(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

In this passage Paul comes out with all guns blazing! He mounts a devastating attack on the "super-apostles" and the folly of the Corinthians for being taken in by them before establishing his claim to be a superior servant of Jesus Christ.

Paul was very uncomfortable and apologetic about the tactics he employs. He is going to commend himself and he admits this is foolishness. His self-confident boasting is worldly. It is madness. It is not something the Lord would do. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would but as a fool. v17.

Paul succumbs to worldly self-commendation because desperate times call for desperate measures. If Paul was unable to assert his authority the influence of the "super-apostles" would go unchecked to the ruination of the Corinthian church.

(B) The foolish Corinthians.

The Corinthians were stupid in three ways:

(1) They were taken in by self-publicity. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!

The "super-apostles" commended themselves through their publicity pamphlets and promotional speeches. Their aim was to persuade the Corinthians of their importance and superior abilities and thereby establish their authority.

This is a procedure widely employed in the world. I can remember the first time I came across it as a fresh faced young student at University College London. I was having lunch in the college refectory when a young man got up and began telling us why we should vote for him as President of UCL Student's Union. It said much for my innocence that I was profoundly shocked that anyone could stand up in public and boast about himself.

It does of course happen all the time - at all levels of politics and in the world of work. Budding politicians have to sell themselves to get elected and candidates for jobs have to convince prospective employers of their suitability. I found during my career that whenever there was a re-organisation of education teachers had to reapply for their jobs. They were expected to convince a headmaster, who should have known all about them, with a written application and an interview that they were the right person to continue as head of department. It is ridiculous - but head teachers love the process - it's good for their ego!

I sometimes thought that the people who got appointed to senior management posts in schools were those who were plausible, personable, eloquent and best at shamelessly presenting themselves.

It is a sad state of affairs when this spirit infects the church and the leaders who are most admired are the ones best at selling themselves and publicising their achievements. Jesus makes it perfectly plain what a Christian's attitude should be. Our right hand shouldn't know what are left hand is doing! Few of Jesus' teachings are more at variance with the practices of the world.

(2) They were taken over by unscrupulous visitors. In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. v20.

Paul told the Corinthians they had allowed themselves to be:

    (a) Enslaved. The "super-apostles" had probably achieved this by introducing Jewish rules and regulations about diet, the Sabbath and ceremonial cleanliness. As a result the Corinthians lost their freedom in Christ.

    Christians who accept authoritarian leadership may feel safe and secure but they lose much freedom. I want the freedom to read the Bible and interpret it for myself with help from scholars and the Holy Spirit. I think it is very sad that laymen in the Roman Catholic Church are not allowed to make pronouncements on doctrine. They are rarely if ever permitted to teach or preach at the Sunday services. Only the professional clergy are authorised to do so. There is no place for amateurs in Roman Catholicism notwithstanding the fact that the one they love and worship was by training a carpenter.

    I want to be even-handed in my criticism. There are plenty of Protestant churches with authoritarian leaders - pastors who are unhappy for anyone to be in the pulpit but themselves - pastors who rule the roost and expect unquestioning obedience.

    (b) Exploited. The Corinthian Christians had to pay through the nose for the privilege of having visitors from Jerusalem. The services of the "super-apostles" were not cheap. They were a bit like modern consultants who waltz into schools, hospitals and businesses to put forward schemes that they will neither have to implement nor take responsibility for. The fees charged by these so called experts are enormous.

    It is not unknown for struggling churches to call in a team to evangelise the area and revitalise the fellowship. The team might have a short-term impact but they are soon off to pastures new leaving the church with the same problems as it had before their arrival. Young people who may have been drawn into the church by the "glamorous team" are soon disillusioned by the absence of spiritual panache in the indigenous membership.

    (c) Taken advantage of. The "super-apostles" took advantage of the Corinthian's immaturity, lack of knowledge and discernment to impress them.

    This happens all the time in Christian circles. A young man who takes the Bible seriously might enter university to study Theology only to find that his lecturers don't seem to believe much at all. By the time they have finished with the student he doesn't believe much either. The liberal scholars take advantage of the student's spiritual immaturity to lead him astray.

    The same thing happens in fundamentalist churches. Creationist speakers are invited to these churches and talk nonsense about the Genesis flood being responsible for all the fossil bearing rocks. Their hearers have no background in Geology, Geomorphology or Meteorology and are unable to assess the truth of what they hear. They are confirmed in their erroneous thinking and poor understanding of Scripture by scientific charlatans.

    (d) Out-manoeuvred. The "super-apostles" pushed themselves forward. It didn't take them long to usurp the local leadership. They were too much for the elders at Corinth. I can imagine them taking over the worship services, dominating the teaching ministry and having plenty to say about church business.

    This is especially common in independent, free churches. Forceful, dominating, newcomers arrive at a church and want to take over. They either fail but cause a great deal of trouble or succeed and cause a lot of unhappiness.

    I feel especially sore about this topic. I have been an itinerant preacher for over 50 years in Suffolk. There are several churches at which I preached and where the people enjoyed my ministry from which I was banned when the leadership changed. Someone takes over who is very Reformed, very conservative, very serious, very prim and proper, very right AND very, very dominant and preachers who do not fit the mould are dispensed with - regardless of what the rest of the congregation thinks.

    (e) Slapped down. Paul said the "super-apostles" slapped the Corinthians in the face. This probably means they were verbal bullies who lashed out at anyone who opposed them. The violence and virulence of their language intimidated and humiliated.

    The great Baptist preacher, C.H. Spurgeon, said he would add church business meetings to Paul's list of hardships. Some church meetings are terrible affairs. Christians who want their own way are cutting, belligerent and savage with those who disagree with them.

    Philip Yancey, the Christian author, would add letters from evangelical critics of his books to the list. He reckons some of the most hostile, hateful and cruel letters are written by Christian opponents to his views.

    I can appreciate only too well the truth of Yancey's observations. When I write a letter of protest to my MP or a national newspaper I often find myself using intemperate language. I have actually taken Philip Yancey's words to heart and try very hard to be polite and reasonable. But still there is often an edge to what I write!

(3) They were taken to task by Paul.

Paul was disgusted by the gullibility, ignorance and poor judgement of the Corinthians. This is evident from his sarcasm. He wrote: You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise. v19. Many at Corinth prided themselves on their superior wisdom and yet they were unable to see through the imposters from Jerusalem.

Christians today sadly lack discernment. They can be dazzled by good looks, polish, charm, eloquence and erudition. Conversely they can be unimpressed by someone who lacks these qualities.

I can remember being asked by an old pupil to conduct a service in an Anglican church in a small Norfolk town where he was the vicar. I was asked to speak on the passage in Luke where Jesus tells his hearers to deny themselves, take up the cross and follow him. This is an uncompromising Scripture and it got uncompromising treatment from a rough looking, rough speaking, unpolished, preacher. There must have been over 100 in the congregation. I shook hands with all of them after the service. Not one expressed any appreciation whatsoever for the sermon. It was not an experiment my pupil, a suave, fresh-faced, broad churchman, ever repeated!

(C) Paul's boast.

(1) What he doesn't boast about.

Paul doesn't boast about what some Christian leaders do publicise: the number of conversions and baptisms, churches founded, church growth or even his scholarship and publications. The apostle was, after all, the privileged student of the famous rabbi - Gamaliel.

Paul never bragged about the number of converts he had made because he knew that he had saved no one; he had given new life to no one; he imparted the Holy Spirit to no one. He couldn't take credit for what Jesus did.

When a person becomes a Christian it is Jesus who gets the praise and glory. The instrument can be almost forgotten. No one, for example, knows the name of the man who preached on a snowy Sunday in a small chapel in Colchester and was instrumental in C.H. Spurgeon's conversion. C.H. Spurgeon never learned the man's name. He was to all accounts a very weak instrument. Spurgeon gave all the glory throughout a long and blessed ministry to Jesus. It was Jesus who saved him by his sacrificial death at Calvary. It was Jesus who imparted new life to him. It was Jesus who imparted the Spirit to him.

(2) What he does boast about.

    (a) His Jewishness. This seems a strange thing for Paul to boast about. Why did he do so?

    • It was important to him. Paul never forgot his Jewish roots. He had tremendous concern for the Jews. He found Jewish unbelief extremely difficult to come to terms with. He struggled to understand how the Jews, the chosen people, had lost their favoured status with God - an issue he deals with in his epistle to the Romans. He writes there: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race the people of Israel. Rom9v3. I think this is taking things to far! I don't believe anyone, for any reason, should wish to be cut off from Christ. Paul was also very keen to be accepted by the Jewish leadership of the Jerusalem church. It resulted in one compromise too many. See exposition on Acts21v17to36.

    • If the Corinthians found Jewishness impressive in the "super-apostles" they should have found it equally impressive in Paul.

    It may be necessary to be like Paul when trying to correct error. For example, if I was trying to undo the damage done by creationists who believe the world was created literally in six days I might say that I, too, took the Bible very seriously. Anyone who uses this website knows the truth of this claim. Similarly it would help a conservative Bible commentator to refute the claims of liberal scholars if his expertise in Greek equaled or exceeded theirs.

    (b) His superior service. Paul didn't claim his service was superior to the "super-apostles" because of: his greater success, the depth of his teaching, his relationship with the 12 apostles or even his wonderful conversion experience. Paul reckoned his service was superior because of what it cost. He suffered:

    • Persecution. He was imprisoned, flogged, beaten and stoned. In all he had eight thrashings and each one could have killed him. Taken together they must have had an adverse effect on his health.

    • The dangers of travel - in the city, in the country and at sea. He was shipwrecked three times. He was constantly on the move experiencing one danger after another from crossing turbulent rivers to evading bandits and confronting all sorts of menacing opponents.

    • Many deprivations. Paul worked so hard praying, preaching and teaching that he went short of sleep. Sometimes he couldn't find the time to earn his keep and so hadn't the money for food, wine or clothes.

    • Much stress. The apostle had upon him the burden of the churches. He was distressed and anxious when problems arose, errors crept in and believers were led astray. Paul empathised so strongly with his fellow Christians that he even burned for shame with them in their sin.

    The worth of our service can also be assessed by how much it costs. Do we suffer pain - the pain of rejection when giving out tracts or inviting someone to a service? Do we take risks - even if it is only travelling to church in inclement weather or visiting in hospital where infection is rife? Do we sacrifice freedom - the freedom to play sports on Sundays or take all the holidays a year we would like? Do we experience anxiety - the anxiety of being responsible - for church finances, the Sunday School, the youth club, church administration, the ladies meeting, the spiritual health of the church?

    There are Christians who take no risks, make no sacrifices and have no stress. They are easily discontented and the first to leave a church if things are not entirely to their satisfaction. Drones make no honey!

    (c) His weakness. It seems strange that Paul ends his catalogue of sufferings with a reference to his escape from Damascus when he was lowered in a basket from a window of a house built on the wall. See also Acts9v3.

    In the Roman world the nearest thing to a Victoria Cross was the Corona Muralis or 'Crown of the Wall.' This was awarded to a soldier who during a siege climbed a scaling ladder and was the first one over the wall and into the city. Such a feat took courage, nerve, strength and a good deal of luck! It was an award for outstanding valour.

    Paul did the reverse. He sneaked OUT of Damascus and evaded the clutches of King Aretas by DESCENDING the wall and making good his escape. This is what Paul boasted of - his weakness and humiliation. He was prepared to be humiliated and suffer loss of dignity to serve Jesus - to carry out the commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

    We must be prepared to suffer disappointments, setbacks, discouragements, failures and humiliations for Christ's sake. I have suffered more failures than successes! But we keep going buoyed by the knowledge that there is rejoicing in heaven over ONE sinner that repents.

    ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net