Accept Me as a Fool
2 Corinthians 11:16–33 – 2 Corinthians: A Testimony to Suffering in the Power of God
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 25, 2019 (am)
Pro.26:4 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. In 2Co.11 Paul is about to act on v.5. So, he’s giving great attention to explaining how he’s still honoring v.4. And in this passage, there are lessons for all of us!
Paul was doing an amazing thing in this affluent, cosmopolitan city. He had planted this church on his second missionary journey (Act.18:1-17) and, as usual, he had begun among the Jews—he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade both Jews and Greeks (4) that the Christ was Jesus (5). But, also as usual, they opposed and reviled him (6). So, Paul left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, who lived right next door to the synagogue (7). And he was having some success. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household (8a). It seems like his replacement, Sosthenes (17, cf. 1Co.1:1), did as well. And also many of the Corinthians… believed and were baptized (8). Still, the opposition was so sharp in Corinth that the Lord appeared to Paul one night in a vision, [and said], “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (9-10). Paul stayed there a year-and-a-half (11). But the Jews did try to bring him up on charges, saying he was persuading people to worship God contrary to the law (13).
In all of this, Paul didn’t change his ways in Corinth. He wasn’t just going to enter into the cultural and intellectual games they were used to playing there. He wasn’t going to put on airs (20) with them. He wasn’t going to inflate himself or his gospel message by dressing it up according to Corinthian convention. He wasn’t going to write long, eloquent sermons or exact large speaking honorariums like the false apostles there. He told them exactly how he approached his ministry among them: 1Co.2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. And with regard to not receiving money (that decision which evidently kept getting picked on by the false apostles to discredit his ministry), he said: 9 … I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. 10 As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. And that’s all there was to it!
So, what’s the point? For their benefit, for their spiritual good, Paul decided to put aside the use of impressive skills and to pay his own way in Corinth. And he wasn’t going to depart from that practice even if he was ridiculed for it, or upstaged, or persecuted! The demonstration of the Spirit and of power in Corinth was going to be the changed lives of the Corinthians in response to the pure, simple gospel, unaided by any trappings of sophistication and affluence! He wasn’t going to dumb down the gospel. He just wasn’t going to preach and teach it as one more competing idea in Corinth, one more crafted [argument or] lofty opinion (10:5). They might call him a babbler, as they did in Athens (Act.17:18). But he would respond: 6 Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things. I brought you the power of God! (1Co.2:5)
The real power and eloquence Paul exhibits in Corinth, as even they noted, was in his letters, but particularly in his appeals to them to repent and embrace the pure gospel he had preached, God’s gospel (7). And few places in his Corinthian letters does he turn up the volume on the passion of his appeal like he does in today’s text, where he stoops to speaking their language in one final effort to rouse and raise their sights to the glorious work of God among them. He wants them to recognize that the false apostles (13) they’re listening to have no advantage over him in any way. He alone bears the marks of a true apostle. Let’s pose just two questions to this text.
What Is Paul Trying to Accomplish Here?
Because of where we divided this text between last week and this week, we could miss the flavor of Paul’s quick repetition here: 16 I repeat, let no one think me foolish. … So, don’t forget that we spent all our time last Sunday on a text where he was carefully setting up the statement that might sound foolish. And now he’s stating it again as a bare proposition, closing off his explanation much as he began it (cf. 1). So: 16 I [don’t want you to] think [I’m] foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. This is priceless! And it sets up this remaining passage so well. If you think I’m foolish anyway, then ate least grant me the grace of listening to me like you listen to other [fools]—meaning the false apostles (13) who surely are [fools] because they speak [foolishly] without even recognizing it as that! And you Corinthians listen to them, without recognizing it either! So, at least grant me that same grace so that I can speak to you like they do!
19 For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! Biting sarcasm, some say. And I’m fine with that assessment as long as we don’t lose touch with the fact that Paul himself identified his [feelings] as divine jealousy (1). He’s dead earnest in his appeal to these unrepentant Corinthians who think themselves wise! 20 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. Evidently these were among the methods of the false apostles, and it seems like they should be taken as literal descriptions. We’ve already alluded to [putting] on airs. Devours you is where we get the idea of a pretty heavy financial demand: preys upon you (Kruse 186). But, takes advantage of you, strikes you in the face, these guys were real tyrants—a pretty stark contrast with Paul’s display of the meekness and gentleness of Christ (10:1), [working] for [their] joy, for [their standing] firm in [their] faith (1:24). 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. Now, at last, here it is! 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! And with that, his long-disclaimed boast according to the flesh (18) is done!
From there, Paul began [boasting] only of the things that show [his] weakness (cf. 30), listing all the hardships that we read a few moments ago. We don’t need to try to match these up with the various records of life and ministry elsewhere because we know these are just a sampling of his sufferings. The [shipwreck] we know the most about (Act.27), for instance, hadn’t happened yet, nor had the riot in Jerusalem (Act.21ff.) or his imprisonments in Caesarea (Act.24) and Rome (Act.28). Still, there are a couple of items on this list that are worth noting: the final item in the list of [dangers] (26), and the final item overall (28). Surely this danger from false brothers (26), which almost seems to [stand] alone in the list (Hafemann 440), is referring at least to those in Corinth. Then his anxiety for all the churches (28) coming at the end gives clear indication that this was the most excruciating suffering of all (Hafemann 441), like it’s an ascending list. Two things are worthy of note about this anxiety:
The thing that keeps it from being the sort of anxiety we’re supposed to cast off, to replace (cf. Phi.4:6), is that it’s wrapped up with the needs of others, not self. Paul is longing for their best before God, not something selfish.
And the fact that this tops the list of his suffering shows us again a Christlike model. We can get caught up in the physical sufferings of Christ as though they were the greatest trauma at the cross, forgetting the rejection of God in judgment for our sins that was endured by His eternal Son Who had existed for all ages past in perfect and loving fellowship with His Father and the Spirit. It was that rejection, not his physical beatings, that made Him cry out: My God, my God Why have you forsaken me? (Mar.15:34) So it is here. Even beyond this stunning list of physical sufferings, Paul was touched most by His spiritual concern for those whom God had saved through his ministry, and appointed him to shepherd.
There’s one more thing we want to note about this listing: Apostleship wasn’t for the timid. When Jesus said to Ananias about Paul: I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (Act.9:16), I don’t think anyone could have imagined all He meant! But these experiences didn’t chase Paul away; he pressed on, trusting in God to meet him in every need.
What Should Be Our Response to It? – Two More Questions
How do you evaluate effective gospel ministry and therefore effective gospel ministers? Is it according to their unique and undeniable gifts that often build stunningly large churches, an array of media ministries (broadcast, print, etc.), and large churches built around hero worship on the platform and personal anonymity in the pew? Or do you evaluate ministries and ministers according to their labors to express and embody a clear gospel witness within your personal relational spheres, and to their willingness to suffer in those labors, sometimes severely, whether in their standard of living or the circumstances of their lives or their reputation in the community? Do you evaluate according to their willingness to carry anxiety in their hearts for the spiritual growth of the body you’re part of, and also quite often for your own personal relationship with the God of the gospel? Is this how…?
How effectively do you embody a willingness to suffer in your calling as a minister of the gospel? Jesus said we would suffer in this world, just as He did (Joh.16:2-4,33). And if you think about it, that only makes sense: this world lives in active, intentional rebellion against the very same sovereign, all-knowing, all-powerful God to Whom we seek to live in unqualified, unswerving obedience. We’re going to be at odds with such a world! And at times we’re going to be at odds with one another when some of the ways of this world seep into the church due to our weakness and our need.
I opened this morning quoting Pro.26:4-5. But that wasn’t the opening sentence I wrote earlier this week as I was beginning to compose this message. My first thought was this: Outside of the original Corinthian congregation themselves, I believe those who have been most blessed by Paul’s correspondence with this church over the nearly twenty centuries since it was written are pastors with unimpressive gifts. But this passage has something to say to all the rest of us as well!
These letters drive home to us that the effectiveness of the gospel is not dependent in any way on human gifts. This doesn’t excuse any lack of diligence on the part of gospel ministers. Nor does it suggest that all of them are equally gifted. It doesn’t suggest that none are gifted for broader ministry horizons than others—there were eleven other Apostles whose ministry spheres don’t seems to have been as broad as Paul’s. What it does suggest is that giftings and callings are in the hands of the Lord (cf. Rom.11:29), and that He’s also the One to be honored for the outcomes. It suggests that God is able to do mighty things through men and women of modest gifts. And even more, it reassures these same people that the God’s power is not limited by the smallness of their abilities. It reminds us that Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases (Psa.115:3). He doesn’t have needs that he looks to us to fulfill (cf. Psa.50:12). It reminds us, as Jonathan once said to his armor bearer, that nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few (1Sa.14:6). It reminds us that He can even speak through a donkey if He chooses to do so (cf. Num.22:28).
This is why Paul is [boasting] in his weakness here (30), because it glorifies God Who deserves the glory! And it’s been this way from the very beginning of his calling in Christ! This is the reason I believe he included this interesting reminder of his experience in Damascus when he was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped the dragnet set by the governor (32-33; Act.9:23-25). Do you remember why he was going to Damascus in the first place? Act.9:1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Then he left Damascus by these stealth means to avoid the very persecution he’d come to perpetrate! Weakness from the start! We need to recognize that as we grow in our understanding of God and His ways, we’re continually going to be needing to recalibrate the standard by which we evaluate weakness and strength. Now, come back next week!