2 Corinthians 11:1-15

2 Corinthians 11:1-15

Satanic Subtlety v. Divine Sincerity

War-ready Paul is on the attack in chapter 11. His motives for this just war are two: a divine love and jealousy for the Corinthians, and a zeal to destroy the deception of the serpent, Satan. In the next post, we’ll tackle the topic of Paul’s apostolic superiority based on his sufferings and weaknesses. For the first 15 verses, we’re looking at his apostolic superiority based on the true knowledge of Christ. We need to remember something before proceeding. Chapter 11 continues from chapter 10 with Paul’s offensive attack in defense of his own status as apostle. Again, this may sound self-serving, but it is not. Paul was called an apostle by God. Paul did not call himself one. Therefore, Paul’s letter to them is God’s letter to them. Paul is not concerned with whether or not people will like or accept him per se (even though he has pleaded with the Corinthians to open wide their hearts to him). Instead, he desires that all the Corinthians will recognize the work and Word of God through Paul. One more prefatory remark: this chapter is replete with Pauline irony and sarcasm (with, for instance, the themes of boasting and foolishness, and with the terms “robbed” and “super-apostles”). That has to be acknowledged, lest we see Paul contradicting himself, and lest we think that Paul really holds these false teachers in high esteem. He does not.

Paul’s main point in verses 1-6 is this: “Satan is deceiving you into thinking that skilled speech is superior to true, sincere devotion to and knowledge of Christ.” He makes the point because he is moved by a divine jealousy for the Corinthians (v. 2). This is consonant with Paul’s style and demeanor in the letter. In it he has repeatedly expressed his love, zeal, and opened heart for not only the truth but also the Corinthians themselves. It is true that Paul attacks the “super-apostles” (v. 5), which attack needs no more motive than the truthfulness of God being at stake. However, Paul joins his love for the truth with his love for the Corinthians as a reason to lambast the false apostles and blow them out of the water and their “ministry” to smithereens. In common parlance or slang, Paul is saying, “Look here, Corinthians. I’m now going to lay into these ‘apostles,’ because I am jealous for you with a divine jealousy!” Like a husband jealous for his wife, he seeks to destroy all men who get a little too close. In fact, that’s the imagery he uses, but in his case, he’s more like the best man or father than the husband. He has betrothed the Corinthians to Christ, desiring to present them as a pure virgin-bride to the pure bridegroom (v. 3). Sadly, there’s a problem, and it’s what every member of a wedding party rightly fears: adultery in the marriage. Some Corinthians, shockingly (and it truly is shocking), are being led astray from fidelity to Christ and into the crafty embrace of another, the sneaky, false-light-bearing, deceptive serpent (vv. 3, 14). Some Corinthians were duped just like Eve was (Gen. 3).

In contrast to serpentine subtlety, Paul’s approach, one that he models and commends to the Corinthians, is that of sincerity or genuineness. Paul has already been vocal about his rejection of cunning and underhanded ways of handling God’s open statement of the truth (4:2; 5:11-12; 6:7; 7:14). The cunning is Satanic, whereas sincerity is divine. When cunning is used in the NT, it refers to foolish, deceptive humans in league with the Devil in opposition to God’s Son and the truth (Luke 20:23; 1 Cor. 3:19; Eph. 4:14). It’s sad to see that some of the Corinthians have swallowed the craftiness of the snake. This is shown in their putting up with the proclamation of another Jesus, another spirit, and another gospel (v. 4). (If you, like me, wondered what “spirit” in v. 4 Paul has in mind, you’d be interested to know that the word “spirit” in 2 Corinthians is used 17 times. In 8-11 occurrences it refers either to the Holy Spirit or to Christ the Spirit (1:22; 3:3, 6 [2x], 8, 17 [2x], 18; 5:5; 6:6; 13:14); in 3 instances, it refers to human spirits (2:13; 7:1, 13); and in 2 verses it points to spirit as in that of faith (4:13) or that of sameness (12:18). In 11:4, it actually appears to be a different use of the word from all the others, but one similar to what’s used in 4:13 and 12:18. Paul seems to point to an anti-God spirit or way of living, as he does in 2 Thess. 2:2; 1 John 4:1-3.) Rather than bearing with Paul (v. 1), they’ve been bearing with the false teachers instead (v. 4). If you think at this point that some Corinthians are acting like some of the Galatians, you’re not wrong. There’s certainly a commonality between the two groups.

The sincerity, on the other hand, involves a pure devotion to Christ the snake-crusher, not to the things of the crushed (v. 3). This sincerity likewise involves genuine knowledge, not false-knowledge deceptively wrapped in skilled speech (v. 6). Paul is devoted to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; these false teachers are not so devoted. The Corinthians, therefore, must choose sincere devotion to Christ and genuine knowledge of God.

Moving on quickly, we see that Paul’s point in verses 7-11 is essentially no different from what he said in the first six verses, as he points out another expression of Satanic subtlety. He’s basically saying this: “Satan is deceiving you into thinking that preaching for a fee is required for authentic gospel ministry.” Apparently, that’s what the super-apostles were doing. Paul thought he was doing the Corinthians a favor, but his generous gospel-proclamation was misconstrued as a sign of a false teacher. After all, false teachers don’t charge for their teaching, because no one would want falsehoods, right? Ironically, characteristic of false teachers (cf. 2 Peter 2, esp. v. 15), the super-apostles charged, whereas Paul refused to burden the Corinthians in this way, even though he had every apostolic right to be remunerated for his full-time ministerial labors. Paul lays the sarcasm on thick in verse 8 when he tells them that he robbed other churches to help them (cf. 8:2; Phil. 4:15). Paul bent over backwards not to be a stumbling block. He didn’t want to burden them, nor does he now desire to lay unnecessary weights on their necks (vv. 9-10). If the Corinthians believe Paul will go the way of the super-apostles, that’s not going to happen (v. 10). Likewise, if they believe that he has lost his love for them, think again! The Lord knows that he loves them (v. 11; cf. also v. 2). It’s out of love for them that he freely offers them the gospel without simultaneously burdening them. The love of God came to him free of charge, and so Paul will not ask or insist on money for the free gospel. What some of the Corinthians thought was a sign of loveless, false teaching was actually the opposite!

Finally, as we read in verses 12-15, Paul is quite plain about the identity of these super-apostles. They are Satan’s servants who work on different terms from those of true apostles. Sure, they look like light and truth, but they are really dark and false under their deceptive, duplicitous disguise just like their father the Devil (John 8:44-45). These super-apostles look good, act the part, proclaim what appears to be light and revelation from God, and have the audacity to charge for the truth (so it must be worthwhile, right?!), and the message is all wrapped in such fine rhetoric (for certainly God’s truth wouldn’t be for the weak and uneducated, right?!). The Corinthians need to review Paul’s first letter to them wherein he discusses the wisdom of God as opposed to the folly of the world in 1 Corinthians 1-3, which, by the way, comes right before a defense of apostolic ministry in 1 Corinthians 4! Some (ourselves included) need the same message communicated to us, even when the first iteration was written down for our instruction.

Paul will not stop his approach to the ministry, because by continuing in the ways God has prescribed for him, he’s undermining those who claim parity with him (v. 12). By not stooping down to the level of exaltation at which these super-apostles are operating, Paul is clearly telling the Corinthians that there are two kinds of ministry approaches, and, therefore, two kinds of ministries: a true one (as seen in authentic, money-free, rhetoric-free, divinely zealous devotion to Christ), and a false one (as seen in an insincere, crafty, monetarily costly, linguistically inflated, and burden-laying ministry in devotion to Satan). Paul’s ministry is not inferior; and he himself is not inferior to these servants of Satan (v. 5). Paul knows what will become of these false apostles of Christ: “their end will correspond to their deeds” (v. 15). They’ll be judged and seen to be the workers of deceit that they truly are. God often assures his people that false teachers, although they have some earthly pleasure and apparently unscathed ministries of deceit and flock-fleecing, will be judged in the end (2 Peter 2; Jude). This ought to be an encouragement to believers. The God of truth will not brook error. The future judgment of these super-apostles, therefore, is evidence of Paul’s vindication as an authentic apostle, whose apostleship is at least 8,000 times superior to that of the ministry of deceit.

With the vindication of Paul’s ministry comes, then, the call to return to God’s teaching through Paul, and comes another reminder to examine oneself. Throughout the letter, Paul directly and indirectly urges the Corinthians to examine their thoughts and worldview commitments (cf. 10:6). We would do well to do the same. Whose side are we on? Christ’s or the serpent’s? Are we with Paul the vindicated, or are we with the super-apostles the judged and condemned? What kind of gospel-proclamation or gospel-ministry do we prefer? One that is loved by the world, or one that is in line with the Word?

  • Romans 11:33-36

    Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!
    For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?
    For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

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