Second Corinthians 11:16–33 . . .
Boasting . . . Strength in Weakness
Are you ready for Paul's famous passage that details the numerous hardships and troubles he experienced during his ministry? This list comes directly from the apostle. Many people today are bothered by Paul, calling him a conceited braggart. Yet, he wasn't conceited; here he tells us why he sometimes spoke this way. Bragging or boasting was unacceptable to Paul; he did it only for the sake of the spiritually immature who were impressed by outward performances, flamboyant actions, and unusual abilities.
A big problem that Paul faced in Corinth was that many Corinthians had become swept away by a group of men from Jerusalem, claiming to be apostles of Christ, boasting about their tremendous accomplishments for Christ. The Corinthians, therefore, were in danger of following false teachings rather than listening to one apostle who'd won them to Christ, faithfully taught them, prayed for them, and loved them. Paul explains to the Corinthians why he finally resorts to boasting: It's because that's what impresses them. So, very reluctantly and with considerable dislike evident in his reactions, Paul sinks to this level and begins to "boast" about his own accomplishments for Christ (vv. 16–18).
It's apparent that Paul doesn't want to boast. He says that he doesn't have the Lord's authority and it's not normally right for a Christian to do this and that it's not for Christians to brag about themselves in any way. But he's willing to boast only because he hopes it will break the spell that the false teachers have set in Corinth. Some there had so completely swallowed the false teachers' line that they endured arrogance and insult from them without protest (vv. 19–21a). The false apostles had become arrogant and boastful in order to gain people's attention. Paul's willing to stoop to that level of bragging about his background to show that, even on their own grounds, he's more credible than the false apostles. So he reluctantly continues boasting (as a fool, in v. 21b) of matters that he regarded as "of only secondary importance" but which the Corinthians viewed as marks of success and credibility of their teachers.
Then Paul details things that the false teachers bragged about. First, there was the matter of their ancestry (v. 22). It's incredible how much stock people put upon their pedigree. Though he recognizes such foolishness, he himself does it, saying in effect: If you think that those kinds of things are important, then you can't reject what I'm saying to you, because I can outshine them even in these categories. Are they Hebrews? Israelites? Do they claim to be related to Abraham and be able to speak the chosen language? Well, I certainly can! Yet, it's clear that he doesn't think that that's of any significance.
Beyond pedigree, Paul next speaks (earlier as a fool, now as a mad man) on the question of activity (v. 23). Unfortunately, even in the Christian world today, people get heard because they've endured great persecution for Christ. Paul says that if that's what the false teachers are claiming, he can outshine them in that category as well. Then he begins to list how he was persecuted.
† Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one (v. 24).
† Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea (v. 25).
† I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers (v. 26).
† I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked (v. 27).
† Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches (v. 28).
As you read the list, you must ask: Why would anyone put up with this kind of life? If that's what Christianity can involve, what made this man willing to go through those terrible hardships, pressures, trials, and dangers? What motivated him? One answer is the one he himself gives us in chapter 5 of this very letter: "For Christ's love compels us" (v. 5:14a). It was his sense of gratitude to the risen Lord who not only had forgiven him and filled and restored him, but who went with him to these trials, sustaining him through each, turning them into experiences of joy instead of hardship. Christ's love flowed through Paul as it reached out to those to whom he ministered.
Paul proved to the Corinthians that he genuinely loved them. None of the false apostles would tolerate such a life of persecuted service. We aren't to boast about what we've accomplished or how much we've had to bear for Christ's sake; but there are some things of which we can boast (v. 30). Then, in vv. 32–33, Paul reaches back twenty years into the past to document a rather remarkable incident that occurred shortly after [Saul's] conversion. The account in Acts 9:23 tells us that after his conversion, he went into the wilderness of Arabia for a while where he undoubtedly studied the Scriptures to try and understand how he'd missed seeing who Jesus was, because he'd regarded him as an impostor and a phony. Paul probably saw Jesus in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, in the sacrifices of the Old Testament, and in the arrangement of the tabernacle, all of which pointed to Jesus, about whom Paul could freely boast.
- Q. 1 What has Paul already boasted about (see 1:12; 9:2; 10:8; 11:9–10)? How does this differ from the false teachers' boasting?
- Q. 2 The false teachers were apparently Palestinian Jews (11:22), preaching a distorted gospel (11:4). How does Paul validate his claim to serve Christ more than they?
- Q. 3 How do you need to embrace Paul's attitude in light of the pressures and demands in your life?
2 Corinthians 11:16–33
New International Version (NIV)
[You can view it in a different version by clicking here; you can also listen to chapter 11.]
Paul Boasts About His Sufferings
16I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. 17In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. 19You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! 20In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. 21To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!
Whatever anyone else dares to boast about — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast about. 22Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I. 23Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
30If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. 32In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. 33But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.