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Having concluded his lengthy instruction about the donation to the Jerusalem church, Paul then returns to his defense against the faction in Corinth that had opposed Paul and had denied his apostolic authority.
2 Corinthians 10:1, 2 begins,
1 Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! 2 I ask that when I am present I may not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh.
What was Paul urging them to do? He never finishes his sentence, but the rest of the chapter and beyond shows that Paul was urging them to accept his instruction and the authority that comes with revelation. Paul interrupts himself when reminded of how his detractors were saying, “Paul doesn’t want to face us directly; he is meek and mild in our presence, but bold and confident when he is absent.” In other words, they mistook Paul’s gentleness for cowardice.
It is indeed easier to write a letter opposing someone than it is to say the same things face to face. But Paul disputes those charges. In verse 1 he was using irony when saying, “I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent!” He was setting forth the opinion of his detractors, not confessing his own way of handling the dispute.
In verse 2 Paul’s language is difficult to understand, but he is praying to refrain from being too bold (or harsh). In other words, Paul was deliberately meek and gentle when confronting those who opposed him. His gentleness, then, appeared to be inconsistent with the tone of his bolder letters, and thus some accused Paul of walking according to the flesh. This false perception had caused them to argue that Paul’s instructions came from his fleshly soul, and that his word did not really come from God through his spiritual man.
Paul contradicted that view in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, saying,
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, 4 for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 5 We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, 6 and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.
Paul understood that this was a spiritual battle that could not be won by the power of the flesh. Such war, if waged by the power of flesh, would have Paul taking a much bolder approach, using threats and fear tactics to assert his authority and to force his enemies to confess openly things they did not believe privately. Such tactics were indeed used by the organized church in later centuries, even resorting to torture to enforce confessions that the church officials believed.
But Paul did not provide us with such an example of carnal warfare. While he was indeed bold in his insistence that the elders of the Corinthian church should deal with the problem of incest in the church, he was gentler when dealing with those who had rejected his apostolic authority. He preferred to set forth his credentials (evidences of revelation) rather than to force them to submit to his authority.
The manner of warfare set forth in verses 3-6 is a general outline of all spiritual warfare, but yet it certainly applied specifically to the situation at hand. In presenting a description of spiritual warfare in contrast to fleshly warfare, Paul was laying down the ground rules for his own actions in dealing with his detractors.
Paul thus paints a picture, where he leads a small army of truth seekers against the fortress of fleshly thinking. The towers on the walls were “lofty” (or prideful) views “raised up against the knowledge of God.” Paul’s intent was to take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Once this fortress had been overcome and overrun, Paul proposed to punish (ekdikeo, “avenge, do justice”) all disobedience.
It is important to note that Paul was not fighting the people who were opposed to him. He was fighting their speculations, opinions, and carnal views that were in opposition to him. Paul did not propose to punish the disobedient, as fleshly warfare might do, but to punish disobedience itself—that is, disobedience to Christ and His nature.
The ruthlessness of war under Old Covenant rules, as seen in the battles of Israel in taking the land of Canaan, are here reapplied in a New Covenant setting. The enemy is not flesh and blood—that is, people—but lawlessness, rebellious attitudes toward the will of God, and ignorance of the mind of God. Such things must be taken captive and destroyed utterly in order to set the people free to fulfill the purpose for their creation.
Having said that, we should also recognize that there is a time and place for everything. We ought not to take the responsibility upon ourselves to change the world and set it free from all heart idolatry. That job is too big for any of us. We ought to choose our battles carefully, being led by the Spirit. Some are too zealous in this and end up fighting flesh and blood by the power of their own flesh.
We read in Deuteronomy 13:14-16,
14 Then you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly. And if it is true and the matter established that this abomination has been done among you, 15 you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword. 16 Then you shall gather all its booty into the middle of its open square and burn the city and all its booty with fire as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God; and it shall be a ruin forever. It shall never be rebuilt.
It is likely that Paul had this passage in mind when he spoke of spiritual warfare. Certainly, he did not call for the destruction of the Corinthian church, nor did he advocate any war against those who held views that were an “abomination” to God. Paul engaged in spiritual warfare with the sword of the Spirit. He sought utter destruction of heart idolatry itself, and he fought it with the sword of truth.
Once every unlawful thought had been captured and identified, they were to be burned in the town square “as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God.” The fire of God is the “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2, KJV), by which the Holy Spirit cleanses and purifies our hearts. It is that baptism of fire that John the Baptist foresaw (Matt. 3:11, 12). The purpose of this fire is not to destroy people but to destroy the heart idolatry and false opinions that prevent them from truly knowing the mind and nature (love) of God.
When we find ourselves in conflict with others, we too must always bear in mind that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood. It is very easy to fight people rather than the idols of men’s hearts. We must develop the ability to see beyond the flesh-and-blood person, so that our warfare serves to set men free, rather than to destroy them.
Further, as Deut. 13:14 says, “you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly” before assuming that an opposing view is incorrect. The law commands warfare to eradicate idolatry and rebellion against God—but only after a thorough investigation. We are commanded to do the same. We all have had to deal with heart idols. When such idols are overthrown, we see things differently.
Hence, we should not be quick to engage in spiritual warfare, nor should we assume to be correct or on the side of truth. There is always a possibility that the opposing side is right and that we have been blinded by a heart idol. A little humility can prevent a multitude of conflicts.
Paul recognized the value of humility in every case of spiritual warfare. 2 Cor. 10:7, 8 says,
7 You are looking at things as they are outwardly. If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ’s, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. 8 For even if I should boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I shall not be put to shame.
The Emphatic Diaglott renders the first sentence of verse 7 as a question: “Do you look on things according to appearance?” Was Paul so bold as to accuse them of looking at the situation with carnal eyes? The problem is that the Greek language at that time had no punctuation and certainly no question marks. So at times the meaning is uncertain. To me, it seems more likely that Paul softened his approach by phrasing it as a question rather than as a bold accusation.
Paul suggests that both sides of the present conflict believed that they were on Christ’s side. Both sides believed themselves to be correct. Paul recognized this and reminded his detractors that we are all on Christ’s side. We are not supposed to fight each other as in a carnal war. We are all supposed to work toward discovering the truth so that we may overthrow illusions and idols of the heart that always lead us astray.
He also reminds everyone that the nature of his apostolic authority was not destructive but constructive. Authority is not to be used in a carnal way to eliminate all opposition but rather to bring everyone to the knowledge of God.
Unfortunately, many church leaders have used their authority in carnal ways that Paul would have abhorred. In later years many church leaders sought to destroy the reputations of those who were said to be heretics and even sentenced many to torture and death for not submitting to their presumed authority. Authority is abused when men do not understand its purpose as Paul did. Such people seem to think that humility is a duty for the people, while they themselves are exempt. They think that their own position of authority gives them the right to conduct warfare without humility.
2 Corinthians 10:9, 10 says,
9 for I do not wish to seem as if I would terrify [ekphobeo, “frighten”] you by my letters. 10 For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive, and his speech contemptible.”
It sounds as if Paul was more of a writer than a public speaker. Perhaps Paul’s detractors were somewhat biased as they searched for evidence to discredit his teachings. Yet Paul was more concerned with truth and divine inspiration than in his manner of presentation.
This suggests that Paul was not tall, young, and handsome, nor did he have a powerful voice. Having little emotional appeal, he had to rely upon his knowledge of the word—which did not appeal to everyone.
Nonetheless, Paul could be quite eloquent, as we see from his preaching in Lystra. In Acts 14:11, 12 we read,
11 When the multitudes saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” 12 And they began calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.
No doubt Barnabas was tall and impressive in appearance, so the people thought he was an earthly manifestation of Zeus, the king of the gods. Paul they called Hermes (also known as Mercury), the chief messenger of the gods, who was reputed to be eloquent.
But on that occasion, Paul had just healed a man who was “lame from his mother’s womb, who had never walked” (Acts 14:8). Those who witnessed this miracle were impressed and were in no mood to criticize Paul. Perhaps they would have considered him to be an impressive speaker regardless of what he said or how he said it.
On the other hand, Paul’s critics in Corinth were looking for ways to criticize Paul. Being motivated by carnal animosity, they were prone to nitpick and focus upon form and style rather than face the truth of Paul’s words.
2 Corinthians 10:11 gives Paul’s response to his critics,
11 Let such a person consider this, that what we are in word by letters when absent, such persons we are also in deed when present.
Paul says that he lives by his own teachings. He is consistent. He does not act one way when ministering in the Corinthian church, while acting in another way when writing to them from afar. Paul may be better at writing letters than at giving speeches, but such differences are only superficial and do not mean that he was acting as a different person.
2 Corinthians 10:12 says,
12 For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure [metreo, “measure, set forth boundaries,” or metaphorically, to set a standard] themselves by themselves, and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.
Paul did not want to compare himself with his critics or with anyone else. Jesus Christ is the only true standard by which all men ought to be measured. Paul’s critics were setting up a carnal standard that suited themselves. In doing so, they showed that they were “without understanding.”
The Greek word invoked a picture of a man measuring out a parcel of land and setting boundaries. Metaphorically speaking, metreo also referred to the idea of setting moral boundaries or laws that serve as a standard for men in measuring right and wrong. Paul’s critics were establishing a petty standard of measure when they criticized Paul’s lack of poise and eloquence.
Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 10:13,
13 But we will not boast beyond our measure, but within the measure of the sphere which God apportioned to us as a measure, to reach even as far as you.
The Emphatic Diaglott reads,
13 But we will not boast respecting unmeasured things, but according to the measure of the rule which the God of Measure [metreo] assigned to us, to reach even to you.
Hermes was the Greek god of measure. Paul’s “God of Measure,” of course, was Yahweh, the God of the Bible, whose laws established the boundaries of sin and righteousness.
As Paul wrote this, it seems unlikely that he was recalling the time when the people of Lystra had called him Hermes. However, it is of interest that Hermes was more than just the messenger of the gods. He was also the god of boundaries and the one who set boundaries. So it is curious that Paul used the term metreo, from which we today derive the word meter.
Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 10:14,
14 For we are not overextending [hyperekteino, “to extend beyond the prescribed boundaries”] ourselves, as if we did not reach to you, for we were the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ; 15 not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors [kopos, “labor, trouble, toil”], but with the hope that as your faith grows, we shall be within our sphere, enlarged even more by you.
In other words, Paul said that he was not violating God’s boundary (law) by “boasting beyond our measure.” He had the right to defend himself and to deny the accusations. Had he violated his boundaries, he would have trespassed and infringed upon “other men’s labors.”
The Greek word translated “labors” is kopos, which seems to have a double meaning: labor and trouble. Paul did not want to steal the labor (property) of others, but he also did not want to take for himself their troubles. Paul’s hope was that these fleshly disputes might fade away as their faith grew. In other words, Paul considered this dispute to be rather childish. Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 13:11,
11 When I was a child, I used to speak as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.
Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 10:16,
16 so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another.
Here Paul continues the theme of boundaries. He implies that if we grow up into spiritual maturity and learn God’s boundaries, we will then know when God wants us to go “to the regions beyond you” to preach the gospel. Paul was led by the Spirit to go to the places where he had been ministering, and up to that point in time God had set boundaries for his ministry. Yet he understood that the boundaries that God had presently set for him were temporary and that God would later send him “far away to the Gentiles (ethnos, nations)” (Acts 22:21).
Paul concludes in 2 Corinthians 10:17, 18,
17 But he who boasts, let him boast in the Lord. 18 For not he who commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends.
In other words, there is a proper way to boast which does not cross the boundary set by the divine law. To commend one’s self crosses that line. But to “boast in the Lord” is to commend God and advocate serving Him.
So Paul loosely quotes Jer. 9:24, which, in its context with the previous verse, reads this way:
23 Thus says the Lord, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord.
In other words, our boast should be that we personally know the true God who is full of love, justice, and righteousness. If we know Him, then He will commend us and boast about us.
In fact, if we look at the story of Job, we see where God boasted to Satan about Job. Job 1:8 says,
8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.”
This is said to be the way in which Job’s troubles began, so perhaps we may not want God to boast about us too often! Nonetheless, if He does so, and if we find ourselves afflicted as a result, we know that it is because “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28).