Paul is addressing the problem of the false preachers head on. And we saw last week that Paul was going to engage in a little foolish boasting in order to convince the believers in Corinth that they should listen to him instead of listening to the false preachers, who were really only servants of Satan, who were doing what the Devil wanted, which was to confuse the believers in Corinth and to lead them away from Christ. So, Paul was saying: don’t listen to them, but listen to me, because I’m a true servant of Jesus Christ.
But we also noticed last week Paul’s reluctance to boast about himself. That’s why he refers to it as foolishness. It’s foolish to boast about ourselves and our achievements, because — as I suggested last week — whatever good is in us has come from God who made us; and whatever good we accomplish in life is due to him, because it is God who works in us according to his good purpose. So, instead of boasting about ourselves, we should always boast in the Lord.
But last week I quoted one of the commentators who explained why Paul was prepared to engage in a little boasting, even though he knew it was foolish. This is what he said. If Paul stoops to their level — that’s to the level of the false preachers who were prepared to boast about themselves — if Paul stoops to their level by boasting, he’s a fool. However, if he doesn’t defend himself, he might lose the people in Corinth to even bigger fools. So, if he doesn’t engage in a little foolish boasting, the believers in Corinth are likely to be led completely astray by the false preachers. And just as in a war people sometimes have to do things they wouldn’t normally do, so Paul had been forced to do what he would not normally do, because there’s a spiritual war going on in Corinth for the spiritual well-being of the people.
However, though Paul said in last week’s passage that he was going to engage in a little foolish boasting, his boasting doesn’t begin until verse 22 of chapter 11. And so, it’s a measure of how reluctant he is to boast that it takes him so long to get on with it. And so, in today’s passage, we have some preliminary comments in verses 16 to 21 about how the Corinthians are prepared to put up with fools. And then in verses 22 to 29 we have the first part of his foolish boasting. And then from verse 30 of chapter 11 to verse 10 of chapter 12 we have the second part of his foolish boasting. So, let’s turn to verses 16 to 21 first of all.
He begins by saying to them:
Let no-one take me for a fool.
It’s possible he’s referring to the false preachers. Perhaps they’ve been saying Paul is a fool. But whether it’s the false preachers who were saying it, or whether other people in Corinth were saying it about Paul, Paul is saying that they shouldn’t think he’s a fool, because he knows it’s foolish to boast about himself. But even if they take him as a fool, he asks them to put up with it.
And he adds in verse 17 that he knows that this is not something the Lord Jesus would do. After all, the Lord Jesus humbled himself, didn’t he? He humbled himself and he made himself nothing and to suffer and die for our sake. He was humble, not boastful.
But, Paul goes on to say, since many in Corinth are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. And so, he refers to the way the world boasts. And, of course, he’s talking about the world of unbelievers. And they boast, don’t they? I was watching something just the other day on TV when someone said you have to promote yourself today. In the past, people liked to be modest about themselves and their abilities. You didn’t like to blow your own trumpet. But now we have to promote ourselves and make clear to everyone what makes us special. Well, people must have been doing the same kind of thing in Paul’s day. And it seems that there were many in the church in Corinth who were promoting themselves and boasting about themselves. Again, Paul could well be referring to the false preachers. And since many in Corinth were doing it, then Paul was prepared to do a little boasting himself.
And in verse 19 he’s being sarcastic — isn’t he? — when he says that they gladly put up with fools since they’re so wise. Well, he doesn’t really think they’re wise. They’re not wise for putting up with the foolish false preachers. If they were really wise, then they’d have sent the false preachers packing. But, since the Corinthians were prepared to put up with the foolish false preachers and their foolish boasting, then will you put up with my foolish boasting for a little while?
And verse 20 is fascinating, because Paul reveals to us a little more of what the false preachers were like. Remember how he unmasked them last week and revealed that though they appeared to be servants of righteousness, they were in fact servants of Satan? Well, in verse 20 he reveals that the false preachers had enslaved the people and they exploited them and they took advantage of them and they pushed themselves forward and they slapped the people in the face. In other words, these false preachers were abusive towards the congregation.
How do church leaders enslave the members of a church? By expecting the congregation to serve them, instead of being willing to serve the congregation. How do church leaders exploit a congregation? The Greek word Paul uses can be translated ‘devour’. And so, the church leaders devour the congregation, by wanting more and more for themselves. And so, they take advantage of the kindness and generosity of the people. Paul also says they push themselves forward. Other English translations say that they ‘put on airs’. So, they exalt themselves over the Corinthians and they act arrogantly towards them. And then did they really slap the people on the face? Were they physically violent? Some of the commentators think Paul only means that they were verbally abusive, but others say it wasn’t uncommon in those days for religious leaders to slap their opponents. Just think of how one of the religious officials slapped the Lord Jesus when the Lord stood before the Sanhedrin. And so, Paul reveals a little more of what the false preachers were like. And Paul says — and again he’s being sarcastic, isn’t he? — ‘To my shame, I admit that we were too weak for that!’ We didn’t have the nerve to treat you in that way.
I’ve been listening to a podcast about someone who was the main leader of a mega-church in the USA. The church was founded in 1996 and it closed in 2015. And for most of its existence, this church was massive, with thousands of people attending every week and there were even more people around the world who downloaded and listened to sermons from this church. But before the church closed, the main leader resigned under a cloud. He was being investigated for bullying and for other sinful behaviour. But instead of submitting to church discipline, the leader resigned. And I’ve heard that he eventually went to another church and something similar happened there as well. And the presenter of the podcast said that similar things have been reported about other church leaders in other churches in the USA. And the presenter suggested that church members were prepared to put up with abusive leaders, because they assume that’s the price you have to pay to have a dynamic and successful leader in your church. The leader has an idea, or vision, for the church; and he’ll do anything to drive the church forward to fulfil his vision. And the leader featured on this podcast spoke about how he was the driver of a bus; and if you’re not on board with him, you’ll just get run over. And so, what Paul reported about the church in Corinth is still happening today. And yet what image does the Bible use to describe the church and its leaders? The Bible compares believers to a flock of sheep and the leaders of the church are to be shepherds who care for the Lord’s sheep. We’re not to run over the members of the church, but we’re to lift them up and we’re to care for them.
In order to rescue the members of the church in Corinth from the hands of these false preachers, Paul was prepared to lower himself to the level of the false preachers and to engage in a little foolish boasting about himself. He’d never go so far as to become abusive towards the church members, but he’s reluctantly prepared to boast a little to convince the church to listen to him and not to the false preachers.
And so, in verses 22 to 29 we have the first part of his foolish boasting where he compares himself to the false preachers. And he begins with what we’d call today his ethnic identity. Are the false preachers Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. When we were studying chapter 3, where Paul compared his ministry with Moses’s ministry, I said that it’s possible that some of the false preachers were Jewish believers. And this seems to confirm it. They, like Paul, were Jews.
And then Paul asks: ‘Are they servants of Christ?’ No doubt they claimed they were, but Paul adds that he is more. That is, I am a better one. Now this seems so uncharacteristic of Paul to be promoting himself like this and blowing his own trumpet. And sure enough, he adds as a kind of aside that he’s out of his mind to talk like this. He can’t believe he’s having to say these things about himself. But he goes on to make clear why he’s a better servant of Christ than they are. And what’s remarkable about what he goes on to say is that he doesn’t boast the way they do. They boasted about their abilities and their successes and all the things that made them stand out as great. That’s what they boasted about. But Paul boasted instead about his suffering. He didn’t boast about the things that made him great, but he boasted about the things that he had suffered.
So, I have worked more, says Paul; and been in prison more; been flogged more; been exposed to death more. Five times he received from the Jews 40 lashes minus one. According to Deuteronomy 25, the Jews weren’t allowed to give anyone more than 40 lashes at once and it seems they stopped at 39 to ensure they didn’t inadvertently go over 40. So, five times Paul was whipped. Three times he was beaten with rods. Once he was stoned. We read about the stoning in Acts 14 when he was stoned in Lystra and left for dead. And he spent a day and a night in the open sea.
Then in verse 25 he refers to the dangers he had faced in all of his travels. So, he was in danger from rivers. Perhaps he had to cross rivers on foot, if a bridge was not available; and the force of the water threatened to sweep him away. And he was in danger from bandits, ready to attack an unsuspecting traveller. He was in danger from his own countrymen, who often stirred up trouble against him for preaching the gospel. And he was also in danger from Gentiles. Think of what happened in Philippi when the locals turned on him so that he was beaten and thrown into jail. And he faced danger in other cities and in the countryside and at sea. So, wherever he went, he faced danger and trouble. And he also faced danger from false brothers. In other words, as well as facing trouble from those outside the church, he also faced trouble from those inside the church.
And Paul hasn’t finished yet. As well as facing danger, he laboured and toiled and he often had to go without sleep and without food and without drink. And he’s been cold and he’s been naked. That is, he’s been without adequate clothing to help him deal with the cold.
And besides everything else — all these dangers and troubles I’ve suffered — I’ve also had to deal with the daily pressure of my concern for all the churches. And coming at the end of his list, Paul seems to be signifying that this has been his greatest trial. He loved the Lord’s people and he cared for them and for their spiritual well-being. And so, everyday he was thinking about them and he was anxious about them. How are they doing? Are they growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ? Or are they perhaps drifting from Christ? Are they being led astray or are they standing firm in the faith? He refers to the daily pressure he felt, because this concern for the Lord’s people was like a weight bearing down on him always. Well, false preachers abuse the Lord’s people, but Paul was anxious for the well-being of the Lord’s people. And in verse 29, he seems to be saying that when a believer is weak and burdened, then he feels weak and burdened for them. What they’re going through affects him. And if anyone is led into sin by someone else, then it makes him angry. And that’s what was happening in Corinth, wasn’t it? The false preachers were leading the people into sin. And Paul was angry about it.
‘Will you put up with a little foolish boasting?’ Paul asked. And we’ve seen how reluctant he was to boast about himself. But he felt there was nothing else for it, and he had to boast a little in order to rescue the believers in Corinth from the false preachers. But when he finally got down to his boasting, he boasted, not about the things that made him great, but he boasted about the things he had suffered for the sake of Christ and for the sake of Christ’s church. The false preachers were in the ministry for what they could get out of it, but Paul was prepared to suffer for the glory of the Lord and for the good of his people. So, who are you going to listen to? Who’s the real gospel preacher?
And so we come to the second part of Paul’s foolish boasting. In the first part, he boasted about his suffering. In the second part, he boasts about his weakness. And so, at the end of chapter 11, he refers to the time when he was in Damascus and he had to be lowered in a basket from a window in the wall. So, he’s referring to the beginning of his Christian life and ministry. Do you remember? He was on the way to Damascus to persecute the church. But the risen and exalted Lord Jesus appeared to him and appointed him as his servant and witness. And so, he went to Damascus and began to preach about Christ. But his very first mission ended in humiliation, because he had to sneak away in the night for fear of the Jews. Before that time, he was honoured by the people as a well-respected Jew. But after he met the Lord Jesus, he was despised by the people.
And Paul goes on to boast about another kind of weakness in chapter 12. Now, in order to boast about his weakness, he must first talk about this special revelation he once received from the Lord. And once again, he’s reluctant to promote himself and to blow his own trumpet. He doesn’t like talking about himself at all. And so, when he described this vision he received, he refers to himself in the third person, as if he’s not really talking about himself, but he’s talking about another person.
And he describes how 14 years before, he was caught up to the third heaven. In other words, he was caught up into the presence of the Lord. And it seems he’s not entirely sure whether this was some kind of out-of-body experience or what it was. And there, in heaven, in paradise, he heard inexpressible things which he was not permitted to tell. So, whatever he heard, he was not allowed to repeat it to anyone. And he adds in verse 6 that he doesn’t want to talk about this revelation, but this thing really did happen to him and he’s telling the truth.
But why is he bringing this revelation up now? Why is he mentioning it now? Well, the reason Paul mentions this special revelation now isn’t because he wants to boast about it. He mentions it to explain what happened afterwards. And what happened afterwards? Well, to keep him from becoming conceited because of it, he was given a thorn in his flesh. Now, we don’t know what this thorn in his flesh was, but clearly it was painful, because he goes on to say it tormented him. And the Greek word he uses refers to striking someone with your fists. So, it was given to beat him and to harass and to hurt him. Some commentators think it was some form of physical illness. Others think he’s referring to a person or to several people who made his life difficult. And perhaps you can think of people you might describe as a thorn in your flesh. Others think he’s referring to all the trials he suffered as an apostle of Jesus Christ. All the trials combined were like a thorn in his side. But we don’t really know what the thorn was.
But when he says ‘there was given me a thorn’, what he means is that this thorn was given to him by the Lord. God gave it to him. And yet he also says that the thorn was a messenger from Satan. So, did it come from the Lord or did it come from Satan? The answer is both. Think of how Job suffered in the Old Testament. And his suffering came from Satan, didn’t it? But Satan was only allowed to cause Job to suffer with the Lord’s permission. And you see, the Lord is sovereign. He rules over all his creatures and all their actions, including the actions of Satan. And he’s able to use the actions of Satan for his own good and holy purposes. And so, whereas Satan wanted to harm Paul, with this thorn in his flesh, the Lord was able to use that thorn in his flesh for his own good purposes.
And what was God’s design in all of this? Why did God permit Satan to harass Paul with this thorn in his flesh? And why did the Lord say ‘no’ to Paul when Paul pleaded with God three times to take it away? It was so that Paul would discover that God’s gracious help is sufficient for him; and God would help him to endure the thorn in his flesh and to cope, not only with it, but with all the other troubles and trials he had to face in this troubled life.
And there’s something we all need to remember and to believe, because there’s not one of us who will not suffer in this life, because this life is a life of troubles and trials and we have to wait for the next life in order to have perfect peace and rest. So, all of us will suffer in this life.
And what I often say to people is that, very often, when we suffer, we do what Paul did and we ask the Lord to take it away. ‘It’s too much for me. I can’t bear it. Please take it away.’ And there’s nothing wrong with praying like that, because that’s how Paul prayed. And sometimes the Lord does what we ask for and he takes the trouble away. And when he does, we should give thanks to him for his mercy. But sometimes instead of taking the trouble away, he gives us what we need to cope with it. In other words, he gives us his gracious help. And when he does, we should give thanks to him for his mercy.
And, of course, the trouble is still there, and it’s still hard to bear. But the Lord enables us to put up with it and to keep going. And it amazes other people sometimes, because they say ‘I don’t know how you cope, because I couldn’t go through what you’re going through.’ But it’s the Lord, isn’t it? He’s upholding us. He’s helping us. He’s giving us the strength we need to face each day of sorrow and suffering.
And so, when you suffer, don’t think something strange is happening to you, because it happens to all of us. And when you suffer, look to the Lord for the help you need, because his gracious help is what you need.
However, Paul doesn’t stop there — does he? — because the Lord revealed to him that the Lord’s power is made perfect in weakness. In other words, Paul’s thorn had to remain in place because God’s power was made perfect — that is, it accomplished its purpose — in Paul’s weakness. And whenever Paul refers to God’s power in this letter, he’s referring to God’s power which was at work in Paul in enable him to conduct his gospel ministry.
And so, God powerfully upheld and sustained Paul. Paul was like a jar of clay, because he was weak and easily broken. And he was hard-pressed and perplexed and persecuted and struck down. But the Lord sustained him by his great power and kept Paul from being crushed and from despair and from being abandoned and from being destroyed. And Paul was tormented by this thorn in his flesh. But the Lord’s power rested on him and sustained him through his troubles and trials and enabled him to keep preaching the gospel.
And when he preached the gospel — that message of Christ crucified which seems so foolish to some and so weak to others — but when Paul preached the gospel, God worked powerfully through his foolish preaching to convince and convert sinners to Christ and he took away their blindness and enabled them to see the glory of God in the gospel of Christ crucified.
And by sustaining Paul like that, when Paul was so weak and troubled and tormented, and by working through his foolish preaching, God made clear to the world that the power to save came from him and not from Paul. And so, all the glory and the honour went, not to Paul, but to God and to Jesus Christ his Son, who alone is the Saviour of the world. And so, Paul could boast about his weakness, because his weakness highlighted the power of God to save sinners.
So, who are you going to listen to? Who’s the real gospel preacher? Those super-apostles who boasted about themselves and their own power and ability and skill? Or Paul who was weak and broken, but who had learned not to rely on himself, but to rely on the power of God? Well, the answer is obvious, isn’t it? And what we need today are not preachers who rely on themselves, but preachers who rely on the Lord and in his mighty power. They may not look impressive. They may not sound impressive. But God is able to use weak, ordinary preachers, who forget about themselves and their own image, and who make up their minds to preach nothing but Christ crucified and risen. And we should pray for the Lord to raise up more and more of that kind of preacher and to bless the reading and preaching of his word so that sinners are convinced and converted to faith in Christ and believers are built up in the faith and all to the glory of God alone.