The Corinthian Correspondence, Part 49; 2 Corinthians 11:16-33 "Answering Fools According to Their Folly"
The Corinthian Correspondence, Part 49; 2 Corinthians 11.16-33 "Answering Fools According to Their Folly" Let me begin this morning by reminding us of 2 proverbs which seem to contradict each other: Proverbs 26.4-5: Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. What is up with this? And why did I begin the message this way? Let me answer the first question like this. Pastor and author Sid Buzzell writes: "These two sayings belong together; they complement each other. Their point is that one should not be drawn down to a fool's level in v. 4 but at times he must use the fool's language to refute the fool so he does not become conceited. Buzzell goes on to say, that "the Jewish Talmud"-- the oral tradition of the early rabbis -- "suggests that verse 4 pertains to foolish comments that can be ignored and that verse 5 refers to erroneous ideas, behind the words, that must be corrected. Wisdom is needed to determine when to apply these truths." Indeed. Like with everything that has to do with God's word, it takes wisdom-divine wisdom-of knowing what, when and how to apply it. In our passage today, 2 Corinthians 11.16-33, we are going to see Paul apply divine wisdom, but in a most unusual way, as he puts Proverbs 26.5 to work; Paul is going to answer fools according to their folly--hence the reason why I began the message this way. And Paul is not going to only deal with the false teachers, whom he actually labels fools in v.19. Paul is also going to answer the Corinthians according to folly as well, for they put up with and have been fooled by the fools. And this is of dire consequence. Throughout 2 Corinthians, we have been following what amounts to Paul and his plight over the Corinthians. We have seen over and over that the church Paul started is at a crossroads. Would they continue in the gospel Paul preached--the road of truth? Or would they follow false teachers, taking the road called apostasy, falling away from the Lord? Tragically, this is not the first time Paul has dealt with people on the threshold of committing apostasy. In Galatians, which Paul wrote a couple of years before he penned 2 Corinthians, he gave those in the Galatian church a warning in Galatians 5.4: You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. Time fails us to consider even a few of all the places where God's word tells us it is possible to leave the faith, or more appropriately, abandon the Lord. And the possibility of apostasy wasn't limited to the first century. Think of the several "marquee Christians" in our day who recently proclaimed to have left Christ, Josh Harris for one. He was on the leading edge of what many have called the Evangelical Purity Movement and wrote "I Kissed Dating Goodbye". A couple of years ago he apologized for the material in his book, announced to the world that he was divorcing his wife and then declared "I am not a Christian." I mention the apostasy issue here today to refresh our minds with a sense of Paul's desperation over the spiritual condition of the Corinthians. For Paul's battle between him and the false teachers was not mere religious banter. This was a matter of eternal life and eternal death. And let's not forget that our passage, 2 Corinthians 11.16-33 comes on the heels of 11.13-15. Here, Paul accuses these false teachers of even being in league with Satan himself. So, we can be sure as to how serious Paul considers the errors of the false teachers the Corinthians allowed in their midst. But now, Paul does have a dilemma. He admits that he does not have the flamboyance of the false teachers--flamboyance of the kind the Corinthians really appreciate. His conviction is that he would live and give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Paul knew his message was not a popular one, regardless of how he proclaimed it. He said in 1 Corinthians 2 that "Christ crucified" was a message that was scandalous to the Jew and moronic-stupid-to the gentile. And if anybody would actually embrace the gospel of Christ, it would be because of the power of God. Alone. And sure enough, God was pleased through the folly of Paul proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to place a number of precious souls in the kingdom of his dear Son. They went from spiritual death to spiritual life. Though the church in Corinth had major issues, at least they welcomed Paul who preached the truth to them. Unfortunately, they welcomed false teachers as well. But it was not so much the content of their message that appealed to the Corinthians. The adage for them was true: "It's not what you say but how you say it" that counts. Without a doubt the false teachers had a professional style that mesmerized the Corinthians. Many people were trained in public speaking--rhetoric--back then. And if we remember, public speaking was a popular spectator sport in Corinth, on par with the Olympics. And these speakers went through much rigorous training to be the best. Some of the training these public speakers went through were recorded in a textbook of sorts called Gorgias, where one of the speaker's aims was "mostly art without knowledge; it was, a form of flattery that produces pleasure." The book goes on to say, "There is a place for abusing one's audience, though the untrained orator is likely to do it too openly and too often, mistaking abuse for speaking freely." The training continues: "The novice-level orator seeks themes that may beguile, or deceive those in the audience even at the cost of appealing to the most perverted tastes." They were even taught to wildly gesture as they spoke, like to "clap your hands together, stamp the ground, slap your thigh, your chest, your forehead," which, back then "was a sure way to go straight to the heart of the more unrefined members of your audience." Imagine who the unrefined are in our culture. I'm sure these guys, false teachers included, would fit in well with the theatrics of many church leaders today, smoke and lights and all that! On the other hand, more than likely, Paul was not trained that way. The orthodox, Bible-teaching Jews in the First Century were trained like this: to have clear, logical presentations to include correctly cited sources, with the ability to reason out conclusions from them. Their delivery was based on a loud and clear voice with precision in pronunciation. It was also expected that the audience would do a lot of Q&A, even interrupting the speaker in the middle of the presentation. In short, the difference between how Paul presented things and that of the false teachers was almost night and day. Again, for Paul, the emphasis was on what was said--to get the info across. But with the false teachers so much more emphasis was placed on how it was said, regardless of the content. One other thing before we dive into the passage. The Greco-Roman public speakers did a lot of bragging about themselves, making that a big part of their presentation--the bigger the brag the better. But the Jewish way of public speaking was just the opposite--very little personal stuff was emphasized in their presentations. And with all that said by way of getting our bearings, let's read the vv. 16-17 as we see Paul's appeal in foolishness: I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. So, here's Paul, making his appeal to the Corinthians to accept him not as a fool through and through, but only to the level that he may boast. Why was that? He wanted to answer fools, as in the false teachers, according to their folly. But Paul also tells them that what he was about to do was not what the Lord would do if he were physically with them. See, Paul is resorting to presenting himself as the Corinthians, and the false teachers would understand things. Paul wants to "compete" with the false teachers, who were foolish and probably mere novices when it came or oratory skill. Paul wanted to match them boast for boast. If the false teachers can boast, Paul figures, he can as well. So Paul here is basically saying, in the same way as Wesley challenged Vizzini to a battle of wits in one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. Only this time it was Paul entering into a battle of folly with the false teachers, with the Corinthians as the judges. We've seen how Paul challenged the false teachers to a battle of foolishness. Now let's take a look at how Paul addresses the Corinthians' experience in foolishness in vv. 18-20. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. Paul is telling the Corinthians what ought to be obvious to them--that in their putting up with the devilish teachers they are doing so to their own hurt. How foolish is that! In so many words Paul says to the Corinthians, "These fools promote themselves and move your emotions. You are led around by the heart and they have captured your mind. But you insist that you are wise enough to tell the difference between what is spiritually true and good, and what is spiritually harmful." Really? And to that, Paul tells them, "Corinthians! Turn away from them! You do, realize, don't you, what they are doing to you. They are calling on you to be their servants. They are separating you from your silver. They are even harming you physically." Some things really don't change. Paul dealt with false teachers leading them away from the truth in his day. Religious cults, even in the name of Jesus have sprung up down through the centuries. Leaders of the "Heaven's Gate" cult convinced 38 people in 1997 to follow them to their deaths as they were slated to reach a spaceship supposedly located in the Halle Bop comet. In 1993, David Koresh led 76 precious souls to their deaths as part of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. But the most infamous cult leader, at least in modern day was Jim Jones, who created the "People's Temple" in the 1950's. In the 1970's, Jones led almost 1000 people to uproot from their homes and create a "socialist utopia" in Jonestown, Guyana. In 1977, over 900 people committed mass suicide at the insistence of Jones. The absolute horror of this is that most of the people who were part of the People's Temple and ended up losing their lives had Baptist backgrounds. One would think they ought to have known better. But Jones was too flamboyant to be overlooked. He held people in the power of his charisma. The point I'm making is that these men, and women leading these cults, captured the minds and hearts of precious souls. Like the false teachers, these cult leaders disguised themselves as ministers of righteousness. And hundreds, if not thousands perished all because of the attractional nature of these leaders. Though the false teachers of Paul's day probably would not have physically killed those who apostatized from the true gospel by joining them, they certainly were capable of leading people to their spiritual destruction. And as Paul said, in so many words, "you allow them to spiritually abuse you!" Well now, it's Paul's turn to engage, and boast in foolishness in vv. 21-33. Let's read together 21-23 before we launch into Paul's past and present activities: To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that-to abuse you! But whatever anyone else dares to boast of-I am speaking as a fool-I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one-I am talking like a madman. Let's stop there for a moment. Notice here that Paul is making a direct comparison with the false teachers. And here, for the first time in this letter, he lets everybody know where the false teachers are coming from. They are Jewish. They are part of the crowd that has been following Paul around, causing trouble. Let me just say in passing here that the false teachers were of the belief that if gentiles wanted to become Christians they had become Jews first, for after all, the Jews were the elect of God. He chose them above all other people on earth. And they are correct. God did elect them. In fact, God created them as a nation. Remember how the Jews, or more specifically, the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob got started. God called Abram and Sarai--worshipers in pagan religion--out of Ur of the Chaldees--Babylon. Remember as well that Abram and Sarai had no kids. And that was exactly the way the Lord wanted it to be. He wanted to create a new people--a people through whom he would save the world in the Person of the Messiah. God did a miracle in Sarai's womb, and the true nation building activity of God began. Well, as we know, the Messiah did come. The false teachers knew that as well. But they clung to the idea that gentiles could not be saved. Only Jews could. That's why the gentile Corinthians had to become Jews. Hence the reason why they were there in their midst. And as an aside, we know Jesus did not come to create a legalistic religious system made of up only one kind of person. No, Jesus came to save people from their sins, be that Jew or gentile. So, Paul begins here--as to what he and the false teachers have in common. Jewish heritage. All well and good. Then he pivots and asks, "Are they servants of Christ?" The obvious answer is no. Remember how he described them in vv. 13-15: disguised servants of righteousness, in league with Satan. So, what Paul is doing in asking "Are they servants of Christ?" is probably something akin to laughing at his own joke. There is no way these false teachers are servants of Christ. Now in vv. 23-33, Paul compares his past history and present concerns with the false teachers. Let's pick it up in the middle of 23 and go to 33, with a couple of comments along the way. with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Let's stop here for a second. Paul grants that these Jews, due to their being outspoken in their religious faith may have fallen out of favor with the powers that be in the Empire and were thrown in jail for their activities. Paul did as well-he found himself in jail many more times than they did. But this is where the comparisons end. Paul goes on to let them have his record full force. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Let me comment on these statements, for there is far more than meets the eye here. In short, Paul was willing to do what it took to bring the gospel not only to the gentiles but to his fellow Jews as well. See, the 39 lashes from the Jews served as a "reinstatement to the synagogue" after someone would get kicked out of the synagogue, especially when something blasphemous was said. In other words, Paul's preaching Christ as the Messiah in a Jewish synagogue didn't exactly go over so well. Paul would get expelled from the synagogue until such time as he desired to get reinstated. Thirty-nine lashes was the ordeal Paul had to go through to return to the synagogue so he could continue to proclaim Christ as Messiah to the Jews. Three times Paul was beaten with rods. This punishment was never done on Roman citizens. We might be thinking, "And? Paul is a Jew." True. But he was also born a Roman citizen. Sort of like a dual citizenship status. The bottom line here is that sometimes Paul used his Roman citizenship status to get him out of thing like beatings, but other times he did not. In other words, Paul did not try to get out of physical abuse by playing the citizenship card. He was willing to suffer as a Jew, for the sake of Christ. Once I was stoned. Check. Paul was stoned and then dragged out of Lystra because his fellow Christians thought he was dead. But he got back up, returned to the city and continued preaching! Three times I was shipwrecked--and the shipwreck Luke tells us about in the book of Acts hadn't happened yet, so in reality Paul was shipwrecked 4 times. a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? Remember how one of the techniques of the professionally trained public speakers included bragging on one's self? I can imagine the false teachers getting hold of this information and concluding, "I can't compete with that!" Indeed. Can you? Can I? Doubt it! But Paul is not finished. If--literally since--I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. What was that all about? Instead of Paul boldly confronting the governor in Damascus demanding his own release, he appeared to tuck tail and escape from Damascus. Truly, Paul was a marked man. The powers that be in Damascus wanted him dead. When he went to Jerusalem after he escaped from Damascus, and a contract was put out on Paul's life. Years later, in Jerusalem, due to a false rumor, Paul was accused of committing a crime in the temple worthy of death. Even when he was being transported as a prisoner to Caesarea, some bounty hunters were seeking his life, but were thwarted in their endeavor. And as we know, Paul did have his date with death, dying as a martyr. Seems to me that the false teachers could not hold a candle to Paul. And I suppose neither would they want to. These guys wanted celebrity status. They were good at making money off of God's people--ultimately off of Jesus. But for Paul, he understood what true discipleship was all about. It was all about denying self, taking up his cross daily and following Christ. And the foolish thing for Paul was that none of the things he listed was considered by the false teachers as badges of honor. And boasting of these things without a doubt caused the false teachers to question Paul all the more. I can hear them say something like, "That Paul really is a piece of work. If he could only get some training, he probably could find something in his life to brag about. But this stuff--all this suffering, not worth mentioning. Paul's life is one disappointing experience after another. I mean, where is the happy talk, the persuasive power to make people feel good when he's done talking to them. If I were Paul, I think I would not open my mouth again--at least not until I can come up with some positive stuff on my repertoire, like I have!" So, Corinthians, who won the battle of foolishness? Depends on who you ask, I suppose. If the one asked was of the world--a non-Christian, doubtless it would have been false teachers. If the one asked was in the world but not of it, sold out to Jesus, I'm sure it would have been Paul. What about you? Who won the contest? False teachers? Or Paul? Did Paul accomplish his objective? Did he successfully answer fools according to their folly? So what can we take away from this message today? I have 3 application points. First, it was obvious that Paul was far outside his comfort zone, especially when it came to his boasting-something the Lord would not have done had he been there physically. He did it out of love for the Corinthians, ultimately to win them back to the Lord. For us, a sobering question: How far out of your comfort zone are you willing to go to show your love and commitment to the Lord and His people? Think of who Paul was. I reminded us last week that in Paul's B.C. days, he was a model Jew. A member of the Jewish ruling council, whose job it was to make sure that his fellow Jews were carrying out the 613 commands of the Old Testament Scripture. After the Lord saved him, where did he sent Paul? Pagan Corinth. Paul's very lifestyle was, no doubt one of outside his comfort zone. In what ways can you and I serve the Lord when it's not comfortable? Second, as Christians, the Lord has called us to be ourselves. We need to be transparent with our faults and failures. These things are ever before us. But what is not so clear before us is our accomplishments in the Lord and his ways. Did you notice how Paul dealt with his accomplishments-in my opinion, exalted badges of honor! The challenge for all of us is simply this: Let's not exaggerate our accomplishments. Let's not use them as comparison with others, but neither should we act as though we had no accomplishments. Remember what Paul told the Christians in Rome in Romans 12.3: For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. The key to this, Paul says is "Goldilocks theology": not too high, not too low, but just right-as in maintaining sober judgment when we think of our lives. We might think of personal accomplishments like money. It's OK to have money, just as long as money doesn't have us. It's great that we have achieved things in our lives, as long as we don't believe our own press about them. Let's remember whose we are and who gave us the ability to achieve our accomplishments. Third, how we all need to latch on to the encouragement that is very evident in this passage. It is in the form of a question: How easily are you or I moved by how somebody says something verses what they say? This goes for positive info as well as negative. How easy is it for us to be offended by someone's tone of voice even if everything the other person says is what we need to hear. And how often do we discount the info because of the way its said. This calls for ever increasing deepening of our relationships with one another. For if we trust one another then even if the truth is stated in an off-putting way, we know the other person is pointing it out to us because he or she loves us. Let's close out the message today by remembering what motivated Paul to do what did for the Corinthians as he said earlier in this letter, 2 Corinthians 4.5: For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. Paul was willing to live outside his comfort zone, for servants don't have such zones. Paul was able to list what he did, and had no shame about it, because as a servant he lived for the agenda of his Lord, not himself. May servanthood to others for the sake of Jesus be what we are all about. For this is what Paul was all about. Why? Simply but profoundly, The Lord loved Paul. And he loves us. Let's show him that love him by serving others for Jesus' sake.