“Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly—and indeed you do bear with me” (2 Corinthians 11:1).
The New Testament book of Acts provides us with the account of Paul the Apostle’s conversion to Christianity (see Acts chapter nine). Following Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, the Lord sent a man named Ananias to meet with him. As part of that assignment, Ananias received the following information regarding Paul: “…This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16 NIV).
Here in 2 Corinthians chapter eleven, Paul will confirm the accuracy of that prophetic statement with an account of the sufferings he experienced over the course of his ministry. Yet despite his characterization of those hardships as a “boast” in 2 Corinthians 11:16, it’s clear that Paul took no pleasure in volunteering this information. Instead, he prefaced it with the following statement: “Oh, that you would bear with me in a little folly…”
This helps us understand how the boasting that appears later in this chapter corresponds with the final sentence of the previous chapter: “You may brag about yourself, but the only approval that counts is the Lord’s approval” (CEV). Although Paul recognized the folly of boasting in one’s accomplishments, he did not do so to gain praise or sympathy from the members of the Corinthian fellowship. Instead, he reluctantly engaged in these boasts in order to demonstrate his apostolic authority and establish the credentials that served to authorize his ministry.
One commentator explains this approach in the following manner: “The boasting that Paul is about to engage in stands as an apparent contradiction to what he has said in 10:17–18. Thus, at the outset, he must present the basis for his boast (11:1–15). This he follows with the proof of his boast (vss. 16–33). Then he relates the consequences of his boast (12:1–10).” (1)
Biblical commentators sometimes refer to this portion of 2 Corinthians as “The Fool’s Speech” for Paul will repeatedly characterize his boasting in terms of its foolishness. But as we read through this God-inspired message, we might do well to remember some wisdom from Paul’s earlier letter to the Corinthians: “…the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25 NIV).
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2360). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
“I wish that you would be patient with me in a little foolishness, but indeed you are being patient with me!” (2 Corinthians 11:1 NET).
“As much against the grain as it is with a proud man to acknowledge his infirmities, so much is it against the grain with a humble man to speak of his own praise.” (1)
As we’ll see over the course of 2 Corinthians chapter eleven, Paul the Apostle will boast of his sufferings as an Apostle of Christ. So why did Paul feel it necessary to mention these things to the members of the Corinthian church? To answer that question, we should first remember that the Corinthians had shown an unfortunate willingness to accept certain “leaders” who were not what they claimed to be. That made it necessary for Paul to engage in a defense of his apostleship to counter their influence.
We should also remember that the ability to effectively communicate with others often comes down to interacting with them in a way they can respect and understand. Since the Corinthians had embraced a group of false apostles who boasted of their credentials and accomplishments, it appears that Paul engaged in a similar conversation in order to speak a “language” they could grasp.
He then went on to say this…
“For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2).
Since we often associate jealousy with a negative emotional state, it may be difficult to understand why Paul felt this way in regard to the situation in Corinth. For instance, we might theorize that Paul felt threatened by the emergence of these leaders, perhaps fearing that one or more of them might usurp his position of authority. While that was certainly their intent, Paul had a God-honoring basis for his sense of jealousy: “I promised you as a pure bride to one husband—Christ” (NLT).
You see, Paul jealously sought to protect the exclusive bond that existed between Jesus and the members of the Corinthian church as the bride of Christ. As one commentator observes, “Human jealousy is a vice, but to share divine jealousy is a virtue. It is the motive and object of the jealousy that is all-important. There is a place for a spiritual father’s passionate concern for the exclusive and pure devotion to Christ of his spiritual children, and also a place for anger at potential violators of that purity” (11:29).” (2)
(1) Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, pp. 1835, quoted in Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on 2 Corinthians 2017 Edition [11:1] Copyright © 2017 Thomas L. Constable. All Rights Reserved. http://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/2corinthians/2corinthians.htm
(2) Murray J. Harris, “2 Corinthians,” in Romans-Galatians, vol. 10 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 322, quoted in Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on 2 Corinthians 2017 Edition [11:2] Copyright © 2017 Thomas L. Constable. All Rights Reserved. http://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/2corinthians/2corinthians.htm
“For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2-3 ESV).
In the Jewish culture of the New Testament era, parents typically arranged marriages for their children. Once the right marriage partner was agreed to by their respective parents, a young man and woman of marriageable age then entered a period of “betrothal.” This was something like the modern-day engagement that exists between couples who are planning to marry today but was much more formal.
You see, a betrothal represented a binding legal agreement within the culture of that day. While couples are often free to break off an engagement with no legal ramifications today, a betrothed couple of that era had to engage in a type of divorce proceeding before they could dissolve their relationship.
This betrothal period generally lasted for up to a year. Although the young couple had legal recognition as husband and wife during that time, they were not permitted to engage in marital relations prior to their wedding ceremony. The groom often spent this period working to prepare the couple’s future home, a responsibility that usually involved building an addition onto his father’s house. When everything was complete, the groom would bring the bride back to the home he had prepared for them. A priest then presided over a wedding ceremony and the couple would begin their new life together.
Paul the Apostle made use of this imagery to communicate his intent for the members of the Corinthian fellowship. Just as a first-century father sought to present his daughter to her husband in honor, so Paul also sought to present the Corinthian church to Christ as a congregation that was pure and undefiled by the doctrines promoted by the false teachers who had infiltrated their fellowship.
This image of a virtuous marriage was so powerful that Paul also used it in his Biblical letter to the church at Ephesus to illustrate the intimacy that God seeks to enjoy with His people on a spiritual level: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery-but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32 NIV).
“But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted, just as Eve was deceived by the cunning ways of the serpent” (2 Corinthians 11:3 NLT).
It is one thing to question a leader’s ability to make good decisions but it is something else to use such questions as means of undermining that person’s position of authority. But as bad as that might be, the false apostles in Corinth were engaged in something worse- they were seeking to undermine Paul the Apostle with the intent of leading others into error. In fact, their actions were so injurious that Paul compared them to the act of deception that took place in the Garden of Eden.
Their tactic was reminiscent of the enemy’s strategy as recorded in Genesis chapter three: “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden… You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:1, 4-5), Unfortunately, the so-called “super-apostles” in Corinth were taking a deceptively similar approach with the members of the Corinthian fellowship.
Paul’s reference to the deception that occurred in the Garden of Eden is instructive in another way. Consider the effect of the serpent’s attempt to call God’s character, authority, and direction into question: “…the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom…” (Genesis 3:6).
While Eve was certainly aware of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil before her interaction with the serpent, his suggestion prompted her to consider the tree and it’s fruit from the wrong perspective. The problem is that once someone begins to think about doing wrong, it’s only a short step towards doing wrong as illustrated by Eve’s example.
So just as the deceiver led Eve away from the One who had her best interests in mind, the false teachers in Corinth were attempting to deceive the Corinthians by leading them away from Paul, the one who was directing them towards a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. If Paul’s authority could be called into question, then his teachings, his counsel, and the way he conducted himself could also be questioned as well.
These methods were traceable back to the act of deception that occurred in the Garden of Eden and Paul will go on to identify their source in no uncertain terms later within this chapter.
“For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!” (2 Corinthians 11:4).
For many, the concept of “god” represents little more than a being who embodies whatever qualities and characteristics they think he should have. The problem is that a concept of God that originates from anywhere other than the Scriptures is one who may have little or no basis in reality. In a similar manner, the false apostles in first-century Corinth apparently preached “another Jesus” who bore little or no resemblance to the Christ found within the gospels.
The problem is that the false teachers in ancient Corinth faced an issue that still exists today: if a person holds an erroneous view of Jesus, then everything that proceeds from that view is likely to be erroneous as well. As one commentator explains, “These false teachers were not disagreeing over some peripheral, minor matter, but over the person and work of Jesus Christ.” (1)
This reminds us of the need to define our terms when we engage in discussions regarding God, Christ, the Scriptures, or other spiritual matters. Just as words may often possess several different meanings, (2) others may define “God,” “Jesus,” “the Holy Spirit,” and “the Scriptures” in different ways as well. Such definitions often sound religiously convincing (and might contain an element of truth), but may not correspond to what we find in the Word of God when we stop to examine them.
For instance, one person may define “God” as a universal consciousness. Another might identify Jesus as the spirit brother of Lucifer. For some, the Holy Spirit is “God’s impersonal force” while “the Scriptures” might include “another testament of Jesus Christ.” While the terminology may be identical in many instances, the definitions may be different and unbiblical.
For this reason, we would do well to follow the example of the citizens of Berea as found in the New Testament book of Acts…
“Immediately when night came, the believers sent Paul and Silas to the city of Berea. When Paul and Silas arrived in the city of Berea, they entered the synagogue. The people of Berea were more open-minded than the people of Thessalonica. They were very willing to receive God’s message, and every day they carefully examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:10-11 GW).
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, Free Bible Commentary 2 Corinthians [11:4] Copyright ©2014 by Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06B_11.html
(2) Such as bat, jam, or key, for example
“For I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles. Even though I am untrained in speech, yet I am not in knowledge. But we have been thoroughly manifested among you in all things” (2 Corinthians 11:5-6).
The false teachers who sought to displace Paul the Apostle within the Corinthian church apparently chose to identify themselves as “super-apostles” (HCSB), “highest apostles” (MKJV), or “the most eminent apostles” (NASB). Yet despite those lofty designations, Paul did not feel inferior to any of them. However, this passage might prompt a question from those who are familiar with Paul and his writings.
You see, Paul made what seems to be a contradictory statement in his earlier letter to the Corinthians when he said, “…I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9). So which is correct? Was Paul the least of the apostles or was he “…as good as any of those super apostles?” (CEV). Well, here is how one Biblical scholar addresses that question…
“…Here Paul claimed, “I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5). And elsewhere he would have us believe that he is “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9). But it would seem that both cannot be true.
SOLUTION: Paul is speaking in different contexts. In one passage, he is speaking with respect to his ability, training, and zeal. However, unlike the other apostles, Paul had persecuted the church of Christ before his conversion and, therefore, considered himself unworthy even to be an apostle (cf. Gal. 1:13; Acts 9:1). So with respect to his preconversion antagonism to Christ he rightly considered himself “the least of the apostles.” (1)
So even though Paul claimed to be the least of the apostles and chief among sinners according to 1 Timothy 1:13-15, that did not mean he was any less than those who claimed a similar degree of apostolic authority. In fact, the evidence of Paul’s calling had been “thoroughly manifested” (or “made perfectly clear” [CEV]) to the members of the Corinthian church.
Finally, one source makes an important observation in regard to this passage: “(Paul’s) apostleship was not a matter of show but of substance. What Paul said was more important than how he said it. The Corinthians could not deny the content of his message and its transforming consequences…” (2)
(1) Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When critics ask : a popular handbook on Bible difficulties (p. 472). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
(2) John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, Bible Knowledge Commentary [11:5-6] ® 1983 John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck
“And even if I am unskilled in speaking, yet I am certainly not so in knowledge. Indeed, we have made this plain to you in everything in every way” (2 Corinthians 11:6 NET).
One translation of 2 Corinthians 11:6 uncovers the depth of Paul the Apostle’s defense of his calling: “But even if, as is the case, I am not a professional orator in the realm of discourse, yet I am not unlearned nor unskilled in the realm of knowledge, but in everything we made it plain among all with a view to your benefit” (Wuest).
So it seems there was a faction in Corinth who questioned Paul’s authority because he lacked the rhetorical training that others possessed. This does not necessarily mean that Paul was a poor speaker (except, perhaps in the opinion of some) but it does appear that he lacked the credentials of a trained orator. With this in mind, we might rephrase this idea for 21st century readers in the following manner: “I may not possess an advanced degree but that doesn’t mean I am lacking in knowledge.”
The truth was that Paul possessed a great reservoir of knowledge and experience. For instance, Paul was born in the city of Tarsus, a place that was known for it’s emphasis upon philosophy, learning, and culture. He also studied under a respected Rabbinical teacher named Gamaliel and “…was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors…” (Acts 22:3 NIV). In fact, Paul even went so far to say the following in regard to his religious education: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).
We also know from the Scriptures that Paul was fluent in multiple languages (see Acts 21:37,40) and had some degree of familiarity with the secular authors of his day. (1) But most importantly, Paul received instruction directly from God: “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12).
This passage has also led one source to offer the following comment: “One may have eloquence with deficiency in knowledge and be inadequate for God’s use. On the other hand, one may have knowledge and be deficient in eloquence and still be very useful in the Lord’s work.” (2)
(2) The Bible Study Textbook Series, Studies In Second Corinthians (College Press) Paul T. Butler. [p. 365] Copyright © 1985 College Press Publishing Company https://archive.org/stream/BibleStudyTextbookSeriesSecondCorinthians/132Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“Did I commit sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you free of charge? I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to minister to you” (2 Corinthians 11:7-8).
Other than his physical appearance and lack of eloquence, the “super-apostles” who sought to undermine Paul the Apostle in Corinth had very little ammunition to use against him. Faced with that dilemma, it seems they tried a different approach: Paul’s refusal to charge the Corinthians for his ministerial efforts meant that he was something less than what he claimed to be.
In today’s parlance, we might say their argument was, “you get what you pay for.” Since the Corinthians didn’t pay for Paul’s ministry, the implication was that his work wasn’t worth very much. One commentator explains how this attempt to diminish Paul’s reputation was reinforced by the cultural expectations of that time…
“When Paul was at Corinth he supported himself (Acts 18:3) and accepted help from other churches as well (v. 8). Some of the Corinthians seem to have been offended by Paul’s refusal to accept their gift, probably offered to him in response to his preaching of the gospel to them. In ancient times, giving and receiving gifts was often used to establish and maintain friendships among social equals, as well as to signal dependents’ subordination to patrons.
In this system, Paul’s refusal of a gift might be taken as an insult, a proud refusal to be involved with inferiors. But the apostle views his relationship with the Corinthians, not from the standpoint of worldly social convention (5:16), but from the standpoint of the new creation (5:17) in which he has been called to be an apostle and spiritual father. As a father, he may rightly give to his children without receiving anything in return (12:14, 15).” (1)
However, Paul’s decision to forego support from the Corinthian church placed him in something of a “no-win” situation. If Paul accepted financial support from the Corinthians then he might have been accused of seeking to enrich himself. So this decision served to neutralize anyone who might wish to accuse him of an ulterior motive. On the other hand, it apparently did little to dissuade those who were intent on criticizing him. In their opinion, Paul “robbed” other churches to pay for his ministry at Corinth.
Unfortunately, this serves to remind us that others may sometimes misinterpret a God-honoring course of action, intentionally or otherwise.
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2064). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“And when I was present with you, and in need, I was a burden to no one, for what I lacked the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied. And in everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself” (2 Corinthians 11:9).
The Biblical book of 1 Corinthians provides us with a valuable principle that we can apply in a variety of situations: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23). For Paul the Apostle, this did not represent a principle for others to follow; it meant leading by example in his relationship with the Corinthian church.
You see, Paul applied this principle to his relationship with the church at Corinth by refusing to ask for any financial support from them. Rather than burden the church with a request to support his ministry, Paul supplemented the financial aid he received from other churches by employing his skills as a tentmaker at various points in his ministry.
Unfortunately, those who sought to challenge Paul’s authority in Corinth apparently seized upon that decision as evidence of his belief that he was not entitled to such support. However, the truth was far different: Paul declined to seek financial support from the Corinthians because it was not in the church’s best interest to do so. One commentator explains how this principle from 1 Corinthians 10:23 may have factored into his decision…
“(Paul’s opponents) had been making capital out of the fact that he had refused pay for his work in Corinth (7-9). He explains that, while as an apostle of Christ, he had the right (I Corinthians 9), yet he had purposely refused pay, lest his example be abused by false teachers who were seeking to make merchandise of the church.
From the beginning of his work in Corinth Paul must have noticed tendencies to covetous leadership in some of his converts, and so governed himself accordingly. One of the things of which Paul could boast was that they could not accuse him of covetousness.” (1)
So even though it would have been perfectly acceptable for Paul to ask for financial support from the members of the Corinthian church, that did not necessarily mean it was a good idea. To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 10:23, such a request would have been lawful, but not helpful- and Paul will go on to explain why next.
(1) Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, 2 Corinthians Chapter 11. Paul’s Apology for Boasting [pg. 606] Copyright © 2000, 2007 by Halley’s Bible Handbook, Inc.
“As the truth of Christ is in me, no one shall stop me from this boasting in the regions of Achaia. Why? Because I do not love you? God knows! But what I do, I will also continue to do, that I may cut off the opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the things of which they boast” (2 Corinthians 11:10-12).
In reading through the New Testament Scriptures, it appears that Paul the Apostle faced a considerable amount of resistance from those who sought to misrepresent his ministry to suit their own agenda (see Acts 25:7-8, Romans 3:8, and 2 Peter 3:15-16 for some examples). This was true of some within the Corinthian church as well.
The passage quoted above reveals one way in which Paul sought to protect his relationship with the members of the Corinthian fellowship. You see, Paul’s refusal to seek their financial aid served to undercut those who sought to profit off the church under the guise of “ministry.” Two sources offer some hard-hitting commentary on that decision…
“It seems clear that the Judaizers (1) expected, demanded, and received money from the Corinthians. Like most cultists, they would not have served unless it paid them financially. Paul was determined to continue his policy of not receiving money from the believers in Corinth. If the false teachers wanted to engage in a boasting match with him, let them follow his policy. But he knew they would never be able to boast of serving without monetary reward. Thus he cut out this ground of boasting from under them.” (2)
“‘I’m not going to charge you,’ said Paul. ‘And I dare these false teachers to follow my lead.’ There have been times in this ministry when we didn’t have the money to support the ministers, myself included. And it’s really interesting what happens. Some keep serving, teaching, working, doing whatever they’re called to do. Others fade away. Jesus called them hirelings (John 10:12, 13).
I believe God almost inevitably allows men to be tested in this way, to allow them to see whether what they’re doing is merely a job or truly a calling on their life—something they would do whether or not they were financially supported. Although Paul sometimes had support from Macedonia, we know from the Book of Acts that during this time he would support himself by making tents in order that he could teach the Word at nights or in the afternoon. ‘I know how to abound and how to be abased,’ he said (see Philippians 4:12). ‘I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been called to do.’” (3)
(1) See here for more on the Judaizers
(2) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers [11:12]
(3) Courson, J. (2003). Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (p. 1148). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
“For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
While many things have changed since the letter of 2 Corinthians was first written, some things that haven’t changed much at all. One thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of those who claim to be ministers (or followers) of Jesus but are something different in reality. At best, such individuals fail to accurately represent Christ. At worst, they serve as representatives of the enemy disguised as men and women of faith.
Such was the case in first-century Corinth for as one source comments, “Paul’s opponents at Corinth were not just fellow Christians who differ in certain nonessential matters; they were actual servants of Satan inside the church, competing for its leadership.” (1) Unfortunately, it appears that the Corinthians failed to recognize this danger. This may explain why Paul the Apostle said earlier, “…if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough” (2 Corinthians 11:4 NIV).
We can learn from the experience of the Corinthian church by seeking to identify those who distort the truth about Christ. These are several strategies we can use for this purpose and the first involves an important recognition: the “Jesus” that some claim to represent may not be the Jesus found within the Bible.
Its often possible to discover what someone really believes about Christianity simply by asking the following question: “Who is Jesus?” For instance, a person who self-identifies as a Christian may believe that Jesus was “a” God. Another might believe that He was a messenger for God. These beliefs may sound compelling but they do not align with the Jesus we find within the pages of the Scriptures.
Its important to remember that Jesus isn’t simply a god- He is the God (John 1:1, Titus 2:13). Jesus was fully human and fully God (John 1:14) and claimed to be God (John 8:58). He possesses all authority (Matthew 28:18), has the right to forgive sins (Luke 7:48), and will judge everyone (John 5:22). These distinctions are important, for those who do not hold to these basic truths about Christ may not accurately represent Him.
We’ll consider another strategy to help protect against false teaching next.
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2064). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15 ESV).
Another strategy we can use to identify false spiritual teachers involves examining their concept of “God.” For instance, what if God is a being who attained a “higher consciousness.” Or perhaps God has a “good side” and a “bad side” that are in conflict with one another. Or what if there are many gods, a belief known as polytheism.
These different belief systems illustrate the need to establish a proper understanding regarding the person and nature of God. You see, those who begin with a basic misunderstanding of God’s nature start from a foundation that does not point towards a genuine relationship with Him. So what is the truth about God? Well, here is what the Scriptures tell us regarding the person and nature of God:
- The Bible tells us that there is one God (1 Timothy 2:5) who has always existed (Habakkuk 1:12) and has always been God (Isaiah 44:6).
- God can never make a mistake (Psalm 18:30) and never changes (Malachi 3:6).
- God is a God of love (1 John 4:8).
- He is holy (or morally perfect and distinct from anything that is dirty or impure- Isaiah 6:1-5), all knowing (Psalm 147:5), and all powerful (Deuteronomy 32:39).
- God is good (Jeremiah 29:11), merciful (Psalm 103:8), and righteous in His judgments (Psalm 96:13).
This portion of Scripture also provides us with an opportunity to examine something that often represents an element of false teaching- a denial of the triune nature of God. As mentioned earlier, the triune nature of God is a doctrine that is developed in various places throughout the Scriptures. Within them, we find that God is One (Deuteronomy 6:4) and that the Father is God (Ephesians 5:20 and Jude 1:1), the Son is God (Hebrews 1:8 and Titus 2:13), and the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4 and 2 Corinthians 3:17).
This Biblical teaching may be difficult to comprehend but let’s establish what it doesn’t mean- it doesn’t mean there are three Gods, or that God changes into the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit when He desires. Instead, the Scriptures tell us that there is one God who is revealed in three distinct Persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This leads us to the understanding that God is one in substance (or essence) and three in Persons.
“For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no great thing if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their destiny will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15 HCSB)
Another identifying mark of false teachers (like those who had infiltrated the first-century church at Corinth) is this: false teachers often do not recognize the Bible as the final and authoritative standard for belief and practice.
For example, some groups assert to have “another” Gospel of Jesus Christ. Others believe their interpretation of the Bible is as important as the Bible itself. Then there are those claim to have a new revelation to add to God’s Word. How do we know if these viewpoints are correct? Well, to answer this question, it helps to be clear on what the Bible says about itself.
The New Testament book of 2 Timothy tells us that all Scripture is inspired by God (see 2 Timothy 3:16) and is therefore free from errors or mistakes as originally written. Furthermore, we’re told that the Bible’s human authors spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). We can illustrate this process by considering the image of a sailboat on a lake.
Just as a sailboat is moved by the wind that fills it’s sails, the Biblical writers were carried along by the Holy Spirit so they went exactly where He wanted them to go in their Biblical works. For this reason, the Bible claims to be authoritative (Exodus 4:30, 1 Thessalonians 2:13), eternal (Psalm 119:89, Matthew 24:35), and true (Psalm 119:142, John 17:17). This faith has been delivered once for all (Jude 1:3) and cannot be supplemented today.
We also have the word of Jesus Himself regarding the Scriptures. Jesus taught that the Scriptures were the command of God (Matthew 15:3-4), contained no mistakes (Luke 16:17), were reliable (Matthew 26:54), and could not be broken (John 10:35). Jesus also promised that the Holy Spirit would guide His disciples into all truth and remind them of the things He said and did (John 14:26, 15:26-27). This explains why Paul the Apostle (1 Corinthians 14:37) and the Apostle Peter (speaking of Paul in 2 Peter 3:15-16) can refer to the God-inspired nature of their Biblical letters.
As God, Jesus should be recognized as the final authority on this subject. While other spiritual writings may have value, (1) they cannot replace the Biblical Scriptures as the final and authoritative source for doctrine and practice.
(1) Assuming they reflect sound Biblical doctrine.
“For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
A few minutes spent with an internet search engine will quickly uncover hundreds of websites that detail the accounts of those who have undergone a “near death experience.” This phenomenon is defined as “an occurrence in which a person comes very close to dying and has memories of a spiritual experience…” (1) One common element associated with many of these reports is an encounter with a “light” that serves to welcome human beings to the afterlife.
While the overwhelming number of those who report such experiences do so positively, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 informs us of the need to exercise caution before we embrace these descriptions of the afterlife. Knowing that humanity’s greatest adversary possesses the ability to masquerade as an angel of light should prompt us to consider the possibility that such experiences may not be as benevolent as they appear.
You see, the only genuine way to assure a warm and loving acceptance to the afterlife is through accepting Christ as savior before we pass from this life. As Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
However, this passage is applicable to our present-day as well. Consider the following observation: “If Satan himself poses falsely, it is not surprising if his agents do the same. How do they pose? As false teachers? As atheists? As infidels? The answer is no. They pose as ministers of righteousness. They profess to be ministers of religion. They profess to lead people in the way of truth and righteousness, but they are agents of the evil one.” (2)
Unfortunately, this is something we should expect to see in a world that is “…under the control of the evil one” as we’re told in 1 John 5:19. Since the adversary is capable of disguising his appearance, it should come as no surprise that those who follow him possess the ability to masquerade as representatives of Christ as well. But such disguises come at a price, for “In the end they will get exactly what their actions deserve” (GNB).
(1) “near-death experience.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary Retrieved August 14, 2018 from merriam-webster.com website https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/near-death%20experience
(2) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers (2 Corinthians 11:15)
“I say again, let no one think me a fool. If otherwise, at least receive me as a fool, that I also may boast a little. What I speak, I speak not according to the Lord, but as it were, foolishly, in this confidence of boasting” (2 Corinthians 11:16-17).
A person who understands that God graciously allows us to have the things we possess is someone who is unlikely to boast of his or her accomplishments. Unfortunately, that sentiment had little apparent impact upon the false teachers who had worked their way into the Corinthian fellowship- and that placed the Apostle Paul in a difficult position.
On one hand, Paul was reluctant to boast in regard to his ministry, preferring instead to give the honor to God for his work. On the other hand, it would have been inappropriate for Paul to stand by and watch the false apostles in Corinth trumpet their “qualifications” while doing nothing to validate or defend his apostleship.
Therefore. Paul grudgingly agreed to engage in some boasting of his own beginning in the passage quoted above and continuing into the opening verses of the following chapter. This represented foolishness to Paul but it served an important purpose. If Paul could establish that he was qualified to question those who opposed him in Corinth, he could shift the focus of attention towards the content of their teaching and away from these other issues.
But first, Paul issued an important qualification: “In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool” (NIV). In making this statement, Paul simply recognized an important fact. Since Jesus never boasted in such a manner, it was out of character for one of His representatives to do so. There had to be a compelling reason for Paul to engage in such behavior and he clearly felt it was necessary in order to achieve a greater purpose.
Paul’s reluctance to tout his achievements should prompt us to be wary of leaders and others who similarly seek to boast of their accomplishments today. In the words of one commentary, “The Apostle Paul surely has set an example here for other true Christian leaders. Boasting of one’s achievements and experiences is ill becoming to a Christian, the only exception being when it is necessary, for the sake of the testimony, to rebut the false claims of those who are thereby deceiving others and keeping them from believing God’s Word.” (1)
(1) Institute for Creation Research, New Defender’s Study Bible Notes 2 Corinthians 11:17 http://www.icr.org/bible/2Cor/11/17
“Seeing that many boast according to the flesh, I also will boast. For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. To our shame I say that we were too weak for that! But in whatever anyone is bold—I speak foolishly—I am bold also” (2 Corinthians 11:18-21).
While the false apostles in Corinth sought to boast of their supposed accomplishments, 2 Corinthians 11:18 reveals another issue. Notice the reference to “…those who take credit to themselves after the flesh” (BBE). This implies that these “apostles” were acting with little or no direction from God. If they were truly acting as Jesus’ representatives, they would have given such credit to Him and not taken it for themselves.
Unfortunately, the Corinthians were not alone in facing such issues. For instance, Paul the Apostle delivered the following warning to the first-century church at Ephesus: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29).
The Apostle Peter also wrote the following…
Much like those who attended church in ancient Corinth, it is not uncommon to encounter intelligent and well-spoken “leaders” who advocate spiritual beliefs that are foolish or self-serving. This unfortunate reality demonstrates the importance of reading the Scriptures each day. A person who prayerfully reads God’s Word daily is someone who will be best equipped to identify those who seek to present a clever (but unbiblical) message.
“Since many are boasting according to human standards, I too will boast. For since you are so wise, you put up with fools gladly. For you put up with it if someone makes slaves of you, if someone exploits you, if someone takes advantage of you, if someone behaves arrogantly toward you, if someone strikes you in the face (To my disgrace I must say that we were too weak for that!) But whatever anyone else dares to boast about (I am speaking foolishly), I also dare to boast about the same thing” (2 Corinthians 11:18-21 NET).
The members of the Corinthian church had foolishly chosen to accept the spiritual tyranny of “leaders” who sought to manipulate and exploit them while simultaneously rejecting Paul the Apostle’s attempt to communicate the Word of God in meekness and humility.
Paul’s experience with the Corinthians should alert us to an ever-present reality: if we do not seek to establish genuine spiritual truth today, others will surely attempt to substitute something else tomorrow. If those “others” embody the same characteristics displayed by the false spiritual teachers mentioned here in 2 Corinthians chapter eleven, we may face a similar issue.
In light of this, it may be helpful to examine the distinguishing features exhibited by these false teachers that are embedded within this passage. The first is this: “…you put up with it if someone makes slaves of you” (NET). This illustrates the need to exercise caution with those who insist that we must follow a rigid set of religious rules and regulations in order to receive spiritual approval.
Unlike the false apostles in Corinth, Paul did not wish to enslave the Corinthians to a list of spiritual “do’s and don’ts.” However, he did want them to observe an important principle: “When you eat or drink or do anything else, always do it to honor God” (1 Corinthians 10:31 CEV). Paul also addressed this issue in the New Testament book of Colossians…
“…Why do you submit to regulations: ‘Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch’? All these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. Although these have a reputation for wisdom by promoting self-made religion, false humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23 CSB).
So its important to be alert to those who seek to promote such practices today, As Paul said to the Galatian church, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
“Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that” (2 Corinthians 11:18-21 ESV).
As we continue our look at the characteristics exhibited by the false apostles in first-century Corinth, we now come to a graphically descriptive phrase: “…you bear it if someone… devours you.” One dictionary provides us with three negative definitions of the word “devour”…
- to eat up greedily or ravenously
- to use up or destroy as if by eating
- to prey upon (1)
When used in this context, the concept of “devouring something” involves an object that is (or has been) subsumed into something else. In other words, an entity that has been devoured is no longer separate and distinct; it has now become an indistinguishable part of something else.
If we were to apply this idea in a spiritual sense, we might say that the false teachers in Corinth sought to enforce a policy of strict uniformity among the members of the church. However, that approach effectively served to eliminate any sense of diversity or individuality within the congregation. This was something that placed these teachers in direct opposition to Paul the Apostle’s message from 1 Corinthians 11:27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it” (CSB, see 1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
This reminds us that conformity to the image of Christ does not necessarily imply uniformity among the members of God’s family. For instance, we should recognize that there may be a wide variety of personal, cultural, and emotional differences among Jesus’ followers. These other members of God’s family may not think, act, or communicate in a manner that is similar to our own. Some may be more or less mature and others may not hold similar attitudes or opinions.
This may explain why the New Testament book of Romans reminds us to, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10 NIV). This does not mean that we will always get along well with one another (see Acts 15:36-41) but it does mean that we should reject the kind of enforced spiritual uniformity that underlies this passage.
“And since others boast about their human achievements, I will, too. After all, you think you are so wise, but you enjoy putting up with fools! You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face. I’m ashamed to say that we’ve been too ‘weak’ to do that! But whatever they dare to boast about—I’m talking like a fool again—I dare to boast about it, too” (2 Corinthians 11:18-21 NLT).
In admonishing the members of the Corinthian church for putting up with the foolishness promoted by the false teachers of their day, Paul the Apostle provides us with a valuable list of characteristics we can use to identify those who act in a similar manner. The next item featured in the passage quoted above is this: “…you bear it if someone… takes advantage of you” (ESV).
When we think of someone who “takes advantage” of another person, we often think of someone who exploits those who are lacking in knowledge or experience. But notice that Paul was not warning the Corinthians that these false apostles were taking advantage of them. Instead, he reprimanded the Corinthians for allowing them to do so.
So why would the members of the Corinthian fellowship put up with those who sought to take advantage of them? Well, perhaps these spiritual hucksters were peddling a watered down spiritual message that served to appease the members of the church. For some, the opportunity to hear a “feel-good” sermon with no accompanying exhortation to align their thinking and behavior with God’s will may have been worth the price.
Another possibility is that these false apostles promoted themselves as the exclusive channels of God’s revelation. That would serve to exploit the Corinthians by compelling them to rely solely upon these “apostles” for guidance and direction from God. This approach continues to be reflected today in the teachings of those who claim that their teaching and study materials are required for anyone who wishes to obtain true spiritual enlightenment.
Unfortunately, this situation has not changed very much in the twenty centuries since this letter to the Corinthians was originally written. Therefore, its important to be alert to those who might seek to take financial, emotional, or spiritual advantage of their followers today. One effective means of identifying such individuals involves watching for demonstrations of arrogance (NET), dominance (HCSB), or presumption (AMP) in their messages. A leader who exalts him or herself in such a manner is someone who is surely inviting God’s discipline.
“Since it’s common for people to brag, I’ll do it too. You’re wise, so you’ll gladly put up with fools. When someone makes you slaves, consumes your wealth, seizes your property, orders you around, or slaps your faces, you put up with it. I’m ashamed to admit it, but Timothy and I don’t have the strength to do those things to you. Whatever other people dare to brag about, I, like a fool, can also brag about” (2 Corinthians 11:18-21 GW)
As uncomfortable as it may be to consider it, it appears that there some among the false apostles in Corinth who were physically abusive towards the members of the church: “When someone… slaps your faces, you put up with it.”
In a manner reminiscent of the high priest who once ordered Paul the Apostle to be struck on the mouth for making an allegedly inappropriate comment, its possible that such behavior carried over to the first century church as well. Perhaps this is why “striking” is found among the list of disqualifications for pastoral leaders in the New Testament epistle of Titus (1:7)
With the possible exception of a cultic organization, a spiritual leader who slapped the face of a congregant would likely face a civil lawsuit in many countries throughout the world today. This may explain why we do not see many examples of such behavior today. However, this type of mindset might lead to other forms of humiliation and are therefore inappropriate for God-honoring leaders.
So having completed this list of identifying qualities, the Apostle Paul continued to wield the literary tool of sarcasm to help focus his readers’ attention: “To our shame I say that we were too weak for that!” In other words, Paul (and those who served with him) were too “weak” to bully the Corinthians and treat them in such a tyrannical manner. One commentator summarizes this idea with the following observation…
“If arrogance, greed, deceit, tyranny, oppression and the robbery of Christians of their wealth are marks of true Christian oversight, Paul was willing to admit that in those categories he had indeed fallen somewhat behind the super-apostles who were plundering the church of God at Corinth. This is sarcastic irony.” (1)
Finally, the overall characteristics given to us here in 2 Corinthians 11:18-21 are consistent with various forms of abusive leadership. A church or religious institution marked by these qualities is not one that adheres to a Biblical leadership model- and we should not be so foolish as to continue in a spiritual organization that is distinguished by these features.
(1) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 11:21”. “Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament“. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/2-corinthians-11.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
“Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often” (2 Corinthians 11:22-23).
A portion of the Old Testament book of Proverbs tells us, “There is no good way to answer fools when they say something stupid. If you answer them, then you, too, will look like a fool. If you don’t answer them, they will think they are smart” (Proverbs 26:4-5 ERV). This illustrates the challenge Paul the Apostle faced in addressing the boasts made by the false apostles within the Corinthian church.
But instead of offering his own list of credentials in response, Paul replied with a list of negative experiences that others might ordinarily wish to forget. In doing so, Paul presented a dramatic contrast to the self-reverential “qualifications” offered by the pseudo-apostles at Corinth. One commentary explains the idea behind this approach…
“You will remember that the question had been raised in the church at Corinth as to whether Paul was a true apostle. What credentials could he show that he had received a divine call? How could he prove to anyone’s satisfaction that he was equal to the twelve apostles, for instance? He is ready with his answer, but perhaps it is not exactly what we would expect.
He does not bring forth a diploma to show he had graduated from some seminary. Neither does he bring an official letter, signed by the brethren in Jerusalem, stating that they had ordained him to the work. He does not present his personal accomplishments or skills. Rather, he brings before us a moving record of sufferings he had endured in the work of the gospel.” (1)
He began by saying, “They brag that they are Hebrews, do they? Well, so am I. And they say that they are Israelites, God’s chosen people? So am I. And they are descendants of Abraham? Well, I am too” (TLB). The first group referred to those who possessed the ability to speak and read the Hebrew language. The second group encompassed those who hailed from the nation of Israel while the “descendants of Abraham” identified those who traced their physical lineage back to Abraham as their ancient ancestor.
So these false teachers had no advantage over Paul when it came to these baseline credentials. But as we’ll see, Paul’s list of “qualifications” will begin to deviate quite sharply from those presented by these false apostles.
(1) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers [11:21]
“Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I’m talking like a madman–I’m a better one: with far more labors, many more imprisonments, far worse beatings, near death many times” (2 Corinthians 11:22-23 HCSB).
In his previous Biblical letter to the Corinthian church, Paul the Apostle wrote, “…by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10 ESV). But while Paul worked harder than anyone in helping to build the first-century church, one thing left unsaid were the sufferings he endured during that process.
In fact, the true extent of Paul’s sufferings may have remained unknown if it were not for the need to counter the boasting of the false apostles at Corinth. One aspect of those sufferings included “many more imprisonments” than those false teachers ever endured.
For instance, the New Testament book of Acts tells us that Paul was imprisoned on at least three separate occasions (Acts 16:16-24, 23:35–24:23-27 and 28:16), However, two of those incarcerations took place after he wrote this letter to the Corinthians. Therefore, Paul must have experienced additional imprisonments beyond those that are recorded for us within the pages of the Scriptures.
We’re also told that Paul was subjected to “stripes above measure” (KJV). If we were to express this idea in a contemporary sense, we might say that Paul had been wounded by physical beatings so often that he lost count. He then went on to add, “Five times I received 39 lashes from Jews” (2 Corinthians 11:24 HCSB). This describes a flogging that was typically administered with a whip comprised of a wooden handle with multiple strips of leather.
The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy established forty lashes as the maximum number of strikes that were permissible under this form of corporal punishment (see Deuteronomy 25:1–3). However, this number was customarily reduced by one to avoid the possibility of exceeding the legal limit. So at the time of this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul had been lashed with a whip no less than 195 times. If the false teachers at Corinth could match that level of physical punishment in their service to Christ, they were free to make their claim.