Boasting for the Lord - 2 Corinthians 11:16-33
Most of us have probably been around someone that we would describe as arrogant. Arrogant people have a way of constantly making any conversation revolve around themselves. In every conversation they slip in some statement that is designed to remind you of how great they are. For some people this behavior is harmless—in many cases it actually stems from their own insecurity, and their desire to have someone tell them that they are worthwhile.
Unfortunately, however, there are others who trumpet their accomplishments because they want something from you. They purposely try to paint themselves in a good light so that you will give them what they want. It’s a trait we often associate with politicians, but these kinds of people can be found in every walk of life—even in the church. These people are dangerous, because they are not concerned with the people around them; they are only concerned with what they can get from the people around them.
As we have been looking at chapters 10 and 11 in 2 Corinthians, we have seen how the Apostle Paul dealt with people who showed this kind of arrogance. False teachers had come to Corinth as traveling teachers, but in fact, they were more interested in using the Corinthians. They tried to validate themselves as teachers by attacking Paul’s character. Paul understood that there was more at stake than what people thought of him. He knew that these teachers were compromising the gospel itself, so he was willing to use some extreme measures to get the Corinthians’ attention.
In our text this morning, we see Paul adopting the tactics of the false teachers in order to show that they shouldn’t be trusted. By acting like the false teachers, Paul helps to show the Corinthians that these teachers really didn’t care about the gospel or them at all—while that was the only thing that Paul was concerned with.
Why Paul Boasts
Paul does something that makes him uncomfortable. He acts like the false teachers by boasting about his achievements and qualifications. He makes it very clear that the only reason he is doing this is to show them how foolish this approach is. Three different times in these verses, Paul reminds them that he’s acting foolishly—but only to make a point. Paul knew that boasting about his own achievements actually had little value.
16 Again I say, don’t think that I am a fool to talk like this. But even if you do, listen to me, as you would to a foolish person, while I also boast a little. 17 Such boasting is not from the Lord, but I am acting like a fool. 18 And since others boast about their human achievements, I will, too. 19 After all, you think you are so wise, but you enjoy putting up with fools! 20 You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face. 21 I’m ashamed to say that we’ve been too “weak” to do that! (2 Cor. 11:16-21a, NLT)
Paul goes after the Corinthians pretty hard here. Like he has done throughout chapters 10 and 11, he utilizes sarcasm to help make his point. He sarcastically says that since in their “wisdom” they have seen how weak he is, he will use that same “wisdom” to show them how foolish these false teachers were. He chastised the Corinthians for putting up with these false teachers and turning their backs on him and the message of the gospel which he had preached to them.
The Corinthians had bought into the idea that the false teachers were more trustworthy than Paul because they had credentials that Paul didn’t have. Paul said he was perfectly capable of boasting about his credentials like the false teachers did—he just didn’t do it because he knew that there were much more important things than human credentials.
Paul was trying to help the Corinthians see the true colors of these false teachers. He reminded them that if they would step back and look at the situation objectively, they would see that these false teachers had enslaved them, taken everything they had, taken advantage of them, taken control of everything, and even slapped them in the face! There is debate on how these false teachers had done these things, but one thing is clear—they were using and abusing the Corinthians.
These false teachers probably claimed that the reason they were doing things like demanding payment for their work, forcing them to follow Jewish laws, and demanding respect and honor—things that Paul never did—was that Paul was too weak to require their obedience. Paul sarcastically apologizes that he was “too weak” to use and abuse the Corinthians in this way. Paul’s point is clear—these false teachers claimed to be superior to him, but they weren’t. They were charlatans whose goal was to take the Corinthians for everything they could.
Reasons for Boasting
Paul continues his defense in verses 21-23. The false teachers claimed to have a leg up on Paul, but even by their own standards, they had no reason to boast.
But whatever they dare to boast about—I’m talking like a fool again—I dare to boast about it, too. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. (2 Cor. 11:21b-23, NLT)
Apparently these false teachers pointed to their pedigree, their education, and their track record as evidence of why they were superior to Paul. In response, Paul points out that he had all the same qualifications, even though those qualifications weren’t what really mattered.
They claimed to be Hebrews. To us, calling someone a Hebrew seems like the same thing as calling someone a Jew or Israelite, but in the first century, calling yourself a Hebrew had greater significance. To call yourself a Hebrew meant more than just that your family was Jewish, and it meant even more than to say that you lived in Israel—it meant that you were truly a follower of God. It probably referred to their ability to read Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), which was something many Jews at that time could no longer do. Paul says that even if they were Hebrews—he was just as much of a Hebrew as they were. In similar passages where Paul talks about his track record, we read that he was one of the most respected Pharisees in his age group, that he had studied under one of the most respected teachers of the day, and that he was known for being zealous for the law. Paul was showing the Corinthians that these false teachers couldn’t claim that they were somehow “more Hebrew” than he was.
They claimed to be Israelites. In other words, they claimed that they were from Israel, while Paul wasn’t (he was from Tarsus). Though Paul may not have been born in Israel, there was no question that he was an Israelite—he was part of the synagogue in Jerusalem, studied under one of the respected members of the Sanhedrin, and was well-known for his zeal for the law. He was dispatched by the Jews in Jerusalem to go and persecute Christians because he was a trusted member of their assembly. Paul was every bit an Israelite as these false teachers were, if not more so.
They claimed to be descendants of Abraham. God had promised Abraham that it was through his offspring that God would save the world. So people who could trace their lineage back to Abraham could claim that they were part of God’s chosen people. In Philippians, Paul talks about how he was from the tribe of Benjamin (one of Jacob’s sons, and therefore a descendant of Abraham.) In other words, Paul’s lineage was just as good as any lineage that the false teachers could claim.
They claimed to be servants of Christ. Here, Paul begins to take exception with their claims. He says that he is much more a servant of Christ than any of these false teachers were. He pointed to the fact that he suffered for the gospel and worked much harder than probably anyone else could ever claim to have done. These people may have claimed that they were servants of Christ, but compared to Paul’s track record, they had done nothing.
Paul then goes on to list some of the ways in which he had suffered for the Lord. The book of Acts records some of the hardships Paul faced (such as a shipwreck, several beatings, and an attempted stoning), but Paul lists even more trials than we read about in the book of Acts. The trials in Acts only scratch the surface of what Paul went through! He endured beatings at the hands of the Jewish authorities, beatings at the hands of the Roman authorities, murder plots from mobs, and even the hazards of sea travel. He was left for dead on a couple of different occasions. He willingly worked a second job to make it possible for him to travel and preach without charging anyone and often had to go without food, clothing, or adequate shelter. Paul points out that he had literally risked his life in service of the Lord.
His goal in sharing his experience was not to make himself look good, but rather to help the Corinthians see the contrast between the false teachers and him. In essence, Paul was saying that these false teachers wouldn’t have been willing to endure these same kinds of hardships because they were only in it for themselves! We can learn something from this—the test of a leader is not so much in his qualifications as it is what he is willing to sacrifice or endure of the sake of the gospel.
In verses 28 and 29, Paul explains what his greatest burden was.
28 Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger? (2 Cor. 11:28-29, NLT)
His point was simple: the greatest burden he felt was not for his own comfort, but for the ultimate well-being of those he served. There is a sense in which Paul felt the same way about the Corinthians as parents feel about their children. He ached with them and rejoiced with them. Every Pastor should be able to testify that he feels the same way about his congregation. That wasn’t the case for the false teachers in Corinth. The only burden they felt was the burden of how to get more from the Corinthians.
The false teachers claimed to be superior to Paul because their credentials were better than his. Paul showed that his credentials were every bit as good as theirs, but that credentials weren’t what mattered most. His point was that a teacher’s qualifications are seen in their heart. Are they truly serving the Lord, or are they only concerned about themselves? Paul’s goal was to show that the motivations of these false teachers were selfish, while his motivation was to honor the Lord in all he did.
The last part of this passage is focused on Paul’s own weakness. In verses 30-33, he says,
30 If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am. 31 God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, who is worthy of eternal praise, knows I am not lying. 32 When I was in Damascus, the governor under King Aretas kept guards at the city gates to catch me. 33 I had to be lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall to escape from him. (2 Cor. 11:30-33, NLT)
Paul said that if he was going to boast, he would prefer to boast about the things that showed his weakness. The reason Paul would rather boast about his weaknesses was simple—it put all of the attention on God. Paul didn’t want to draw attention to himself, he wanted to point people to the Lord. Paul never forgot what his primary goal was—to point people to Jesus, because it is only Jesus who can save us! Paul knew that drawing attention to himself would distract people the message of salvation. We could all use that reminder—that when we are directing people to look at us, we are directing them to look away from the Lord.
Paul tells the story of how he had to leave Damascus. I think the reason Paul chose to share this story is that he saw this account as the perfect example of his weakness being used by God. Paul had gone to Damascus thinking quite highly of himself. He was at the top of his class, a rising star in Judaism, and he was carrying letters of recommendation from the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem that told everyone how great he was. In just a short period of time, he went from being full of himself and self-confident to being utterly dependent upon God. He had originally planned to walk out the gates of Damascus with his head held high, proud of his work for God, but instead he had to sneak out over the wall, grateful to escape with his life.
Paul looked at that experience and saw his own weakness—but more importantly, he saw how God had a plan in all of it. As we’ll see next week, Paul understood that the times when his weakness was most evident were also the times where God’s strength was most evident. So, Paul found it fitting to point to his own weakness, because it pointed people to the Lord.
This is an interesting passage because it gives us a glimpse into the life of Paul, and helps us to see a little bit of what he had to deal with in service of the Lord. The question we must ask ourselves, however, is what should we learn from Paul’s experience? I think there are at least three things we can learn from this passage.
First, we must evaluate teachers carefully. There are a lot of people who look good on paper, and they may even sound very convincing in person, but Paul reminds us that there are far more important things to look for in a teacher than just their resume.
We see this all the time in business. A person who holds advanced degrees may not be as competent as the person who has learned by experience over the course of time. The wise person looks at character as well as credentials.
As we seek to identify teachers that we should follow, we must pay close attention to two things: the content of their message and the content of their lives. We must be on guard against those who seem more concerned about building their own kingdom than they are about building the Lord’s, and we must also be on guard against those who change or distort the message of the Bible. Teachers who do these things push people away from the Lord rather than drawing them closer to Him.
Second, we must be willing to serve the Lord regardless of circumstances. Paul faced some incredible hardships as a result of serving God. His life was constantly in danger, and it is likely that Paul’s body was scarred and permanently damaged as a result of the many beatings he had endured. Paul was a well-educated man and he surely could have had a much easier and far more comfortable life doing something else, but he chose to serve the Lord instead, even though he knew it wouldn’t be easy. Paul’s major charge against the false teachers was that they would have quit if they had faced similar hardships, because all they could see was themselves.
Here’s a difficult question—are you more like Paul or the false teachers? Are you willing to continue to follow the Lord even when it gets difficult? Do you stand up for what’s right, knowing that some people might get mad at you, or do you simply remain silent? Do you talk to your friends about their spiritual beliefs because you know what’s at stake, or do you avoid talking about your faith because you think they’ll be offended? When you plan your schedule, do you intentionally make time for the Lord, or do you worry about “missing out” on something else, and give Him whatever is left? Do you continue to love people when they don’t love you back (or are even hateful to you), or do you respond in kind, hoping to hurt them like they’ve hurt you?
These are tough questions, but Paul’s point is this: a true follower of Christ doesn’t just follow when it’s easy. We have a tendency to do what God wants only when we can see how it will benefit us, but Paul reminds us that Christians should live with perspective. We should see the big picture, and understand that following the Lord is always the best thing in the long run, even if it’s hard right now. The person who truly trusts the Lord will follow Him regardless of our circumstances.
Finally, we must remember that we are saved by what Jesus has done, not by what we have done. Paul wasn’t interested in boasting about his accomplishments because he knew that they didn’t amount to anything in an ultimate sense. He knew he wasn’t saved because of the beatings he had endured, or the way that he had served, or the people he had influenced. The only reason he could be forgiven was because the Lord Jesus Christ had paid the penalty for his sin once and for all. Paul didn’t want to boast about his accomplishments because that wasn’t where his confidence was. His confidence was placed on Jesus Christ alone.
The same ought to be true of us. We must remember that we are not going to heaven because we are somehow better than other people. We are not saved because of the good things we do. We are saved only because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We all sometimes feel like we have to prove we are worthy to be followers of Christ. Paul reminds us we don’t have to boast about ourselves because when we do, we miss the point and message of the gospel. We are sinful, broken people who have no possibility of saving ourselves. It is Christ who is the Worthy One. It was because of His excellence and His sacrifice that we can be made right with God.
You see, the person who really understands the gospel becomes more humble because they recognize that salvation is not something they have earned, it is a gift. They no longer trumpet their own good deeds because they recognize that those deeds fall far short of what is required. Instead, they will continually point others to Jesus. May God help us to understand and do likewise.