Paul’s Many Trials – Hardships
If the teachers of Corinth questioned Paul’s authority, he questioned their devotion to Christ. They were enjoying the luxuries of one of the most prominent cities in the Roman Empire, while Paul, as he noted in this passage, was enduring all kinds of hardships to preach the gospel to those who hadn’t heard it. These teachers had been careful to collect correct references, respected credentials, and impeccable recommendations; but they, unlike Paul, had failed to offer their entire lives in service to Christ, wherever that brought them. Paul’s long list of hardships he had endured couldn’t be matched by any of the teachers who were criticizing him.
2 Corinthians 11:16
I 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.
2 Corinthians 11:17
In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool.
2 Corinthians 11:18
Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast.
2 Corinthians 11:19
You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!
2 Corinthians 11:20
In 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.
2 Corinthians 11:21
To 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.
2 Corinthians 11:22
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I.
2 Corinthians 11:23
Are 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.
2 Corinthians 11:24
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
2 Corinthians 11:25
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,
2 Corinthians 11:26
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.
2 Corinthians 11:27
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.
2 Corinthians 11:28
Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
2 Corinthians 11:29
Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
2 Corinthians 11:30
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
2 Corinthians 11:31
The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.
PAUL’S MANY TRIALS – 2 Corinthians 11:16-31
Clearly, Paul was extremely reluctant to boast. But faced with the persistent faultfinding of his critics, Paul felt compelled to list his accomplishments for the Corinthians. He wasn’t primarily concerned with his own reputation but, instead, with the spiritual welfare of the Corinthian believers. If his critics’ attacks went unanswered, the believers might turn away from Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3-4; 2 Corinthians 11:12). Paul had to speak up in order to quiet the gossip and slander circulating in the Corinthian church. Even though Paul knew he had to defend himself, he was extremely careful. He cautiously explained to the Corinthians that he was going to act like a fool in order to silence those false teachers.
With biting sarcasm, Paul reprimanded the Corinthians for putting up with these arrogant false teachers. They thought they were being wise when they welcomed these teachers and listened to their new ideas. If these teachers were godly, like Apollos, Paul applauded this generous hospitality. The most recent teachers, however, were introducing a different gospel and were discrediting Paul in the process (2 Corinthians 11:4). Apparently, the Corinthians enjoyed listening to fools.
The Corinthians continued to listen to the false teachers even when it became clear that they were trying to enslave the Corinthians. Paul went on to explain the nature of this enslavement, with four images of exploitation.
Take everything, is a translation of a Greek verb commonly used to describe how animals devour their prey. Take advantage, is from a Greek verb used to describe how a hunter catches animals with a trap or a bait. The imagery of a hunter and prey suggests that the false teachers’ primary sin was their motives. They were traveling preachers looking for a gullible group of people to support them. They were literally preying on the Corinthians, trying to exploit the relationship for all that it was worth. Ironically, the Corinthians thought they were wise by welcoming these teachers when, in reality, these teachers were making the Corinthians into slaves. With arrogant boasts, they paraded their credentials and achievements. Put on airs is literally to lift up high. They were slapping the Corinthians in the face by their actions.
Paul was probably quoting what his critics said about him when he wrote that he was not strong enough to take advantage of the Corinthians, to take their money, and to physically discipline them. Even though Paul would refrain from doing that, he was going to dare to boast, just as his opponents did. Once again, Paul issued a disclaimer. He felt foolish talking as he did, listing his accomplishments.
These statements address the charges Paul’s opponents had leveled against him point by point. First of all, these traveling preachers from Judea were bragging about being Hebrews and Israelites, God’s chosen people. Paul had been born in Tarsus; and thus, in his opponents’ eyes, he had a questionable heritage. Paul was one of the descendants of Abraham through the tribe of Benjamin. He had been circumcised eight days after he was born—a physical sign of his Israelite heritage. He had been trained by one of the most respected Pharisees of that day, Gamaliel. As a Pharisee, he had spent hours studying the Hebrew Scriptures and had been very careful to observe Jewish law (Philippians 3:4-6). No one could question Paul’s credentials as a Jew and as an expert in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Although Paul had conceded to his opponents their Jewish heritage, he would not agree with them that they served Christ. To prove his point, Paul listed all the trials he suffered for Christ. Could his opponents, who boasted in achievements, accomplishments, and credentials, produce an even more extensive list of suffering and persecution endured for Christ’s name? Were they willing to follow Jesus’ way of the cross, his life of suffering? Were they willing to take up their crosses daily for Christ (Matthew 10:38)?
Paul had suffered the hardship of imprisonment, including being whipped (Acts 16:22-24). He had faced death on a number of occasions (Acts 14:19), when Paul was stoned by a crowd. Since this letter was written during Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 18:23; 21:17), his trials weren’t over. He would experience further difficulties and humiliations for the cause of Christ (Acts 21:30-33; Acts 22:24-30). Paul was sacrificing his life for the gospel, something the false teachers would never do.
According to the Jewish law, forty lashes was the maximum number the Jews could prescribe (Deuteronomy 25:3). The rabbis, however, would only allow thirty-nine, so that if the flogger miscounted he wouldn’t accidentally sin by administering more than forty. These beatings were carried out in the synagogues and were for either moral or religious offenses. The lashes were made of several straps of leather, sometimes with bone or metal tied to the ends to inflict more pain. In Paul’s case, the punishment would have been for preaching the gospel, what Jews commonly considered blasphemy. He faced this five different times. None of these beatings are recorded in Acts, but the adamant opposition of the Jews to the gospel message is recorded (Acts 13:45; Acts 13:50; Acts 14:2; Acts 18:6; Acts 18:12).
Only the Romans could administer beatings with rods. Yet Paul was beaten with rods at Philippi (Acts 16:22). Apparently, government officials had beaten him on two other occasions (these weren’t recorded in the book of Acts, however). At Lystra, Paul had survived being stoned (Acts 14:8-20). Sea travel was not as safe as it is today. Paul had been shipwrecked three times, and he would face another accident on his voyage to Rome. By this time, Paul had probably made at least eight or nine voyages; thus, given the danger of first-century sea travel, he could have certainly experienced that many disasters at sea. The fact that Paul survived twenty-four hours adrift at sea would have been considered miraculous in the first century, a sign of God’s hand on his life.
The sea did not present the only danger Paul faced on the many weary miles he had traveled as he took the gospel all over the Mediterranean world. Robbers were a constant problem in the ancient world. In addition, Paul’s own people, the Jews, were trying to orchestrate his downfall. When Paul first visited Corinth, the Jews had dragged him before the governor of Achaia in order to stop him from preaching (Acts 18:12-17). The Gentiles also had opposed Paul in Philippi and in Ephesus (Acts 16:19-24; Acts 19:23-31). Paul’s list of dangers climaxes in men who claim to be Christians but are not. His point is abundantly clear. Since he had bravely faced all sorts of dangers for Christ, he certainly would have enough courage to face those false teachers who were discrediting his authority and his name in Corinth. On past visits, Paul had not been as aggressive with those who opposed him (2 Corinthians 10:1). He was planning to confront his critics on his next visit (2 Corinthians 13:1-5).
In order to place his ministry beyond reproach, Paul had supported himself by working at the manual trade of tent making. Working two jobs had caused weariness and pain and sleepless nights. Because of the low wages of itinerant laborers and the hardships of first-century travel, Paul was often hungry, thirsty, and cold. But Paul had endured all these hardships cheerfully to preach the gospel, to tell men and women all over the Roman Empire that Jesus could save them from their sins.
Every day Paul thought about the spiritual health of the churches he had founded. There were so many pitfalls and traps into which a young congregation could fall. Persecution could force the church to compromise its theology; quarreling and inner strife could distract the church from its purpose; false teachers could deceive a church. Paul was concerned that the churches wouldn’t persevere in the faith. One indication of his burden was his dedication and persistence in praying for them.
If Paul heard of any individual who was weak in the faith, he sympathized with that person. He encouraged stronger believers to help weaker ones (1 Thessalonians 5:14). If any individual was led astray from the faith, Paul would burn with anger at the ones who had caused it.
Although the Corinthians had forced Paul to defend his own integrity and his apostolic authority, this letter focuses on how weak Paul was. Paul paraded his sufferings, trials, and weaknesses before his opponents. He didn’t boast in his accomplishments, as they did; thereby, he defused some of their criticisms. The only way Paul could show his authority was to point out how God had worked through his weaknesses. These were the telltale signs of God’s work in his life.
Paul had already called on God as a witness to his truthfulness three other times in this letter: when he asserted his integrity in his recent travel plans (2 Corinthians 1:18), when he denied taking any money from the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:10), and when he asserted his genuine love for them (2 Corinthians 11:11).
We praise the apostle Paul for his steadfast courage in proclaiming Jesus Christ.
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