2 Corinthians 11:21-33 please read

The number of times I have been asked that question must run into the hundreds, or even more. Yet when I read this passage of scripture I find myself reflecting that maybe we have got church and leadership totally up the wrong way.

As Christians and church leaders what are we doing boasting about the size of our church, our amazing accomplishments, our qualifications, our betterment’s, our achievements as if we earned them or deserved them, or that somewhere in our thinking those things mean we are more favourable to Christ in some way than others?

[7] For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? 1 Corinthians 4:7

Why are we afraid to admit our weaknesses. Christians ought to be quick to admit to their weaknesses, because rightly handled our weaknesses will demonstrate Christ’s strength and therefore bring glory to him.

Church and church leadership has become very competitive as we seek to become bigger and better.

I have said previously that Paul is being forced, against his better judgment, to compare himself with the false apostles who have the ear of the Corinthian church. He repeatedly qualifies his comments with statements such as,” I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness” (11:1) “ What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not with the Lord’s authority but as a fool” (11:17)” I am speaking as a fool” (11:21) “ I am talking like a madman” (11:23). He feels he has no option other than to make these statements to gain back the trust of the church he loves. So let’s work our way through this together.

[21] 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. [22] Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. [23] Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 2 Corinthians 11:21-23

Paul will share about his struggles in a short while but he begins by focussing on his pedigree and concludes that he falls short in nothing when compared to these false apostles.

Paul says that he is no less than they, a “Hebrew”, an “Israelite,” and the “offspring of Abraham.” Some think that by “Hebrew” he is referring to their claim to pure Jewish descent. Of course, Paul was born of Jewish parents. Others are probably correct, however, in suggesting that the focus is less on one’s bloodline and more on issues of language and culture. Paul was himself well educated in Semitic thought and could speak not only Hebrew but Aramaic as well (Acts 22:3).

The word “Israelite” means those who belong to Israel, the chosen, covenant people of Yahweh together with all the rights, privileges, and heritage that brings (Romans 9:4-5).

Paul can lay claim to being the “offspring” or “seed” of Abraham, a true physical descendant of the man to whom the promises of the covenant had been made. What Paul really thought about the value of such a heritage when it comes to one’s relationship with God is found in Philippians.

[4] though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: [5] circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; [6] as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. [7] But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. [8] Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. Philippians 3:4-8

It is difficult for Paul to speak about being better or superior, he uses the term “I am speaking as a madman,” “servants of Christ,” but he has no choice. How then was this servant hood seen? It is remarkable that instead of talking about his exploits, accomplishments and victories (of which there were many) Paul details his sufferings, loss, shame, and defeats. It is almost as if the primary (if not the only) incontestable basis of true apostleship is massive suffering in the service of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:9-13). There is very little triumph here only an avalanche of hardships. We can only cover a few of them.

Far greater labours (vs 23), a reference no doubt to his vigorous and exhausting commitment to evangelistic and pastoral ministry. I can’t help but think, did Paul ever go on holiday, did he ever resent the demands placed on his time, did he ever request ‘me’ time, did he ever find his ‘special’ place, did he understand the idea of evenings in? My guess is that the answer to each question is NO, but I do find that challenging!

Before Paul wrote 2 Corinthians the only imprisonment we know of occurred in Philippi (Acts 16:23-40). “Far more imprisonments” tells us that Luke’s record in the book of Acts of Paul’s life is partly recorded. We have no way of knowing how many times or for how long he was put into prison but it must have been “far more” than we know.

Did he question his calling in his rat infested, disease ridden cell? What about today’s leaders with their second home, new cars, free flights around the world, snazzy clothes, great salary and even better pension? I have to say what I read confuses and embarrasses me. I don’t think this blog is going to get me an invite to speak at the next conference!

Countless beatings (vs 23). This is a general reference and will be expanded in verses 24-25. Have a look at the descriptions found there it’s shocking. Now compare those to our threshold of discomfort, tiredness, irritation and complaint. Paul’s pain was of a different order.

“I was often near death” (vs 23). One such near-death encounter has already been described in (2 Corinthians 1:8-10). In 4:11 Paul spoke of “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake”. The risk to life for the gospel was real. I suspect the closest many of us have come to “death” in the pursuit of ministry is by over eating and drinking too much, or not getting enough exercise. How on earth do I relate to this? Well I guess for some leaders there will be a serious reflection on lifestyle required.

I am not Paul nor do I live in the same time as Paul, nor am I exposed to the same pressures as he was, nevertheless I, and I trust you, am a “servant of Christ” therefore what expectations do we have in light of that? What should I do with the scripture I have just read? “If I must boast,” said Paul, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (vs 30). This isn’t because of some false humility, but flows from a desire “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). I will leave it there, lots to consider!