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Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:16-18,
16 Again I say, let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, that I also may boast a little. 17 That which I am speaking, I am not speaking as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting. 18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I will boast also. 19 For you, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly.
Here Paul was injecting some subtle humor into his letter, using some exaggeration. Foolishness is also engaging in humor or joking. He asks them to indulge him as he boasts about them, joking that he was just speaking by the flesh. He expresses his confidence that they will indeed indulge him, because they are “so wise.”
Paul then uses irony, which ought to be read in an opposite manner. 2 Cor. 11:20 says,
20 For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face.
Paul was actually speaking for his critics who criticized the Corinthian church for honoring Paul as an apostle. Paul implies that those critics were saying that the Corinthians had submitted to Paul, a tyrant. The Corinthians had been enslaved and devoured by a self-exalting apostle, or so they claimed. But Paul then says in 2 Cor. 11:21,
21 To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison…
Paul sarcastically claimed to be unworthy of their claims that he was such a powerful slave-master and tyrant. He was a very weak tyrant, the opposite “by comparison” to what the critics were claiming.
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 11:21, 22,
21 … But in whatever respect anyone else is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.
So now we see who was criticizing Paul. Paul humorously decides to join his critics as they boast of their genealogy as “Hebrews” and “Israelites.” It is clear that Paul was being criticized by Christian Jews who disagreed with his New Covenant teaching. Hence, the main contentions between them were addressed in Paul’s other letters, such as Galatians, Colossians, and also Hebrews, which I believe Paul wrote anonymously.
Paul was in a unique position as an apostle to the nations, because he defended the Greeks, Romans, and other non-Jews. He treated them as equals, as we see in Eph. 2:14-16,
14 For He [Christ] Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity… that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
Paul goes on to say in the same passage that all men are being built as living stones into the same temple fit for the presence of God (Eph. 2:21, 22). The dividing wall was the wall in the court of the temple in Jerusalem which divided Jewish men from the women and non-Jews.
That wall was a powerful psychological and spiritual barrier, preventing Jews (as a whole) from accepting other ethnic groups as equals. The Greek Christians were not inferior in any way to those who could claim Hebrew or Israelite heritage.
At one time Paul had been zealous in upholding that Jewish tradition of spiritual superiority. So he was in a unique position to defend the Greek believers from being enslaved to Jews claiming to be chosen. Paul himself could claim superiority as much as any Christian Jew, if he had wished to do so. And here in his letter, he does so (though humorously) in order to make his point.
2 Corinthians 11:23 continues,
23 Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death.
It is clear from this that Paul’s critics were Christian Jews who believed themselves to be “servants of Christ.” They were not unbelievers, but they had carried with them the tradition of superiority by the idea that they were chosen by their genealogical connection to Abraham. They did not believe that they were “sons of Abraham” by virtue of their Abrahamic faith. But Paul says in Gal. 3:26-29,
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
This issue was hotly debated in the first-century church, and that debate has surfaced again in recent years.
Paul refutes his critics by joining in their fleshly boasts, while at the same time making it clear that his boasts were “insane.” As for being a servant of Christ, Paul had proven himself many times. He could boast of imprisonment, beatings, and death threats. He had also endured many hardships—proving that he was not motivated by money, nor did he seek to recruit servants that might give him the money to live a prosperous life of ease.
2 Corinthians 11:24, 25 continues,
24 Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.
Paul’s back was greatly scarred, but he took pride in those scars. In another place, he says in Gal. 6:17,
17 From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.
Most of these experiences were not recorded in Paul’s letters. At Philippi Paul was “beaten with rods” (Acts 16:22). He was stoned and left for dead at Lystra (Acts 14:8, 19). When Paul wrote that he had been shipwrecked three times, he did not include the shipwreck that was yet to occur when he was being taken to Rome (Acts 27:41). So Paul was actually shipwrecked at least four times.
What is most remarkable is that he did not write more about his troubles. Only when criticized by Jewish children of flesh did he indulge in a moment of temporary insanity (as he called it) by boasting of his beatings and shipwrecks. Paul continues in 2 Cor. 11:26-28,
26 I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the sky, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; 27 I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches.
Paul’s sincerity and passion for the gospel of Christ drove him to endure great hardships throughout his ministry. His hardships proved his devotion to Christ and to the gospel.
The “dangers” came not only from non-believers but also from those who claimed to believe in Christ. Finally, Paul felt the stress of responsibility for the churches that he had established.
2 Corinthians 11:29, 30 says,
29 Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? 30 If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness.
Most people boast of their strengths. Although Paul briefly joined his adversaries by boasting in those things that fleshly men considered to be strengths, Paul recognized his weakness, which was actually his secret of strength.
Paul will explain this more fully later in chapter 12 of his letter. Meanwhile, he gives us an example of his weakness, saying in 2 Cor. 11:31-33,
31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, 33 and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.
This occurred shortly after his conversion. The story is recorded in Acts 9:22-25,
22 But Saul [later known as Paul] kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. 23 And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death, 25 but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.
Paul cites this event as an example of “weakness.” He was weak in relation to the king in Damascus and even in relation to the Jewish leaders who had induced the king to put him to death. Paul fled the city in weakness, but he was comforted because he knew that God was on his side. God intended for him to go to Arabia, the location of Mount Sinai, in order to pray alone and receive the revelation of the New Covenant and how the law was to be written on the heart.