2 Corinthians 12:11-19

2 Corinthians 12:11-19

Apostolic Signs & Service

What makes a good ping pong player? For one, the player needs to have the right equipment: a ping pong ball, a paddle, and a table with net (tight wedgie-producing shorts are optional but preferred). The player must also have the right content of the game; he must know the rules, what’s forbidden, how to score, how to serve, and all the rest of that important information. The player must also apply the rules to his game-playing, practice much, play against challenging individuals, and devote himself to the game. What’s not necessary is his conduct. Preferably, he ought to be a model of sportsmanship, but he could be a cocky ping pong player, one who knows his skills, boasts of them, and arrogates to himself all his ping-pong prowess.

What makes an apostle to the Lord Jesus Christ? The apostle Paul, one who is unworthy to be called an apostle, helps us to know what to look for in an apostle. He’s already helped us some. The apostle must be commissioned by Christ himself by the will of God (2 Cor. 1:1). He must be established by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:21; 3:6). He must have a ministry of revelation from God for God’s people (2 Cor. 3:4-4:6). Moreover, unlike a ping pong player, or most skillful people for that matter, conduct is key for an apostle. There’s no room for genuine self-boasting, self-sufficiency, or self-confidence of any kind (2 Cor. 3:4-6; 10:17). Even though Paul does not go into detail about his marks of apostleship, he does identify some of them, which we’ll consider here. In the shell of a nut, they are signs and service.

Paul no longer speaks as a fool. Recall that his foolish speech began in earnest in 11:1 and has concluded in 12:10. With 12:11, therefore, Paul owns up to what he was doing all along: “I have been a fool! You forced me to it!” This was forced foolishness of self-boasting that Paul engaged in, when the truth of the matter is that he should’ve been commended by the Corinthians to the super-apostles, who were clearly undermining Paul’s apostleship. Paul was likely being asked to show his apostolic I.D. card by some Corinthian critic(s), and so he did that as a foolish boaster in the previous chapters. Now, moving forward, he returns to sanity. These super-apostles, Paul affirms, are truly inferior to Paul. Why? Because they’re not apostles, and not even believers! Believers are better off than unbelievers. As soon as Paul asserts his apostolic superiority, he’s quick to add: “even though I am nothing.” You could just hear how much it grated on Paul to claim superiority. True, he’s an apostle; they’re not. But Paul knows himself to be unworthy to be called an apostle; he knows that his apostolic status is purely a gift from his gracious God.

What, then, are his apostolic credentials? We’ve already seen some (mentioned above and in the previous chapters), but in verse 12, Paul mentions “the signs of a true apostle” being “signs and wonders and mighty works.” That’s all Paul tells us. And when you read Luke’s account in Acts 18:1-11 of Paul in Corinth, no miracles are mentioned. Even though no such record is made in Acts 18, it’s clear from Paul that these signs were performed among the Corinthians. Not everything that happened in the apostolic age was recorded in Acts. The Corinthians were witnesses of God’s miraculous power through Paul. This truth makes their rejection of his apostleship all the more terrifying and saddening. The three words are all used together in a few other verses (Acts 2:22; 6:8; Rom. 15:19; 2 Thess. 2:9; Heb. 2:4). These words for signs are not three categorically different miracles. Rather, they are three different vantage points or angles from which to view the miraculous activity. The “sign” is a miracle that signifies, a miracle that points to something beyond itself, namely, to Jesus Christ, his word and his power (cf. John 20:30-31; Heb. 2:3-4). The wonders are miracles that impress wonder or amazement on the observer (cf. Acts 2:12; 3:10; 13:11-12). They produce marvel and elicit awe. The mighty works, or miracles, refer to powers, and the word is used generally in reference to great displays of the power of God. Such was the experience of the Corinthians, of which they should have reminded each other and the super-apostles, lest anyone deny the work and word of God through Paul. Admittedly, we’d love to read more from Paul on those signs, but we have Acts to see the kind of things that the apostles did, Paul included. Notice, however, that Paul spends less time on those miraculous apostolic signs than he does reminding them of his whole-hearted, self-giving service to the Corinthians. And it’s in this area of selfless service that Paul is really set apart from the lying light of the false apostles (11:13-15). The false apostles do not demonstrate what we see Paul doing. Let’s keep looking.

As Paul keeps writing, he speaks of what made the Corinthian church different in terms of their relation to the apostle. The church in Corinth received the same treatment as all the other churches that were graced by God’s apostle. They weren’t deprived of the signs or the revelation. They were, however, deprived of one thing, of which Paul did not spare the other churches: burden. How about that for irony and sarcasm? He even begs their forgiveness for this ostensible misstep (called an injustice or wrongdoing). What was the problem? People were complaining that Paul hadn’t served the church in Corinth as he had the others. They’re claiming that he’s playing ecclesiastical favorites. The reality, however, is that he worked for them in Corinth without charging them. Ironically, therefore, he is asking their forgiveness for not burdening them by charging them for his apostolic services (cf. 11:7; 1 Cor. 9:12, 18). He didn’t charge them, even though he could have done so. Instead of being thankful for his unconditional love expressed this way, some critics took this denial for remuneration as a sign that he was not an apostle! Surely an apostle who has a revelation worthy of attention ought to charge, right? Paul says, “Not necessarily,” and so he is like Christ, presenting the free gospel free of charge, and taking on himself the burden of extra work to unburden and serve others.

In verses 14-15, he prepares the Corinthians for his coming visit, Lord willing. It had been about six years since his first visit, then he had made that sad visit (1:23-2:1). He’s now ready to visit them a third time, especially since he received an encouraging report from Titus concerning their repentance (chapter 7). When he comes to them soon, he’s not going to burden them. He’s not seeking what is theirs; he’s seeking them. Contrary to the false teachers, Paul has come not to receive from them, but to give freely to them (even though he had every apostolic right to remuneration). Returning to the parent-child imagery begun in 6:13 (and reminding them of the truth that he had begotten/fathered them: cf. 1 Cor. 4:14-17), Paul likens himself to a generous parent who gives of himself for his children, without expecting anything in return. There are countless ways and times that parents give to their children far more than they receive. Taking celebrations that involve the giving of gifts (Christmas, birthdays, etc.), it’s the parents who lavish upon their children the many and wondrous gifts. What do the parents get in return? Perhaps a hand-drawn picture on a card, a noodle-sprayed craft that was made in school, or something small and “priceless.” Are the parents upset at this? Do they say something like this? “After all I have done for you, after all the gifts I have given to you, THIS is what you give me—a drawing on the back of the church’s worship folder???” Certainly not. Paul the parent has given the Corinthians his whole self, and he wonders why they seem to love him less than they ought.

Rather than loving him freely, as he has freely loved them, some Corinthians have been deceived by the critics or super-apostles (vv. 16-18). He handles and flat-out denies the accusation of being crafty and getting the better of the Corinthians. The accusation is likely related to his supposed financial underhandedness. The Corinthians might wonder whether the collection Paul has prepped them to make would go straight to Paul, Titus, and that other brother. As a patient parent, he reminds them that he, Titus, and the other brother all have the same spirit of love for them. They’ve all given the Corinthians ample evidence of their truthfulness, not craftiness (a mark of the serpent). No, no, no. That’s not how he has dealt with them. Over and over again in this letter he has eschewed underhanded ways. Would that they got the picture!

If they understood Pauline correspondence and conduct before them, they’d see that he’s actually been working hard at their upbuilding (v. 19). Paul is not looking to get but to give. He’s not looking to be built up, but to build up. He’s not looking to be served, but to serve. That’s a significant difference between Paul and the super-apostles. They’re craftily scheming their own gain from the Corinthians, whereas Paul is pleading with them to receive the genuine servant-love he has for them because of the immense, affectionate love that Christ has for him. It’s as simple as that. That’s the heart of the apostle: love for others to see them grow in love for God and each other. That heart-motive sure sounds like the two Great Commandments to which Christ calls all his people (Matt. 22:34-40).

If we summarize the apostolic character signs just from this brief passage, we see humility (v. 11), utmost patience (v. 12), self-sacrifice (v. 13), other-oriented service and generosity of self (vv. 14-15), truthfulness in speech and behavior (vv. 16-18), and edification of God’s people (v. 19). If we were to take these signs as an apostolic framework or checklist, we’d see every apostle to Christ exhibiting such traits. Pride is unbecoming of an apostle, and of every Christian for that matter! We’d see all these traits from those commissioned by Christ, because Christ himself was humble, patient, self-sacrificial, generous, truthful, and edifying. And it is Christ who by his Spirit has been at work in the lives of his apostles. Let’s not forget that these traits are fitting for and expected of all followers of Christ. We should not expect our brothers and sisters to bring new revelations from God to us, nor should we expect each other to demonstrate signs, wonders, and mighty works. The apostolic age has ceased, and so have the accompanying apostolic gifts. The conduct, however, endures. That was Paul’s focus in his self-defense against the super-apostles. Is it ours?

  • 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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