2 Corinthians 11:16-33

2 Corinthians 11:16-33

A Fool Boasts His Sufferings

Let me tell you why I am so much better than you. Most people don’t think much of me. Probably only a few people (my wife, my mother, and maybe one other person) read this series of commentary on 2 Corinthians. I had trouble sleeping this week. I once had to pass a kidney stone. My children don’t always obey me. I’m a white male. I’ve lost the last two golf rounds I’ve played. I could go on and on, but the evidence is incontrovertible, isn’t it? My superiority is clear. Look at me go!

That was an odd paragraph, wasn’t it? Why would I say that? Who’s going to cite as evidence of superiority things like a kidney stone being passed, disobedient children, losing golf, or being a white male? Why would someone boast of such things? Well, someone wouldn’t! (Sadly, some would cite that last bit.) It’s foolishness. And that’s the point. As Paul continues to defend himself as a commissioned messenger and servant of Christ, he takes on the persona of a fool. Irony and sarcasm pervade this section of the letter. Paul really is not foolish (v. 16), but the Corinthians are having a hard time accepting real wisdom which is seen as folly to the world. Paul will then flip the script, speak foolishly, and boast with confidence (v. 17). The Corinthians favor folly and boasting, so Paul offers them both. This is highly sarcastic, if you can’t tell. Paul has asked them to bear with him (11:1), he’s noted their ease at bearing with the super-apostles (v. 4), and so he descends to their level of boasting, ironically to demonstrate that he’s not on the same level as the false friends (vv. 5, 12, 23). We’ll look at two parts to this section: a rebuke for the Corinthians in verses 16-21, then the evidence of Paul’s apostolic superiority in 22-33.

The key point in verses 16-21 is this: Accept Paul as a fool to learn true wisdom by contrast. As we saw last time, Paul makes certain that the super-apostles, the false servants of Christ, will be judged (v. 15). Regrettably, the Corinthians are caught up by the foolishness of these masked Satanites (a word I just coined so as not to be confused with Satanists). In an effort to undermine the false teachers (v. 12), therefore, Paul engages in a bit of foolery. In essence, he says, “I’m no fool. But you apparently think I am, and you’re treating me as one, so let me boast as one” (v. 16). If the Corinthians are going to fools for teaching (i.e., Paul’s opponents), then they can at least consider what a fellow fool has to say. Again, this is to demonstrate that it’s the super-apostles and those they’ve deceived that are the real fools. Paul hastens to add, however, that this boast is not “according to the Lord” (v. 17). They’re hearing a fool, not an apostle of the Lord, nor the Lord himself, who is wise. Paul as fool is not speaking in a manner approved by Christ. As George Guthrie in his commentary puts it, “It is incongruous for a minister who does ministry ‘before God’ (2:17) and boasts ‘in the Lord’ (10:17) to put himself forward by bragging about his own work!” (2 Corinthians, p. 536). As a fool, then, he will boast according to the flesh (v. 18). Rhetorically, therefore, in order for Paul to beat the fools, ironically, he joins the fools. The sarcasm and irony in verse 19 can be cut with a knife: “You are so wise, and in your wisdom, you bear with fools!” (cf. v. 1).

What’s deeply troubling for Paul is that the Corinthians, rather than bearing with the apostle given for their growth in the truth and godliness, gladly bear with foolish people who enslave, devour, take advantage, are arrogant, and strike the Corinthians (v. 20). They couldn’t handle Paul’s weighty letters and weak presence (10:10), but they have no problem enduring enslavement, being consumed, exploitation, arrogant loftiness, and beatings at the hands of the super-apostles. Of course, it must be made clear that these super-apostles are doing all this fleecing of the flock and opposition under the guise of light and truth (11:14), which makes the problem that much more serious. The Israelites were similarly treated by the Egyptians, but they often longed for the life of Egypt. The situation is no different in its essence here. The Egyptians had a different Jesus, a different gospel, and a different spirit; and the same is the case for these devilish workmen (vv. 4, 13). These rascals enslave the Corinthians. Ironically, enslavement was the task of the Corinthians with reference to the false teachers’ ideas (10:5). Rather than enslaving the folly, they became slaves to it. The word for “enslave” (καταδουλοῖ) is used only one other time when it’s used by Paul in a similar context. In Galatians 2:4, he speaks about false brothers enslaving the people of Galatia. Like the Galatians, some Corinthians have held onto the bars of enslavement and asked that they might be made tighter. These angels of light have also devoured the Corinthians. They’ve consumed them, swallowed them up (κατεσθίει), a word commonly used to speak of a judgment-destruction (Rev. 11:5; 20:9). What except being gobbled up should the Corinthians expect if they choose to bear with foolish enslavers? The false apostles of Christ have taken advantage of the Corinthians. The word used (λαμβάνει) can mean “take” generally, but here it takes on the sense of being grabbed for someone else’s gain. Ironically, this is what some of the Corinthians accused Paul of doing to them (12:16-17), yet here they are having it done to them. Moreover, the false servants of righteousness “put on airs” (ἐπαίρεται), a translation I do not favor. The word is used in 10:5 when Paul speaks of “every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.” Paul is saying in 11:20 that these men are arrogantly rising in opposition to God and over man, the Corinthians. Finally, these serpentine servants strike the Corinthians. The word (δέρει) is used of Jesus and Paul being beaten (Luke 22:63; Acts 16:37), and, ironically, of Paul beating up Christians before his conversion (Acts 22:19). Ironically (there’s that word again!), some Corinthians have taken the whip of their captors and asked for more. Before Paul boasts of his sufferings, he tells the Corinthians, with all the sarcasm he can muster, “To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!” (v. 21). That’s not how Paul conducted himself before the Corinthians. His apostolic approach differed markedly in kind from that of the false apostles (v. 12). O that the Corinthians would see how they’ve been treated by these super-apostles! O that they would see how good they have it from God! O that they would see Paul’s love for them!

Now in verses 22-33, Paul as fool continues to boast of his suffering, which testifies to the different terms of his apostleship. Rather than his sufferings invalidating his apostleship (as they make the man look like a fool!), they actually authenticate it. He raises his ethnicity (v. 22), calling (v. 23), and sufferings (vv. 23-33) as evidences that evince his apostleship. These are his foolish claims to fame.

In a foolish game of one-upmanship played by madmen (v. 23), Paul bests these light-bearing snakes. Based on verse 22, we learn that the false friends are of Hebrew ethnicity, that they are Israelites, and the very (ethnic, though not spiritual) children of Abraham (cf. John 8:37-44; Rom. 4). If they thought that they could out-boast Paul in the area of ethnicity, they must think again. Indeed, as Paul would say in a parallel passage, he was the Hebrew of Hebrews, the finest Pharisee in the land, one who could have boasted in the flesh if anyone could boast (Phil. 3:4-6). Point 1 goes to Paul. What about a calling from God? They claim to be servants of Christ, but Paul is the true and better servant of Christ (vv. 13-14, 23). He’s got them beat in that area as well. Point 2 goes to Paul. Finally, Paul writes of his many ministry-authenticating sufferings (vv. 23-33). One sees the foolish one-upmanship at its finest now: Far greater labors, imprisonments, countless beatings (often near-death), forty lashes minus one (5x), beaten with rods (3x), stoned (1x), shipwrecked (3x), adrift at sea (day and night), always on the go with frequent journeys and in danger from rivers, robbers, his own people, the Gentiles, danger in the city, in the wilderness, at sea, from false brothers (wink wink!!); many sleepless nights, being hungry and thirsty, often without food, exposed to the cold, and, of course, the daily pressure of anxiety for his church plants (wink wink!!). Points 3 through 1,000 go to Paul. We cry uncle and fess up, “You win, Paul, you win!” Is it any wonder that this man did not go insane? Grace. Would you ever boast in suffering like that? Of course not, unless you’re a fool or mad! The sufferings didn’t endear Paul to the Corinthians; they turned the Corinthians away from Paul and toward a suffering-free ministry of Satan. Ah, but in the ministry of the suffered Christ, sufferings are part and parcel of living as a Christian. As Paul told them in his first letter, “But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…” (1 Cor. 1:27-28). Paul came to preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). We’d all do well to re-read 1 Corinthians 1-2.

In verse 29, we see both the compassion and the wrath of Paul. He identifies with other weak Corinthians who’ve not drunk the deceptive Kool-Aid of the super-apostles. If you’re weak, you have a friend in Paul. But he’s also indignant. If any of the Corinthians are scandalized or made to fall into sin, Paul burns. The word for “indignant” is the verb form of “fire.” Dipping into the divine jealousy he has for the Corinthians (11:2), Paul is on fire. He’s more than ticked off at the fact that some Corinthians are being led astray. And here he’s simply imitating his Lord who was righteously angry at those who would cause believers to sin. There’s a special woe pronounced on them (Mark 9:42; Matt. 18:7; Luke 17:1-2). In verse 29, then, Paul combines pastoral gentleness and weakness to the weak and pastoral protection over the same in defense against wolves. Remember that Paul’s at war in these chapters. It is right to be angry when God’s truth and people are threatened.

After calling upon God as witness to his truthfulness (v. 31), we’re left with a strange two-verse conclusion to the chapter. Why, after recounting his many sufferings, then making an oath of his truthfulness, would he return to some more suffering in these verses? The answer is twofold. First, it really highlights his lowliness. It is an example of quite the ignoble escape. He had been commissioned by the high priest to persecute Christians, only to be ashamed as a fugitive and traitor to the Christian-hating cause, being let down a wall in a basket. The opposer became the opposed. The hater became the hated. As such, this demonstrates how low Paul had gone as a converted Christ-follower. Such a bounteous boast for the fool! Second, it is ironically the perfect lead-in to the next chapter wherein he speaks of his being “caught up” to the third heaven (12:2-3). A man so low and weak was exalted with such great revelations (12:7).

Can we learn anything from all this? Definitely. Since I’ve waxed long so far, I’ll be brief. First, it’s foolish to boast in our achievements, ministry callings or vocations, or background. Certainly, the world is calling for the opposite. If you’re white, you have to deny your supposed white privilege. But people of color and disability, and women are supposed to tap into their marginalization, discrimination, or disadvantages imposed by society, take great pride in them and use them to position themselves better in this world to get what they deserve. Paul calls that kind of boasting the mark of a fool. Second, the cross, along with its accompanying weaknesses, sufferings, and the world’s perception of it as foolish, is central to ministry and living for Christ. If we want to be with the exalted Christ, we must not deny his being humiliated. And that humiliation means that we, too, will be seen as fools and unimpressive. We need to get on board with that hard-to-swallow truth. Third, if we’re going to boast, let’s boast in the things of God: in his truth and prescribed conduct for communicating that truth and living before men. Fourth, if you’re tempted to one-up someone because you’ve suffered in more ways than that person, refrain from that temptation. Such one-upmanship is crazy talk. How perverted is our thinking that sometimes we think ourselves better than others because of what we’ve suffered? Madness, I tell you! Finally, if you’re really telling the truth, and no one else believes you, that’s OK. Rest in the fact that the Lord God knows all, and he knows you’re not lying. That ought to be enough comfort.

  • 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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