Are You Persuaded to Worship God?

12 But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, 13 saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” 14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. 15 But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.” 16 And he drove them from the tribunal. 17 And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.

18 After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila.Acts 18:12-18 ESV

pauls-second-missionary-journeyIf you recall, during the time Paul was ministering in the city of Corinth, God had given him a vision, telling him to keep doing what he was doing. He reminded Paul not to be afraid, but to trust in His providential plan and protective power. We know from Paul’s own words, written to the believers in Corinth some time later, that he had struggled with feelings of fear when he first arrived in the city. He confessed, “I came to you in weakness – timid and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3 NLT). And while, at this point, nothing negative had happened up to him in Corinth, it was just a matter of time. And God had given Paul His unwavering assurance that all would be well.

“Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” – Acts 18:9-10 ESV

And then, almost like clockwork, the inevitable happened. A year and a half later, well into Paul’s ministry there, “some Jews rose up together against Paul and brought him before the governor for judgment” (Acts 18:12 NLT). Luke is very specific in terms of his timing, using the proconsulship of Gallio to provide a firm date for this scenario. Gallio was the Roman proconsul or governor of the province of Achaia. Interestingly enough, Gallio a Roman citizen of Spanish descent, whose brother happened to be the Stoic philosopher, Seneca. In some sense, the Roman proconsul served as kind of a supreme court and his decisions on legal matters were binding, containing the full backing of the bēma or judgment seat. This was a raised platform from which the proconsul tried cases brought before him. Their accusation against Paul is simple, but direct. “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13 ESV). Basically, they are claiming that Paul is proselytizing Roman citizens, a crime according to Roman law. The Jews or any other religious were free to promote their religion, but not among those who were of Roman citizenship. These men were trying to get Paul in trouble with the legal authorities. It is the same tactic used by the Jews in Jesus’ day, who tried to set Him up as a revolutionary and radical, who was stirring up trouble. When the had appeared before Pilate to state their accusations against Jesus, they had said, “This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2 NLT). They tried to portray Jesus as an insurrectionist, stating, “he is causing riots by his teaching wherever he goes—all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!” (Luke 23:5 NLT).

The Jews in Corinth are attempting to use the same ploy in their confrontation with Peter, attempting to set Paul up as some kind of radical revolutionary who posed a threat to the government of Rome. One of the last things the Roman government wanted was anyone disturbing the peace or rocking the proverbial boat. They allowed other religions to practice their faith openly and without government interference. But if they stirred up trouble or attempted to sway the allegiance of Roman citizens away from their dedication to the Emperor, they would face stiff consequences.

But Gallio, sitting on his dais, interrupted the proceedings, even before Paul had an opportunity to defend himself. The proconsul simply stated, “Listen, you Jews, if this were a case involving some wrongdoing or a serious crime, I would have a reason to accept your case. But since it is merely a question of words and names and your Jewish law, take care of it yourselves. I refuse to judge such matters” (Acts 18:14-15 NLT). He turned them down flat, deeming their case as non-admissible in his court. He saw through their little ploy and labeled their case as fraudulent and frivolous. It had no business being brought before him for consideration. To him, this was nothing more than a theological dispute among Jews. He could have cared less and, in so many words, told them so. What is easy to miss here, is the weight of Gallio’s apparent non-decision. He had chosen to reject the case, but in doing so he was giving legitimacy to the Christian religion within all the Roman provinces. His action carried weight and set a precedent that would influence the decisions of other, less-powerful proconsuls. From this point forward, the Romans would merely view Christianity as just another sect of the Jews. They would refuse to see it as dangerous or a threat to the Roman way of life or the stability of the government. In their minds, it was a non-factor. This determination would provide a fertile soil in which Christianity was allowed to continue it spread. Because the Roman empire was so vast and encompassed a great many foreign nations, the gospel was given a freedom to go wherever Emperor’s power reigned – all the way to Rome itself.

Paul, while not necessarily vindicated, was at least liberated. But the Jews would find that their attempt to get Paul in trouble would backfire on them. Luke records that “they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue” (Acts 18:17 ESV). The phrase, “they all” most likely refers to the Gentile audience who had gathered to hear what Gallio was going to do. When they heard him reject the case, their anti-Semitic sentiments welled over, causing them to lash out at the Jews by grabbing one of the men who had most likely dragged Paul before the proconsul. Gallio did nothing about this obvious act of vigilantiasm, most likely thinking it would discourage the Jews from bringing their internal debates before him again.

For Paul, it was business as usual. He continued to preach and spread the gospel. Paul would develop a strong affection for the church in Corinth, later penning two separate letters that he would use to encourage and, in some ways, admonish them in their faith.

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. – 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 NLT

Paul’s work among the Corinthians had not been without its opposition, but there had also been an eager reception on the part of many. God had made it clear to Paul that there were many in the city who were His (Acts 18:10). He had already chosen them for salvation. All Paul had to do was share the gospel, boldly and faithfully. The results were totally up to God. And God not only saved these people, He filled them with His Spirit and equipped them with all the spiritual gifts they would need to grow as individuals and as a congregation. As Paul later wrote them, they were enriched because of Christ. They were gifted because of Christ. They were going to stay strong to the end, because of Christ. In essence, they were in partnership with Christ – doing His will, growing His church, spreading His gospel and furthering the scope and reach of His Kingdom on this earth.

This little scene involving Paul, the Jews and Gallio, the Roman proconsul, can be easy to blow right by when reading through the Book of Acts. It can be even easier to see it as some kind of divine payback or justice for the Jews because of their efforts to oppose Paul and the message of the gospel. But for us as believers, this event should act as a reminder of the sovereignty of God. The actions of the Jews are almost predictable. They were only doing what they thought to be right. They saw Christianity as a growing threat to Judaism, and they saw Paul as its primary proponent. They were blind to the truth, but didn’t realize it. The Gentiles who beat Sosthenes were only doing what the believed to be right and true, protecting the integrity of their Greek culture and the Roman rule under which they lived and because of which, they enjoyed peace and security. And Gallio was simply doing his job, refusing to waste his time or governmental resources listening to a case that had no merit or business being brought before him.

But all of these people were operating under the divine umbrella of God’s will. He was silently, invisibly accomplishing His preordained prerogatives through the lives of men, whether they realized it or wanted it. Sometimes we mistakenly think that we can somehow thwart or inadvertently derail the plans of God. When we read these words of Jesus in his model prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 ESV), we somehow get the wrong impression that we are the ones who bring about God’s will. We have to pray for it or request it. We have to help make it happen. But God’s will is going to be done whether I help or not, pray or not, and even desire it or not. The Jews could drag Paul before Gallio, but not without God’s permission. The proconsul could refuse to take the case, but not apart from God’s sovereign will. The Gentiles could beat the local leader of the Jewish synagogue, but their actions, while unjust and ungodly, would somehow be used by God to further the spread of His Son’s Kingdom. We have no way of knowing how the events of that day impacted the local Jewish community. Perhaps it made them more receptive to the gospel. It could have put a damper on their desire to stand up to Paul and oppose the message he was proclaiming. We don’t know. But God does. None of the things we see happening in the Book of Acts were arbitrary in nature. Every action had a God-ordained reaction associated with it. Seemingly chance encounters were really divine appointments. What appear to be the spontaneous reactions of unruly mobs would end up producing amazing God-inspired outcomes. The entire Book of Acts is a primer on the sovereignty of God, providing us with a behind-the-scenes glimpse into God’s irrefutable involvement in the world as He unfolds and fulfills His plan of redemption for a lost and dying world.

 

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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Do Not Be Silent.

1 After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.

When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. Acts 18:1-11 ESV

pauls-second-missionary-journeyEventually, Silas and Timothy rejoined Paul in Athens. But when it was determined that it was time for them to move on again. Paul traveled on to Corinth while Timothy returned to Thessalonica and Silas seems to have gone somewhere else in the region of Macedonia (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2). According to verse five, they would later join Paul in Corinth.

Like Philippi, Corinth was a Roman colony and, at the time of Paul’s visit, the largest city in Greece. It was approximately 50 miles southwest of Athens and some 20 times larger in size. It was a busy, cosmopolitan city with a diverse population mix. Paul would discover a vibrant community of Jews there, some who had arrived in town due to a recent decree by the Emperor Claudius, commanding the expulsion of all Jews from the city of Rome. Luke tells us that Paul met one such couple, Aquila and Priscilla, who had been part of the Jewish contingent forced to flee from Rome. Paul would strike up a relationship with these two, even staying in their home and working alongside them in their tent-making business. It’s interesting to note that Luke does not describe this couple as having been Christ-followers when Paul met them. He simply says that Paul “found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla” (Acts 18:2 ESV). Luke’s description seems to infer that Aquila was a Jew, but that Priscilla was not. Based on her name, she could have been a Roman, and when her husband was forced to leave Rome, she had chosen to leave with him. And nowhere in this account does Luke discuss their conversion story. While we know nothing of how or when they came to faith in Christ, we know they eventually did, because Paul would later describe them as believers.

Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. In fact, they once risked their lives for me. I am thankful to them, and so are all the Gentile churches. – Romans 16:3-4 NLT

Corinth had a long-standing reputation for its immorality and decadence. As far back as the fifth century BC, the Greek word, korinthiazesthai, had come into common usage, which literally meant “to Corinthianize” and was used to refer to someone being sexually immoral. Prostitutes, of which there were many, were commonly referred to as “Corinthian girls.” When referring to someone as having committed sexual immorality, the euphemism, “to act like a Corinthian” was often used. At the heart of the city stood the temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This temple was renowned for its 1,000 temple prostitutes and for the sexual practices offered as part of its religious observances. So, it is easy to see why Paul, when later writing to the believers in Corinth, confessed the sense of fear and trepidation he felt when he first arrived in their city.

1 When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NLT

But, despite any sense of fear he might have felt, Paul had come to Corinth for one reason and one reason only. He followed his normal protocol and “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4 ESV). No doubt, Aquila and Priscilla had provided Paul with introductions into the local Jewish community, and he took full advantage of the opportunity to share the gospel with his fellow Jews. To get some idea just how passionate Paul was about seeing his Jewish brothers and sisters come to faith in Christ, all we have to do is read from his letter to the believers in Rome.

1 With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. – Romans 9:1-3 NLT

Paul would have been willing to give up his own salvation if it meant that other Jews would experience the joy of knowing Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Paul was determined and driven to see that all people heard the good news regarding Jesus. Yes, his official assignment from Jesus had been to take the gospel to the Gentiles, and he was obedient to that call. But it did not stop him from caring deeply for his own people and striving diligently to see that they too heard the message of salvation made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When Paul and Silas eventually joined Paul in Corinth, they found him hard at work, “occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus” (Acts 18:5 ESV). But his well-intentioned efforts were met with resistance and ridicule. Luke states that the Jews “opposed and reviled him” (Acts 18:6 ESV). They demeaned the messenger as well as his message. And Luke reveals that Paul eventually realized that any further efforts to persuade them would be futile and a waste of his time, so, “he shook out his garments and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles’” (Acts 18:6 ESV). Paul seemed to be following the advice given by Jesus to His 12 disciples when He had sent them out on their first assignment without Him.

“If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave.” – Matthew 10:14 NLT

Paul’s actions were also in line with the counsel God had given to His prophet, Ezekiel, hundreds of years earlier, concerning the people of God.

“Son of man, give your people this message: ‘When I bring an army against a country, the people of that land choose one of their own to be a watchman. When the watchman sees the enemy coming, he sounds the alarm to warn the people. Then if those who hear the alarm refuse to take action, it is their own fault if they die. They heard the alarm but ignored it, so the responsibility is theirs. If they had listened to the warning, they could have saved their lives. – Ezekiel 33:2-5 NLT

And when Paul left the synagogue that day, he didn’t have to go far. Luke says that he literally went next door, to the home of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. Evidently, Titius Justus was a Roman and a God-fearer. It could have been that he had been a Jewish proselyte who had been in the synagogue the day Paul decided to walk out, and invited him into his own home. They were joined by another man, Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue. And Luke records that Crispus placed his faith in Jesus and became a believer that day, along with those in his household. While Paul had been forced to turn his back on the Jews, God was far from done in the city of Corinth. Luke makes it quite clear that “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8 ESV). Paul kept up his ministry of sharing the good news and the Holy Spirit did His work of regenerating the hearts of those who heard, so that they might receive the gift of God’s grace made available through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross. 

And Luke provides us with some insight into Paul’s state of mind during this period of his ministry in Corinth. It seems obvious that Paul faced opposition, and that he felt more than a little fearful for his safety and well-being. God gave Paul a vision, in which He reassured His servant that everything was going to be all right.

9 “Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! 10 For I am with you, and no one will attack and harm you, for many people in this city belong to me.” – Acts 18:9-10 NLT

This does not appear to be an indication that there were already other believers in the city of which Paul was unaware. God seems to be assuring Paul that He had already chosen others to come to faith in Christ who had not yet had the opportunity. So, Paul was to keep speaking and sharing, that those whom God had chosen could hear and accept. Paul would refer to this choosing by God in his letter to the believers in Rome.

29 For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory. – Romans 8:29-30 NLT

God wanted Paul to know that He had others set aside in Corinth for salvation. All Paul needed to do was be faithful to fulfill his commission. And Paul did just that, remaining in Corinth for another year and a half, proclaiming the gospel and allowing the Holy Spirit to bring to God all those whom the Father had called.

 

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Grace, Love and Fellowship.

Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. – 2 Corinthians 13:11-14 ESV

How do you close out a letter like this one? For 13 chapters, Paul has had to defend his ministry, confront the Corinthians about their lack of giving, encourage their continued spiritual growth, and expose the false apostles who were undermining his authority and impacting his work. Now, as he wraps up his letter, he does so with five simple statements. First, he tells them to rejoice. He doesn’t explain what it is they are to rejoice about, but he most likely is referring to their position in Christ. They are children of God, heirs of His Kingdom, recipients of His grace, and possessors of His Holy Spirit. They have much about which to rejoice. Yet it is so easy to lose sight of all that God has done for us and to allow ourselves to live ungrateful, joyless lives. The life of the believer should be marked by joy and rejoicing. But it is a choice. We must decide to express to God our gratitude for all that He has done for us. And even if we should find this life difficult and full of trials, we can rejoice in the fact that our future is secure and that all God has promised for us is guaranteed. We have an eternity ahead of us, free from sin, pain and sorrow. Even if we must suffer in this life, we face a suffering-free future because of our faith in Christ.

Secondly, Paul tells them to “aim for restoration.” This could actually be translated, “set things right” or “put things in order.” This interpretation seems to be more appropriate, because Paul has been pointing out some issues within the church that were not as they should have been. He was concerned about their lack of giving for the saints in Judea. He was worried about the impact the false apostles had had on their faith. Paul wanted them to get their proverbial act together and pursue spiritual maturity. It is quite easy for believers in Christ to find themselves distracted from their primary God-given directive: spiritual maturity. Yes, we are to witness. We are to share the gospel with those who have not yet heard. But our transformed lives are one of the greatest testimonies to the veracity of the gospel we can give. Disorder and disunity in the church are antithetical to our calling as the children of God. Selfishness and self-centeredness are not to be the characteristics for which we are known. As Paul had written them in his first letter, they had a habit of living as if they were still part of the world.

Dear brothers and sisters, when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to spiritual people. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in the Christian life. I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your sinful nature. You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world? – 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 NLT

Paul wants them to put things in order, to restore things to the way God wanted them to be.

Next, Paul tells them to “comfort one another.” Actually, this might be better translated, “be encouraged” or “be comforted.” This seems to fit in with what Paul said earlier in his letter.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 ESV

Paul wanted them to find encouragement in the content of his letter. He knew that their situation was far from perfect. He realized that their pursuit of spiritual maturity was anything be easy. So he wanted them to be encouraged and comforted. God was not done with them yet. And as they were comforted by God, they would be better able to live in unity and peace with one another. It was a common practice in the early church to greet one another with a kiss. It was a sign of their unity and common bond in Christ. But Paul insists that they must greet one another with a holy kiss. It must be without hypocrisy and not just for show. A holy kiss can only come from holy lips. You can’t tear down a brother in Christ, then greet him with a kiss as if nothing was wrong. James writes, “Sometimes it [the tongue] praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” (James 3:9-10 NLT). Holiness is the key to true unity and peace.

Finally, Paul closes his letter with a salutation that alludes to all three members of the Trinity: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Grace, love and fellowship. These three things are critical to the health and well-being of the church. We exist because of the grace of Christ, His unmerited favor, made possible by His death on the cross. And we are to extend that grace to all those within the body of Christ.

Jesus’ death was the direct result of God’s love for us. “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). God loved us so much, in spite of our sinfulness and rebellion, that He sent His own Son to die on our behalf. And we are to love one another in the same selfless, sacrificial way.

Finally, as believers in Jesus Christ and recipients of the love of God, we have been given the Spirit of God. We are inhabited by the Holy Spirit, who makes our fellowship with one another possible. He has given each of us spiritual gifts designed for the benefit of the rest of the body. He empowers us with a capacity to love like Christ loved. He produces within us fruit that is designed to minister to one another: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT). Our unity is Spirit-empowered, not self-motivated. Our love for one another is made possible by the Spirit of God, not our own self-will.

Grace, love and fellowship – made possible by the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit. We have all we need for living together as the body of Christ, as sons and daughters of God.

 

 

Do What Is Right.

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down. – 2 Corinthians 13:5-10 ESV

At first glance, it may appear that Paul is calling on the Corinthians to examine themselves in order to see if they are truly saved. But in reality, Paul is calling on them to do the right thing, because they are saved. They have Christ within them. Therefore, they have all they need to do what is right – what God would have them do. The real issue here is sanctification, not salvation. Paul wants them to live as who they are – children of God. He wants their behavior to match their confessed belief in Christ. He has no doubts as to whether they have the capacity to do the right thing. It is more a matter of commitment. Are they willing to do what is right? Paul is praying that they will and assures them that he “cannot do anything against the truth, but on for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8 ESV). He is unwilling to act in a way that would be contrary or detrimental to the gospel.

It is essential that much of what Paul has been saying throughout this letter has been a defense of his apostleship. There were those who were casting doubt and dispersions on Paul’s qualifications. So when he asks them to examine themselves, he is really challenging them to take a long hard look at their lives in order to see if they themselves are not the very proof they are looking for. In other words, their changed lives were the greatest testimony to Paul’s calling they would ever find. The gospel message Paul had brought to them had been effective, resulting in their conversions and proving his calling as a messenger of Jesus Christ.

But they had struggled in their sanctification. They had hit some tough spots along the way. Since Paul’s initial visit, there had been divisions and disunity erupt in the church. There were some moral indiscretions that had gone unpunished and that remained unconfessed. Paul has already told them that he feared he was going to find them still struggling with the same old problems of “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Corinthians 12:20 NLT). So he lets them know that he was praying for their restoration. Not only that, he was writing in a very blunt, in-your-face style because, when he arrived, he didn’t want to have to spend all his time playing bad cop. His goal was to build them up, not tear them down. He wanted to see them continue to grow in their salvation, increasing in their knowledge of Jesus Christ and developing an ever-deeper dependence upon God that resulted in a desire to do His will – to do the right thing.

In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reminded them that God’s will for them was their holiness or sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3). In his first letter, the apostle Peter told his readers that it was God’s will that they do good (1 Peter 2:15). Doing good (what is right) and holiness go hand in hand. Our sanctification or growth in Christ-likeness should have an outward expression. It should manifest itself in godly living, doing what God would have us do. That is Paul’s prayer for the Corinthians. He wants them to live out their faith by stepping out in obedience to the will of God. We do good, not to win God’s favor, but because we have been the recipients of His favor. We do what is right, not to make God love us, but because He loved us enough to send His Son to die for us. Doing what is right brings God’s blessing. Doing what is wrong brings His discipline. Both are motivated by His love for us. But Paul would prefer that we learn to live obediently, doing what God deems best, even when it makes no sense. Paul would have us enjoy the benefits of a life lived within the will of God, faithfully doing what He deems right and good.

By the Power of God.

Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.

This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them—since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.– 2 Corinthians 12:19-13:4 ESV

Paul is making plans for a third trip to see the Corinthians, and based on all that has transpired since his last visit, he is somewhat apprehensive and anxious. He is concerned that he will find them in a less-than-ideal spiritual state. They had obviously been influenced by those he has labeled the “super-apostles” and their degree of their spiritual maturity is somewhat suspect. In some ways, he is afraid that things were not much different than they had been since he had written his first letter to them.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? – 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 ESV

Paul’s greatest concern for them was their spiritual growth and maturity. All his time spent defending his apostleship was not to make himself look better in their eyes, but to get them to realize that he was God-ordained for his ministry and well worth listening to. Unlike his adversaries, he had their best interests at heart. The last thing Paul wanted to find when he arrived was his spiritual children still struggling with the same issues they had been before. He expected to see true life change. He desired to see signs of repentance and spiritual reformation. And he hated the thought of having to spend his time among them reprimanding and disciplining all those who remained unrepentant and addicted to their life in the flesh.

While Paul is not anxious or eager to find the Corinthians dealing with their same old problems, he warns them that he is ready to confront their sin in the power of God. if they want proof that he has been sent by God, they are going to get it – in the form of church discipline. But Paul is going to do things in a godly fashion. Any accusations anyone may have against a brother or sister will have to be based on two or three witnesses, just as Jesus had commanded (Matthew 18:15-20). There was going to be a fair and equitable process followed, but in the end, Paul was going to deal with the situation in a powerful way.

Earlier in this letter, Paul had appealed to them based on the gentleness and meekness of Christ.

I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!—I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. – 2 Corinthians 10:1-2 ESV

But it appears that Paul wasn’t too confident that they would listen to his pleas. He was going to have to “show boldness.” They were going to have to witness the power of Christ exhibited through the authoritative, disciplinary actions of Paul. He was going to get their attention and prove to them once and for all that he was speaking on behalf of Christ. Paul reminds them that Christ was crucified in weakness. In other words, He was beaten, humiliated, tortured and nailed to a cross – in his human flesh. He slowly bled out. He gradually and painfully asphyxiated as his lungs filled with fluid and he had to push down with his nail-pierced feet in order to take his next breath. This had gone on for hours, until He had finally breathed his last breath and died. But Paul reminds them that Jesus had not stayed dead. He was resurrected by the power of God and “lives by the power of God.” And they were going to experience that same power when Paul came to them. Even in his human weakness, Paul possessed the very same power that raised Jesus from the dead. And he was going to use that power to make sure that the Corinthians remained true to their faith in Christ, so that they might one day experience the resurrection of their bodies and enjoy all the joys of eternal life as promised by Jesus Himself. As Paul told the Romans:

The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you. – Romans 8:11 NLT

For Paul, the important matter was how you finished the race, not how you started it. Coming to faith in Christ was wonderful, but the Christian life was intended to be a journey with a final destination. The goal was to finish well. And the only way to do it was to rely upon the power of God – for daily strength, but also for discipline. “For the LORD disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child” (Hebrews 12:6 NLT). “My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline, and don’t be upset when he corrects you. For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12 NLT). The power of God. It guides and directs, empowers and protects, disciplines and corrects. The One who called us is powerful enough to keep us and ensure that what He began, He completes.

 

 

 

Unloved, But Undeterred.

I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!

Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps? – 2 Corinthians 12:11-18 ESV

Paul confesses that he feels like a fool. All this self-promotion is out of character for him, but he tells the Corinthians that their silence forced him to do it. They are the ones who should have been commending him. They had been the recipients of his ministry and message. They had enjoyed the benefits of his self-sacrifice and loving commitment to share the gospel with them. And as far as Paul was concerned, he had no reason to take a back seat to the “super-apostles” who were setting themselves up as his spiritual superiors. He had come to them as an apostle of Jesus Christ, armed with the gospel and backed by the power of God as revealed in the signs and wonders he had performed while among them. This had been Paul’s modus operandi everywhere he went.

Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum. – Romans 15:18-19 NLT

Paul had not short-changed the Corinthians. He had treated them the same way he had every other Gentile city he had visited. The only difference was that he had not burdened them with providing for his needs while he had ministered among them. Others had funded his ministry, and before that, he had paid his way by working as a tent maker. And yet, there were those who were accusing him of deception and craftiness, claiming that he acted as if he was sacrificing on their behalf, while hiding the fact that he was receiving outside aid. There were others who were saying that Paul had simply gotten money from them by sending his surrogates to collect it, under the guise that it was going to be used for the saints in Jerusalem. In other words, they were accusing Paul of sending Titus and others to take up a collection, all the while using that money for himself. It seems that, in the eyes of the Corinthians, Paul could do nothing right. His actions were constantly under attack and his motives were always suspect.

But Paul pledges to keep on loving and giving whether they returned the favor or not. It is his sincere desire to return to Corinth for a third time and he intends to act in the same way he always had. He will love them like a father loves his children. And while he would greatly desire that love to be reciprocal, he wasn’t going to let their lack of love prevent him from doing the will of God. He tells them, “I will gladly spend myself and all I have for you, even though it seems that the more I love you, the less you love me” (2 Corinthians 12:15 NLT). Everything Paul had done for them, he had done out of love. He had sacrificed greatly in order that they might received the gospel. He had already written two other letters intending the encourage them in their faith and to provide them with wise counsel regarding real-life scenarios taking place in their midst. He was like a loving father, gladly providing for the needs of his children, willingly sacrificing his own needs on their behalf. And while he would have longed for them to return his love, he would not let their distrust and disloyalty sway his actions, because all his efforts were motivated by his desire to please his heavenly Father. When all was said and done, Paul was out to please God, not men. He was looking for the praise of God, not the praise of men.

Paul’s only regret was that he was having to waste time defending himself before the Corinthians. There were other pressing needs he would have preferred to address. Instead of wasting time “boasting” about his qualifications and defending his actions, he would have liked to have been helping them grow in their faith. Paul was a teacher, yet he having to spend all his time playing defense attorney. He could have given up. He could have decided enough was enough and written the Corinthians off as too stubborn and hard-headed to waste any more of his valuable time on them. But Paul was committed to their spiritual well-being. He was not content to see them languish in their faith and settle for the status quo. He was not going to allow their complacency to deter his commitment to the call of Christ on his life. He was out to make disciples, and nothing was going to stand in his way, including the false accusations of false apostles, the lack of love from those to whom he had shared the gospel, or the constant demand that he defend his actions. His attitude remained, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.”

A Profound Paradox.

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 ESV

In verse one, Paul confesses, “I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.” He is letting his readers know that he is about to provide some more proofs to validate his apostleship and to set him apart from the false apostles who are dogging his ministry. His reference to visions and revelations provide a hint that what he is about to divulge is well beyond the normal arguments for his apostleship. This is going to involve the supernatural and direct communication from God. Visions are typically visible manifestations of God’s power. They are seen. The Greek word Paul uses is optasia and it means, “a sight, a vision, an appearance presented to one whether asleep or awake”(“G3701 – optasia – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 20 Oct, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org).

Revelations would seem to indicate verbal communication from God. The Greek word is apokalypsis and it means, “a disclosure of truth, instruction; oncerning things before unknown” (“G602 – apokalypsis – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 20 Oct, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org). Paul is going to share a personal experience that included a vision and word from God. He refers to to himself in the third person, simply because he is trying to diminish the aura of bragging that comes from sharing such a story. He says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2a ESV). It is clear that Paul is referring to himself, because later on he says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations…” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). This is a personal experience that Paul had and one he shared reluctantly and somewhat obscurely. He does not provide a lot of detail and refuses to share exactly what he saw or heard. But fourteen years earlier, Paul had been given a vision by God and was somehow transported into the “third heaven.” In the ancient mindset, there were three heavens. There was the sky or the visible atmosphere, and then there was the heavens containing the sun, moon, stars and planets. The third heaven or paradise was a reference to the dwelling place of God.

Paul recalls being somehow transported into heaven. He could not tell if it had all been a dream or whether he had actually gone there in his physical body. While there, “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Paul does not spend any time describing the sights or sounds of heaven. He provides us with no insights into what it might have looked like. Not only that, he gives us no clue as to what it is that he heard. He only describes it as unrepeatable. This obviously one-of-a-kind, supernatural event clearly set Paul apart. Who else could claim to have been transported to heaven and given a glimpse of the sights and sounds associated with that remarkable place? But while blown away by the experience, Paul refused to boast about it. He would not allow himself to turn his divinely ordained experience into an opportunity to make himself a celebrity. He would boast about “this man,” but when it came to himself, he would rather boast about his weaknesses. He explains, “I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message” (2 Corinthians 12:6 NLT). Paul wanted his life and message to be his calling cards, not his supernatural vision.

It is interesting to note that earlier Paul had referred to the time in his life when he had been saved from arrest by being lowered in a basket from window. He boasted of this as something that revealed his weakness. He had been forced to suffer the humiliation of being crammed in a basket and lowered out a window. For a guy of Paul’s temperament, this would have been a blow to the ego. But now he talks about having been raised by God to the very heights of heaven. This may have been what Paul meant when he wrote, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12 ESV).

An experience like Paul had could have easily gone to his head. He could have seen himself as somehow more anointed and blessed by God. After all, who else could claim to have gotten an all-expenses-paid trip to paradise? But God wasn’t going to let Paul get the big head. In fact, Paul says, “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Paul does not say what this “thorn” was. The Greek word Paul uses is skolops and it actually refers to a sharp pointed stake. It was far more than just a “splinter” or an inconvenient annoyance. It was potentially debilitating and described by Paul as “a messenger of Satan to harass me.” Was it a physical disability or a spiritual weakness? Paul doesn’t say. Because Paul mentions conceit, it may have been a proclivity toward pride and arrogance. The constant harassment Paul faced from his always-present adversaries would have easily driven Paul to boast of his superior calling and intellectual prowess. Paul was an educated man who had risen high in the ranks of the Pharisees. He was an Old Testament scholar. It would have been easy for Paul to develop a haughty spirit and arrogant attitude toward those who questioned his ministry. But God lovingly kept him humble. On three different occasions, Paul pleaded with God to remove this “stake” from his life. And each time God refused. But He reminded Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a ESV). God’s grace was greater than Paul’s problem. His strength was far superior to Paul’s weakness in the flesh. And more than 14 years later, Paul was able to say, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9b ESV). It was an awareness of his weakness that made Paul appreciative of God’s gracious love and power. Anything he accomplished in his life that was worthwhile or worthy of praise was attributable to God, not himself.

Paul would gladly suffer the humiliating of being lowered down the wall in a basket. He would willingly go through the pain of another stoning or the indignity of arrest and imprisonment – for the sake of Christ. Because he had learned the invaluable life lesson of “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

 

 

 

Willfully Weak.

Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. – 2 Corinthians 11:29-12:1 ESV

Paul has just finished saying, “there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28b ESV). He felt a strong sense of responsibility for all those in whose salvation he had played a part. He saw himself as their spiritual father and held a special place in his heart for them. He went out of his way to relate to them and to share in their lives. In his first letter, he described his attitude toward ministry:

When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9:21-23 NLT

He echoes that same sentiment in the verses above. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” Paul had a deep desire to meet people where they were and to minister to them empathetically and compassionately. He wasn’t some academically-minded, theologically-focused professor who loved to dump information, but had no idea how to relate. Paul was incredibly intelligent, but also remarkably relational. He loved people. And he loved to come alongside them in their weakness and help them grow.

A lot of pastors and teachers have a hard time relating to people. They are afraid to open up and expose their own failures and weaknesses. They feel the need to present themselves as somehow more together and on top of their spiritual game. They seem to fear that if they let people know their struggles, they will lose their respect and admiration. But Paul was willing to brag about his weaknesses. He was an open book. His life was a powerful testimony to God’s power made visible through man’s weakness. Which is what will lead him to write, “I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).

While his adversaries, the false apostles, are busy bragging about their qualifications and attempting to set themselves up as somehow superior to Paul, he quietly and confidently gives another example of his “weakness.” One time, while Paul was ministering in Damascus, the governor had the city surrounded in an attempt to seize him. In order to save himself, Paul had to escape by being lowered in a basket outside the city walls. This event took place just days after Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Once he had regained his sight, it hadn’t taken him long to get to work fulfilling the commission given to him by Christ.  Luke records:

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. – Acts 9:19-25 ESV

In other words, it didn’t take long for Paul to discover that his commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles was going to be difficult and dangerous. He was a driven individual with tremendous giftings and capabilities, but he would quickly learn that his natural attributes were no match for the spiritual warfare he would face as a spokesman for God. He was going to need spiritual power to fight what was a purely spiritual battle. It seems that in Damascus, not only the governor was out to get him, but the Jews as well. He found himself in deep trouble and had to resort to a clandestine escape via a basket. But he lived to share the gospel again.

Paul was just a man. But he was a man who had been saved by Christ and given a job to do. He was flawed and had a sin nature just like everyone else. He struggled with indwelling sin and his fleshly desires. And yet, it was in his weakness that he found the strength of God to do what he had been called to do. His ministry was solely the work of God. He had to rely on God’s provision just to meet his daily needs. He had to trust in God’s power to protect him from enemies of all kinds. He had to rely on the peace of God to fill him and calm his fears and doubts. He had to constantly depend on the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit to motivate him and minister to him. For Paul, weakness was not something for which he felt ashamed. He wore his weakness light a badge of honor. The more weak he felt, the reliant he became on the power of God. His weakness was not a detriment to God’s work. It was an essential prerequisite to being used by God at all. As Paul had told the Corinthians in his first letter, God has a habit of using the weak and seemingly worthless to accomplish His will in the world.

God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 NLT

No Brag. Just Fact.

I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. 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. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. – 2 Corinthians 11:16-28 ESV

Paul is about to do something that everything in his being wants to resist. He is about to boast. And he feels like a fool for doing so. But he feels compelled to do so in order to wake up the Corinthians and to get them to see the stupidity of their logic. Paul’s adversaries are constantly boasting of their own reputations and qualifications. They have set themselves up as somehow superior to Paul. So, against his better judgment, Paul decides to play their game of one-upmanship. He begs the Corinthians to “accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little” (2 Corinthians 11:16 ESV). And he sarcastically explains that, “Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast” (2 Corinthians 11:18 ESV). He accuses the Corinthians of being “so wise”, and yet allowing themselves to be enslaved, devoured, taken advantage of, easily impressed, and humiliated, like being slapped in the face in public. 

And since they seem to be attracted by the boasting of his adversaries, Paul decides to play their game, all the while admitting, “I am speaking as a fool” (2 Corinthians 11:21 ESV). Paul is much more comfortable and at home with his weaknesses. He sees them as assets, not liabilities. In the very next chapter, Paul will write, “That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT). But at this point in the letter, he is attempting to show the Corinthians the foolishness of their obsession with qualifications and outward appearances. So he gives them a rather exhaustive outline of his credentials, matching his critics line by line. These “false apostles” bragged of being pure-blooded, Aramaic, speaking Hebrews. Well, so was Paul. They boasted of being Israelites, part of the chosen people of God. So was Paul. They claimed they could trace their roots all the way back to Abraham. So could Paul. And they had presented themselves as servants of Christ. But Paul flatly asserts that he is a better one, and then goes on to explain why – all the while admitting that his words sounded like those of someone who has lost his mind.

Paul says, “I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again” (2 Corinthians 11:23 NLT). Then he gives specific details regarding his claims, explaining that he has been lashed, beaten, shipwrecked, stoned and left for dead, faced threats from rivers, robbers, the Jews, and even the Gentiles. He has been in danger in cities, the wilderness, at sea, and now, from these false “brothers”. He knows what it feels like to work hard, experience sleepless nights, go without food and water, nearly freeze to death, and face the daily pressure that came with being responsible for all the churches he had helped to start. And all of this was due to his commitment to his calling as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He suffered because he was faithful to his commission, given to him directly by Jesus. If the Corinthians were looking for someone who had the proper qualifications for being an apostle, they need look no further than Paul. He had the scars to prove it. His resume, while not pretty, was a powerful statement of his calling and commitment. When many other men would have given up and walked away, Paul had continued to stay the course, fight the good fight, and run the race – all the way to the end.

While Paul hates the fact that he is having to boast, he is doing so for a good reason. He wants the Corinthians to wake up and smell the coffee. In their “wisdom” they were bearing with fools. They were listening to these false apostles and giving their words credence, all based on nothing more than their self-proclaimed qualifications. These men had no track record of service to the Lord. They had played no part in bringing the gospel to the Corinthians and, if anything, were actually undermining all the work that Paul had poured into them. They were preaching a different gospel, another Jesus and  offering a different Spirit than the one the Corinthians had received at salvation. This was dangerous stuff. Paul knew that their work among the Corinthians would be deadly, if not stopped in its tracks. So he resorted to boasting. He lowered himself to their level, only in order to expose them for what they really were: charlatans and liars. Paul cared for the Corinthians. He was willing to die for them, in necessary. He would gladly take a bullet, or a stone, for them. And he was not above being seen as a fool if it helped them see the folly of their ways.

 

The Truth About False Apostles.

I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!

And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. 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 11:8-15 ESV

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul had also been forced to argue in defense of his apostleship. He had found himself under attack once again by individuals who had raised questions about the validity of his claim to being an apostle. And he had strongly defended himself. “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1-2 ESV). They were all the evidence he needed to prove that he had been sent by the Lord. He was a proven messenger of Jesus Christ. And yet, while living among the Corinthians Paul had chosen not to take advantage of the rights of an apostle. He had reminded them, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14 ESV). Yet had not asked them to fund his stay or help him in any way financially. But he had argued for his right to do so. 

This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? – 1 Corinthians 9:3-7 ESV

In the book of Acts, Luke records how Paul sustained himself while living in Corinth:

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. – Acts 18:1-3 ESV

Paul had paid his own way. And he had been aided by others, who had willingly chosen to help fund his work in Corinth. He had not burdened the Corinthians by asking them to provide for any of his ministry among them. Which is what led Paul to say:

I “robbed” other churches by accepting their contributions so I could serve you at no cost. And when I was with you and didn’t have enough to live on, I did not become a financial burden to anyone. For the brothers who came from Macedonia brought me all that I needed. I have never been a burden to you, and I never will be. – 2 Corinthians 11:8-9 NLT

Paul’s claim to have “robbed” the other churches by taking their aid was based on his not having ministered to them in return. He took their money, but used it to fund his ministry elsewhere, something they perfectly understood and of which they approved. But it obviously bothered Paul. He felt an obligation to return their generosity by ministering to them as well. But he was grateful that their gift had allowed him to stop working and concentrate all his efforts on sharing the gospel while in Corinth.

It seems that Paul’s critics were accusing him of duplicity. He had at one time refused to accept support, but then had accepted the gift from the Macedonians. They promoted this as a sign of Paul’s hypocrisy. And yet, these false teachers were had evidently been accepting support for themselves. Paul was not going to apologize for his actions. In fact, he said, “what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do” (2 Corinthians 11:12 ESV). He would not stoop to their level. And he would not allow them compare themselves to him. He had already accused them of preaching a different gospel and a different Jesus. And Paul pulled no punches, accusing these men of being “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13 ESV). Paul had taken the gloves off, claiming these men to be in league with Satan himself. This was not a gentlemanly debate, but all-out war. Paul was not just defending his ministry, but the integrity of the gospel itself. And like a shepherd, he was protecting his flock by fending off the attacks of a dangerous predator. But what made these men particularly deadly was that they were like sheep in wolves clothing. They were cunningly deceptive and had won the confidence of the Corinthians by appearing as something other than what they really were. Jesus had warned about these kinds of men.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. – Matthew 7:15-20 NLT

These men had disguised themselves as “servants of righteousness”, but their intent was to do harm to God’s people. Their messages sounded safe and in line with what Paul had taught, but there were dangerously subtle differences that were based on carefully crafted mixture of truth and falsehood. They were teaching Jesus, but a slightly variant version of Jesus. They were teaching grace alone, but with a dose of good deeds mixed in. There will always be those who sneak their way into the church, disguising themselves as servants of righteousness, but who are actually servants of Satan. Their words are deceptive. Their outward appearance is convincing. But their fruit is deadly. The book of Jude describes them in stark, but realistic terms:

…they are like dangerous reefs that can shipwreck you. They are like shameless shepherds who care only for themselves. They are like clouds blowing over the land without giving any rain. They are like trees in autumn that are doubly dead, for they bear no fruit and have been pulled up by the roots. They are like wild waves of the sea, churning up the foam of their shameful deeds. They are like wandering stars, doomed forever to blackest darkness. – Jude 1:12-13 NLT

Be on the alert for them. Don’t be deceived by them. And have nothing to do with them. Their deeds are deadly.