have come to town and are threatening to tear down all that Paul built.
This message to the Corinthians contains one of the most personal and impassioned messages of pastoral concern in the NT. What is at stake? The very life and faith of the church.
I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (11:2-3 NRSV)
The situation has put Paul in a dilemma. The “super-apostles” who were winning over the Corinthians were high-powered and impressive. They “boasted” of their credentials, their polished presentations, their spiritual power, and their effectiveness in drawing crowds. When the church pointed to Paul as their spiritual mentor, these interlopers did all they could to tear him down in their eyes. Paul was put in a difficult situation. He didn’t believe that apostles were the sort of people who should commend themselves and advertise their accomplishments in order to impress others. But if he simply let his opponents ruin his reputation, the congregation would surely be led astray. 2 Cor 10-13 is his “defense,” his “boast” that answers the self-exalting rhetoric of those smearing him.
- In 10:1-6, he introduced this defense by saying, “We use different tools” than those who are trying to remake you in their image. As Christ’s apostles, we no longer conduct ourselves “according to the flesh” — the ways of the world system are not the ways by which we operate any longer. Instead, it is “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” that guides us.
- In 10:7-18, Paul asserts, “We are not out to make a name for ourselves.” He refuses to play a game of “spiritual one-upmanship” and focuses their attention back on the fundamental calling of a true apostle and the specific vocation God gave him.
Today, we come to chapter 11, where Paul begins his actual boast, undercutting all the so-called “credentials” on which his opponents were relying.
1. We may not be the most eloquent speakers, but we will be real pastors who give you the real Jesus (11:1-6)
I wish you could put up with a little of my foolishness—please try! My jealousy over you is the right sort of jealousy, for in my eyes you are like a fresh unspoiled girl who I am presenting as fiancee to your true husband, Christ himself. I am afraid that your minds may be seduced from a single-hearted devotion to him by the same subtle means that the serpent used towards Eve. For apparently you cheerfully accept a man who comes to you preaching a different Jesus from the one we told you about, and you readily receive a spirit and a Gospel quite different from the ones you originally accepted. Yet I cannot believe I am in the least inferior to these extra-special messengers of yours. Perhaps I am not a polished speaker, but I do know what I am talking about, and both what I am and what I say is pretty familiar to you. (2Cor 11:1-6, Phillips)
We live in a day when appearances mean more than ever. “Image is everything” the commercials tell us. In contrast, the true Christian minister is much more concerned to make sure that both “what I am and what I say” (v. 6) is centered in Christ. The ministry is not about impressive presentations but authentic relationships. It is not about enabling people to float from one ecstatic experience to another in search of new spiritual highs. It’s about helping people stay grounded in the love of Christ and in a healthy one-another lifestyle.
The Corinthians were so easily led astray that they would “cheerfully accept a man who [came to them] preaching a different Jesus from the one [Paul] told [them] about, and [they] readily receive a spirit and a Gospel quite different from the ones [they] originally accepted” if he could impress them with his speaking skills and promises. To counter that, Paul appeals to the relationship that had been established among them and the Jesus that had saved them through that relationship.
2. We may not command high fees, but we will show you genuine concern (11:7-15)
Perhaps I made a mistake in cheapening myself (though I did it to help you) by preaching the Gospel without a fee? As a matter of fact I was only able to do this by “robbing” other churches, for it was what they paid me that made it possible to minister to you free of charge. Even when I was with you and very hard up, I did not bother any of you. It was the brothers who came from Macedonia who brought me all that I needed. Yes, I kept myself from being a burden to you then, and so I intend to do in the future. By the truth of Christ within me, no one shall stop my being proud of this independence through all Achaia!
Does this mean that I do not love you? God knows it doesn’t, but I am determined to maintain this boast, so as to cut the ground from under the feet of those who profess to be God’s messengers on the same terms as I am. God’s messengers? They are counterfeits of the real thing, dishonest practitioners, “God’s messengers” only by their own appointment. Nor do their tactics surprise me when I consider how Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is only to be expected that his agents shall have the appearance of ministers of righteousness—but they will get their deserts one day.
In Paul’s day, the culture honored those who could command high fees for their persuasive speaking talents. (Wait, that sounds like our culture.) Though we don’t know the details, this was apparently a big emphasis in Corinth, so Paul made a decision not to seek ANY support from the Corinthians while he was among them. When his opponents came to town, they seized on this and cast doubt on his skill.
Paul’s answer to their charges contains his strongest and most passionate recorded words. He points first to the practice of his apostolic team: humbly serving, supporting themselves, working hard, getting support from others so as not to burden his Corinthian friends. He contrasts the showy spectacle of the opponents who swooped in as “angels of light,” wowing their audiences before fleecing them. He pointedly charges that this links the “super-apostles” with Satan, not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He suggests they will get their true wages from Another in the future.
3. We don’t have a list of accomplishments to boast about, but we will boast about our weaknesses (11:16-33)
One form of rhetoric common in the Greco-Roman world was the encomium, essentially a resume or “brag sheet” that listed one’s accomplishments. In his book on 2 Corinthians 10-13, D.A. Carson mentions as an example the Res Gestae Divi Augustae (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus), a eulogy that Caesar Augustus wrote in his own honor that was inscribed on monuments throughout the provinces. It is likely that Paul had read this as well as many other other praise-lists that were common in his culture.
But, as he does so often as a Christian, when using it to instruct the church, Paul turns this form on its head! Check out Paul’s list of “accomplishments” in 2 Cor 11:16-33 —
…Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.
Are they ministers of Christ? I have more claim to this title than they. This is a silly game but look at this list: I have worked harder than any of them. I have served more prison sentences! I have been beaten times without number. I have faced death again and again.
I have been beaten the regulation thirty-nine stripes by the Jews five times.
I have been beaten with rods three times. I have been stoned once. I have been shipwrecked three times. I have been twenty-four hours in the open sea.
In my travels I have been in constant danger from rivers and floods, from bandits, from my own countrymen, and from pagans. I have faced danger in city streets, danger in the desert, danger on the high seas, danger among false Christians. I have known exhaustion, pain, long vigils, hunger and thirst, going without meals, cold and lack of clothing.
Apart from all external trials I have the daily burden of responsibility for all the churches. Do you think anyone is weak without my feeling his weakness? Does anyone have his faith upset without my longing to restore him?
Oh, if I am going to boast, let me boast of the things which have shown up my weakness!
Paul refuses to list his victories, only his failures. He will not focus on his accomplishments, only the embarrassing situations from which God had to deliver him: arrests, prison sentences, beatings. He will not boast in his spiritual power, but in his weaknesses and deprivations, as he dealt with the dangers of travel, exposure, poverty, and opponents. He will not brag about his strong faith and confidence, only the fact that his stomach is constantly tied up in knots as he worries about his brothers and sisters in Christ.
As a final illustration, Paul points to what may have been the most demeaning experience he ever had. It’s captured well in the Phillips NT paraphrase of 2 Cor 11:31-33:
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he who is blessed for ever, knows that I speak the simple truth. In Damascus, the town governor, acting by King Aretas’ order had men out to arrest me. I escaped by climbing through a window and being let down the wall in a basket. That’s the sort of dignified exit I can boast about.
I’m afraid Paul’s resume wouldn’t get him hired on as a pastor in too many churches today. Credentials? Lacking.