Well we return again this morning to our study of the letter of Second Corinthians, so turn with me in your Bibles to 2 Corinthians chapter 11. It’s been several weeks already since I last preached in GraceLife, but in my last sermon, we worked through 2 Corinthians 11, verses 16 to 29. And you may remember that it was my goal to walk through that relatively large number of verses and simply explain its meaning before turning to focus on a number of applications that we derive from this text and can apply to our lives. Well, we ran out of time before making it to the application portion of that sermon. But what I’d like to do this morning is to review what we covered last time and then draw out a number of lessons that this text teaches us.
I titled that message “Answering the Fool,” using the language of Proverbs 26, verses 4 and 5, which says, “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.” In these Proverbs, Solomon gives seemingly contradictory counsel on whether (a) to engage with an unbeliever’s arguments or (b) to just walk away so as not to cast pearls before swine. And he does that to teach us that there are times when we must not answer the fool, lest we stoop to his level and imitate his foolishness, and yet there are other times when we must answer the fool, lest we give him reason to think there’s no answer to his arguments and he cement himself in his foolishness. And discerning which time is which is the work of wisdom.
And in 2 Corinthians 10 and 11, as the Apostle Paul continues dealing with the false apostles, Paul has discerned that this was a time to answer fools according to their folly. Aside from their Judaizing legalism, what characterized these false apostles most was their fleshly triumphalism. They boasted in their ministerial accomplishments—their rhetorical skills, their large crowds, their high speaking fees, their mystical spiritual experiences. But the genuine servant of Christ recognizes that all such boasting is absolute folly, because success in ministry is not a function of the minister’s ingenuity, cleverness, winsomeness, strategy, or even spirituality! Any fruit borne in ministry is a sheer gift of the sovereign grace of God, in spite of the weakness—not the strength—of the minister. Those who boast in themselves are the enemies of grace! And so Paul says in chapter 10 verse 17, “But he who boasts is to boast in the Lord.”
But the problem is, the Corinthians have been dazzled by this outward flashiness—this foolish, fleshly boastfulness of the false teachers, They’re enamored with glitz and glam of these self-exalting prosperity preachers. And so Paul decides that if he’s going to bring the Corinthians to their senses and win them back to faithfulness, he’s going to have to answer a fool according to his folly. Since they tolerate the foolish, Paul reasons that he’ll have to become like a fool. He’s going to have to engage in some foolish boasting.
This portion of 2 Corinthians is often called, “The Fool’s Speech.” Verses 16 to 21 functions as a sort of final preface to Paul’s foolish boasting, and then the boast itself comes in verses 21 to 29—and really all the way down to chapter 12 verse 10. And last time, we opened up the meaning of verses 16 to 29 along five points, which I’ll review just briefly.
First, there’s a serrated appeal, in verse 16. Paul writes, “Again I say, let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, so that I also may boast a little.” He says, “I’m about to engage in some foolish boasting, but I appeal to you: don’t get the wrong idea. Please don’t think I’m actually a fool just because I’m temporarily wearing a fool’s mask. What you’re about to see is not the real me. But even if you do regard me as a fool because I start to boast like one, all I ask is that you receive me like you receive fools!”
Second, there’s an important clarification that he gives in verse 17. He says, “What I am saying, I am not saying as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting.” Literally, I am not speaking “according to the Lord.” “I’m not doing this at the Lord’s prompting; I’m not imitating Jesus in doing this—which means the false apostles aren’t imitating Jesus when they do it. This is not the Christlike thing to do!”
Well if this is so antithetical to the character of Christ, why in the world is Paul doing it? That led us to our third point in verses 18 and 19: Paul’s desperate rationale. He says, “Since many boast according to the flesh, I will boast also. For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly.” Many are boasting according to the flesh, which is the opposite of speaking “according to the Lord,” as he calls it in verse 17. It’s to boast according to a fleshly point of view, according to worldly standards, paying special attention to the way things looked outwardly and externally rather than internally and spiritually.
But the Corinthians are totally infatuated with and duped by this fleshly boasting! Verse 19, “For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly.” “You Corinthians think you’re so wise, so discerning, so much more mature than other believers because of your spiritual gifts! But look at you! You’re so wise that you choose fools for leaders!” And so Paul feels forced to lower himself to acting like these fools in order to win the Corinthians back to the truth. It’s a desperate rationale, but it’s also driven by his loving pastoral care for these precious believers.
A fourth point comes in verses 20 and 21, namely the striking contrast between (a) the tyrannical, domineering lordship of the false apostles, and (b) the servant-hearted weakness of the Apostle Paul. He says, “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. To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison.” Paul mocks both the false teachers for their wickedness and the Corinthians for subjecting themselves to it.
And then, after a serrated appeal, an important clarification, a desperate rationale, and this striking contrast, we come to our fifth point: Paul’s foolish boast. He says in verse 21, “But in whatever respect anyone else is bold—I speak in foolishness—I am just as bold myself.” And this boast runs from the second half of verse 21 really, as I said, all the way to chapter 12 verse 10. But we’ve stopped at verse 29.
And this boast is a response to two of the boasts the false teachers make to legitimize their apostleship. First, being Judaizers, they boasted in the purity of their Jewish heritage. And Paul responds by countering that he is as much of a Jew as they are. Verse 22: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.” In other words, Paul says, “I’m a Hebrew, free from the corrupting influences of Gentile political and social culture. I’m an Israelite, entitled to all the rights and privileges as the covenant nation of God. I’m the seed of Abraham, a rightful heir of the covenant promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” In every area that had to do with Jewish privilege, Paul was on a level with these Jewish false teachers.
But they also boasted in their successes in ministry as so-called servants of Christ. And here Paul ups the ante. When it was just about Jewishness, Paul’s response was, “So am I.” But when it comes to being a servant of Christ, Paul moves from, “So am I,” to “I far more.” Verse 23: “Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so.” And after hearing that, what you expect is a litany of accomplishments on Paul’s ministerial CV! But instead of celebrating his victories and successes, he speaks about his sufferings and his shame. Verse 23: “in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. 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. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?”
And we spent last time expounding that catalogue of sufferings. If you weren’t here and are interested in hearing that text exposited, you can go to the back table or go online and look for October 7th’s message, “Answering the Fool.”
But we’re going to spend the rest of our time today drawing out some of the many the implications this passage has for our lives. And there are many. The more I spend time in this passage, the more its riches seem to pour forth unto overflowing. This text has no less than six lessons to teach us about life lived in obedient service to Christ. And the text is so rich that we’re only going to get to three of those lessons this morning, and so we’ll save the other three for next time. But let me go ahead and give them to you up front. This passage is going to teach us much about (1) the Christian’s view of boasting, (2) the Christian’s view of ministry, (3) the Christian’s view of correction, (4) the Christian’s view of tolerance, (5) the Christian’s view of fake Christians, and (6) the Christian’s view of the burdens of ministry. Boasting, ministry, correction, tolerance, fake Christians, and the burdens of ministry.
I. The Christian’s View of Boasting
Well, let’s begin with lesson number one. This passage has much to teach us concerning the Christian’s view of boasting. Some form of the word boast or boasting appears no less than nineteen times in chapters 10, 11, and 12, and eleven of those occurrences come in “The Fool’s Speech,” which means we learn a lot concerning how Christians ought to view boasting. Three things in particular.
A. Totally Incongruous
In the first place, boasting is totally incongruous for a follower of Jesus. And we see this in verse 17. Paul says, “What I am saying, I am not saying as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting.” Literally, I am not speaking “according to the Lord.” That is to say, “To boast about my accomplishments is totally out of accord with the Lord Jesus. It is not something that Jesus would ever do!” And no one in the history of the world ever had more to boast about than He did. And yet you will search the Gospels in vain for a single instance in which Jesus bragged about or congratulated Himself. He never puffed out His chest or wore a self-satisfied grin because He was able to one-up His competition.
No, the Lord Jesus was the supreme example of humility, of lowliness of mind, of surrendering His rights and not insisting on His own due. Philippians 2:6: “Though He was existing in the very nature of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men.” He had every right to continue in heaven, reveling in the worship due unto His name from the saints and angels, in manifest equality with God the Father and God the Spirit. And yet He didn’t cling to that equality, but emptied Himself. He nullified Himself. He made Himself of no effect by taking on the weakness and frailty of a human nature. And then, when He was on earth living as a man, “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient.” The Master obeying commandments! And not just obedient, but “obedient to the point of death.” The Author of Life submitting Himself to death! And not just death, but “even death on a cross.” And as the divine law said that everyone who was hanged on a tree was cursed (Deut 21:23), so also did the sinless Son of God—the fountain of all blessing—become a curse in the place of His people (Gal 3:13), as He bore our sins in His body on the cross (1 Pet 2:24). The beginning, middle, and end of the Gospel by which we are saved—the incarnation of Christ, the perfect life of Christ, and the substitutionary death of Christ—is a wholesale denial of self-exaltation and the embrace of self-abnegation! How incongruous it would be for those whose salvation has been won by self-denial to go around boasting in ourselves!
But more than that! Not only has our Savior accomplished our salvation by humble self-abnegation, but He has granted that salvation to us as a sheer gift of grace. Not only couldn’t we achieve our salvation; in our natural state we’re so corrupted by sin that we can’t even receive the salvation accomplished for us, unless the sovereign King of Grace subdues our sinful hearts and grants us the gifts of repentance and faith in Him! And so Paul reminds the Corinthians in his first letter, 1 Corinthians 1:26: “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, the base, the despised, the nobodies,” why? “So that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus.”
And then again in 1 Corinthians 4:7—which is just the tagline of every Christian’s life: “What do you have that you did not receive?” That ought to be the motto of every Christian’s life. What do I have that I haven’t received? Everything that I call mine has been a generous gift from my Heavenly Father’s unspeakably lavish grace. I earned none of it! I am responsible for none of it! All the credit, all the glory goes to the bounty of His grace! So what’s the consequence? “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” You see? Grace destroys all boasting! All grounds for boasting are totally undermined by a helpless humanity and a sovereignly gracious God!
And do you know what that means? If grace is the enemy of boasting, boasting is the enemy of grace. And so for a people who have been saved by grace, are being sanctified by grace, are called into ministry and service by grace, it is totally incongruous for us to boast in our own labors, to brag on our own accomplishments. It would be foolishness, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:17. One commentator glossed that as “sheer idiocy” (Guthrie, 537). Another said, “Any boasting about service for Christ, and certainly any comparisons, are not only foolish but totally preposterous” (Harris, 797). Boasting is totally incongruous for a follower of Jesus.
B. Intensely Uncomfortable
And therefore, in the second place, boasting should make the genuine servant of Christ intensely uncomfortable. And you see this intense discomfort in the Apostle Paul all throughout this section of his letter. We mentioned that verses 16 to 21 are really Paul’s third preface to his foolish boasting. He spoke of it first in chapter 10 verse 8. He said, “For even if I boast somewhat further about our authority…I will not be put to shame.” And then in chapter 11 verse 1 he entreats them to “bear with him in a little foolishness.” And you’d think he’d get to it after that, but boasting is so antithetical to his character that he goes on for the next 14 verses to explain why he’s going to act so foolishly as to boast. And then he comes to verse 16 and says, “Again I say, let no one think me foolish.” He’s going to act like a fool, but he wants them to recognize that it’s not the real him.
And again in verse 17: “What I am saying, I am not saying as the Lord would, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of boasting.” He’s gotten one sentence in to his third preface to his boasting, and he’s got to stop again! And then again in verse 21, as he begins his boast, he can’t help but interrupt himself once more: “But in whatever respect anyone else is bold—I speak in foolishness—I am just as bold myself.” He’s embarrassed and absolutely disgusted to be talking like this! And then in verse 23: “Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so.” “This is insane! Am I really boasting about how I’m a better servant of Jesus than someone else? I must be beside myself! I must be out of my mind to talk like this!”
When you get down to chapter 12 verse 1, he doesn’t want to let too much time pass between his expressing disgust for boasting, so he says, “Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable.” He says, “You’ve made this necessary, Corinthians, but it really doesn’t profit anybody anything.” In verses 2 through 5, he has to speak of himself in the third person because he can’t stand drawing attention to himself or his own experiences. He says, “I know a guy who was caught up to the third heaven.” And then in verse 5 he says, “On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.” He invents a person because he finds boasting so distasteful! And then finally in chapter 12 verse 11, at the close of this “Fool’s Speech,” he says, “I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me.”
Philip Hughes comments on Paul’s language here: “The whole tenor of his language here, his obvious embarrassment in broaching such a subject, conveys the impression more powerfully than a mere disclaimer could do that to speak of himself, who he is and what he has done and endured, is something thoroughly distasteful to him. It does not come naturally to the man who has denied self and whose whole being is now taken up with the person and work of Christ. Nothing, in fact, could be more uncongenial to him” (396). “Obvious embarrassment, thoroughly distasteful, nothing could be more uncongenial.” Other commentators say, “Intensely embarrassed” (Guthrie, 534), “intensely uncomfortable,” (Carson, 109), “utterly detestable” (Carson, 113), “sends him into spiritual agony” (Carson, 114). Charles Hodge says, “These references to his labor and sufferings were wrung from him, filling him with a feeling of self-contempt” (642).
This is how the genuine servant of Christ feels about boasting in himself. Dear friends, ask yourselves: Is this how boasting in your accomplishments makes you feel? Is there this instinctive aversion, this intense discomfort, this utter distaste and even embarrassment at the notion of drawing attention to yourself? Does such commentary on your own worthiness have to be wrung from you? Or do you kind of like the praise and recognition? Do you like getting the attention? Are you pretty quick to make mention of the books you’ve read, or the classes you’ve taken, or the papers you’ve published? Are you one of those people that loves to post evidence of your spirituality on social media, so everyone can see that you’ve done your devotions this morning, or that you’re meeting someone for discipleship, or that you’ve been out evangelizing this week?
Dear friends, that’s not the spirit that we see modeled here in the Apostle Paul. We need to crucify our lust for the praise of men, which fuels our fleshly boasting. And we do that by resting in the blesséd joy that God accepts us and welcomes us to Himself on the basis of what Jesus has done, not on the basis of what we can get men to see that we’ve done! Our cry must not be, “God, I thank You that I am not like the sinners, and I thank you that I fast and I tithe and I accomplish this and that in my Christian life!” Our cry has always been, and must ever continue to be, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner! Lord, I’ve got nothing to bring before you but my sin. All my hope is in your mercy to poor sinners, on the basis of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice.” When that’s your attitude—that, as Paul says in Romans 7:18, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” that you’ve got nothing you haven’t received as a gift of God’s grace—you’ll experience the intense discomfort with boasting that marks the genuine servant of Christ.
C. Only in Weakness
So the Christian’s view of boasting is that it is totally incongruous for a follower of Christ, and that it makes the genuine servant of Christ intensely uncomfortable to engage in. In the third place, we learn from this text that if the faithful minister of the Gospel ever does boast, it is not in his spiritual victories, exploits, and accomplishments, but only in his sufferings, shame, defeats, and weaknesses.
As we said earlier, when Paul finally gets to his foolish boast, and he makes the claim that in whatever respect anyone claims to be a servant of Christ, he is a far better servant, you’d expect to hear an avalanche of ministerial successes! You’d expect, “I’ve preached the gospel in more lands and to more people groups; I’ve won more converts, established more churches, and traveled more miles; I’ve spoken to more crowds, raised more money, and performed the most spectacular miracles” (cf. Carson, 116). But that is not what we get. We get an avalanche of ministerial hardships, of sufferings, of weaknesses! At the top of the false apostles’ ministry resumé are their public speaking skills, their extensive crowds, their large honorariums, and their mystical spiritual experiences. At the top of Paul’s ministry resumé are labors, imprisonments, beatings, and near-death experiences. This is certainly not what we expect!
And it’s certainly not how we boast! When we think of a “successful” ministry for Christ’s sake, we think of tabulating all sorts of accomplishments. Degrees earned from Bible College or Seminary. Theses and dissertations written. Books and articles published. Sermons preached. Conference invitations. Different cities, and states, and countries traveled to for ministry. We think of money raised, buildings erected, selfies taken with Christian celebrity pastors. Or maybe a bit closer to home: we think of years of church attendance, the number of times we’ve read through the Bible, the hours we’ve prayed, the theology books we’ve read, the knowledge we’ve amassed, maybe even the outreaches we’ve done, or the counseling cases we’ve solved, or the number of disciples we’ve turned out, or ten thousand other things.
But look down to the section immediately following this catalogue of sufferings. In 2 Corinthians 11:30, Paul says, “If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness.” And again in chapter 12 verse 5 he says, “On my own behalf I will not boast, expect in regard to my weaknesses.” And why is that? Why will Paul only boast in his weaknesses? Well, because, you might say, when we’re thinking of ourselves rightly, weakness is all there is! This is who we are. We are not the wise, mighty, and noble. We’re the foolish, the weak, and the despised. We saw that in 1 Corinthians 1 and 1 Corinthians 4. But look at 2 Corinthians 12:9. Paul writes, “And [Christ] has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Paul will boast in his weaknesses because it is in his weakness that the power of Christ is perfected. It is against the black backdrop of human weakness that the brilliant glory of the power of God shines the more brightly. It is when the minister is bankrupt of his own strength, destitute of his own glory, and can do nothing but cry out to God for help that God shows up, and works through your frail and feeble efforts to make His Word effectual in the lives of His people—it is then that there is no doubt who the glory belongs to! It is then that your weakness showcases the glory of Christ’s power!
And that is what ministry is all about. That is what life is all about. It is about magnifying the glory of God’s sovereign power. It is about debasing self and exalting Christ. He must increase, and I must decrease. And Paul says, “If the way He increases is for me to decrease to weakness, then oh I will boast in my weakness! I will glory in my weakness! Because my weaknesses become the occasion for my greatest joy, namely, the magnification of the glory of Jesus!
Now, this does not mean that we’re supposed to be proud of our sacrifices for Christ. We’re not supposed to go around trying to one-up one another: “I’ve gotten fired from three jobs because I’m a Christian!” “Oh yeah? Well I’ve been fired five times because I’m a Christian!” No. Remember that Paul is wearing the mask of a fool as he writes this passage. Instead, it simply means that we are to point away from ourselves and our own glory, repudiate any purely-external, worldly, fleshly definitions of “success,” and be fond of speaking of only that which tends to the magnification of Christ’s power, Christ’s glory, Christ’s honor. And so Paul says, both in 1 Corinthians 1:31 and 2 Corinthians 10:17, “He who boasts is to boast in the Lord.” In Philippians 3:3 he says the true Christian “glories in Christ Jesus.” And in Galatians 6:14 he says, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” I am weak, I am shameful, I am sinful, I am worthless when left to myself! For me to accomplish anything of value, for me to be of any service to Christ’s Church, for me to bring Him any glory at all—oh, how powerful must the cross be! How much must the cross have overcome! What abundant grace God must lavish on His people!
II. The Christian’s View of Ministry (vv. 20–21)
Well, we’ve seen how much this text has to teach us concerning the Christian’s view of boasting. A second lesson we glean from this passage concerns the Christian’s view of ministry. Namely, that biblical ministry is a ministry of service, not of tyrannical overlordship. And we see this in the contrast between Paul and the false apostles that is outlined in verses 20 and 21. Paul says, “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. To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison!”
Paul says the false apostles enslaved the Corinthians—speaking of both (a) the unbearable yoke of Judaizing legalism they saddled the Corinthians with and (b) the heavy-handed authoritarianism by which they sought to domineer them. He says they devoured them, in the same sense Jesus says the Pharisees devoured widows houses in Luke 20:47—that is, by bleeding them dry financially. They parasitically attached themselves to the church, demanded their usual large speaking fees, and wound up eating the Corinthians out of house and home, as it were. They took advantage of the Corinthians, which is the same word Paul uses in chapter 12 verse 16 when he speaks of taking someone in by deceit. They exalted themselves over the Corinthians by playing up their ministerial celebritism and high-powered polish, wowing the Corinthians into viewing them as the spiritual elite while they were just “ordinary Christians.” And Paul even says the false apostles hit the Corinthians in the face, which may speak of the kind of verbal humiliation that you’d expect from those who exalt themselves and take advantage of and enslave others. But it may also have referred to actual physical violence. These teachers so lorded their authority over the Corinthians that they may have even administered corporal punishment!
But this is the absolute antithesis of genuine, biblical, pastoral ministry. And Paul contrasts himself with this dominating, lordly spirit when he says in verse 21: “To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison!” And we look to the rest of 2 Corinthians to fill in the gaps of that contrast. The false apostles enslave the Corinthians. But keep a finger in chapter 11 and turn over to chapter 4 verse 5. Paul says, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” “I’m not your Lord! Christ Jesus is your Lord! You’re slaves of Christ, not of Paul! In fact, we preach that we ourselves are your slaves, not that you’re our slaves! My ministry exists to serve you; you don’t exist to serve my ministry!” He says virtually that in chapter 12 verse 15. Keep a finger in chapter 4 and flip back there. He says, “I do not seek what is yours, but you; for children are not responsible to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls.” “You’re my spiritual children! I exist to take care of you, not to force you to take care of me!” You see, the minister spends and is spent for the people, not the people for the minister!
The false apostles devour the Corinthians by insisting that they be supported financially for their ministry among them. But in chapter 11 verse 7, Paul says to the Corinthians, “I preached the gospel of God to you without charge.” Verse 9: “When I was present with you and was in need, I was not a burden to anyone; for when the brethren came from Macedonia they fully supplied my need, and in everything I kept myself from being a burden to you, and will continue to do so.” They demand your money! I refuse your money!
The false apostles take advantage of the Corinthians by craftiness and deception. But turn back to chapter 4, verse 2. Paul says, “We’ve renounced disgraceful underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” “There’s no underhandedness! There’s no sneakiness! There’s no tampering and twisting of the Scriptures to spin them to our advantage! We’re open books! Our lives are lived out in the open for you to examine and for God to examine!”
The false apostles exalt themselves over the Corinthians. But again in chapter 11 verse 7, Paul says that he humbled himself so that they might be exalted. In chapter 10 verse 1 he exhorts them “by the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” In chapter 2 verse 4 we learn that even the severe letter, in which he sternly rebuked the Corinthians, even that was written with anguish of heart and with tears. And so far from hitting them in the face, Paul says in chapter 12 verse 19 that he does all he does “all for your upbuilding, beloved.” Everything is for their edification. Turn back to chapter 1 verse 24. There he says, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy.” We don’t act as your lords and strike you in the face to establish our dominance over you and to make you miserable. No, we are your co-laborers! We work alongside you and labor for your joy!
Dear friends, the contrast ought to be apparent. The faithful minister of the Gospel is not a lord, but a servant. There is a wholesale repudiation of a domineering spirit. The truly loving shepherd of Christ’s sheep renounces all forms of despotism, domineering, and dictatorial power. This is the command the Lord Jesus left us. In Luke 22:25, as the disciples are fighting about who’s the greatest among them, Jesus says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.” You see, that heavy-handed, domineering spirit—that’s what marks the rulers of the world system. But in the kingdom of God, true greatness displays itself in the humility of servanthood.
And so GraceLife, beware of any professing Christian teachers, pastors, or leaders who have it in their minds that you exist to serve them. Genuine Christian ministers exist to serve you, to spend and be spent for your souls, humble themselves to exalt you, to build you up, to labor alongside you for your joy and to see you strengthened in the faith. Beware of those who don’t meet these qualifications. But also, take care that as you carry out your ministry in the body of Christ, as the Lord gives you the privilege of ministering to others—perhaps even in some cases granting you a measure of authority over them—take care that you stifle any hint of a domineering spirit that might be seeking to crop up in your heart. Remember, from this contrast between Paul and the false apostles, that biblical ministry is a ministry of service, not of tyrannical overlordship.
III. The Christian’s View of Correction (vv. 19–21)
Now, having said that, we come to a third lesson this text teaches us, concerning the Christian’s view of correction. And that is that the sensitive, caring, Christlike minister—the one who understands that biblical ministry is a ministry of service and not lordship, the one who eschews the heavy-handed, domineering spirit of tyrants—that minister will sometimes employ vigorous and even harsh language to correct the sheep from particularly dangerous error. I’ll say that again. The sensitive, caring, Christlike minister will sometimes employ vigorous and even harsh language to correct the sheep from particularly dangerous error.
And the evidence for that absolutely permeates this entire passage. In verse 16, he says, “Let no one think me foolish; but if you do, receive me even as foolish, so that I also may boast a little.” He says, “Don’t think I’m an actual fool just because I wear a fool’s mask. But even if you do regard me as a fool because I start to boast like one, in that case, all I ask is that you receive me like you receive fools. And we all know how well you do that! As is evident by your infatuation with these showboating false apostles, boastful fools get a warm reception with you!” In verse 17, he calls the confident boasting that the Corinthians are so enamored with foolishness. In verse 18, he calls it fleshliness. In verse 19, he openly mocks them. He says, “For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly!” “You Corinthians think you’re so wise, so discerning, so much more mature than other believers because of your spiritual gifts! But look at you! You’re so wise that you choose fools for your heroes!” In verse 20, he says, “You tolerate being enslaved! devoured! taken advantage of! hit in the face!” And in verse 21 he comes to the peak of his sarcastic ridicule when he says, “To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison.” “Tyrannical authoritarianism! Parasitic greed! Deceptive trickery! Bold arrogance! And physical violence! Yup! That’s ‘ministerial strength’ all right! That’s visionary leadership! If that’s the standard, I must confess to my shame that I am a failure and a weakling! Shame on me!”
Friends, listen to the way this loving pastor—the one who doesn’t lord it over them but works alongside them for their joy (1:24), the one who severely rebukes them only out of anguish of heart and with many tears (2:4), the one who is their slave for Jesus’ sake (4:5), the one whose heart is opened wide to them (6:11), the one who says, “You are in our hearts to die together and to live together” (7:3), the one who urges them by the meekness and gentleness of Christ (10:1), the one who feels a fatherly jealousy on their behalf (11:2), the one who pledges to spend and be spent for their souls (12:15), the one who does all for their upbuilding (12:19)—this same sensitive, caring shepherd openly mocks the Corinthians for their foolishness! What’s happening? Does Paul have split personalities? Is this a bit of apostolic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?
No! These two pastoral voices are entirely consistent with one another! The same love and compassion for the sheep that issues in tender encouragements and expressions of affection is the same love and compassion that brings forth the severest correction when the sheep are in the midst of wolves. When they’re trapped in a tangled web of sin and can’t break free. The use of this kind of serrated irony is meant to be a kind of spiritual defibrillation—a controlled shock designed to jolt the system and restore a malfunctioning heart back to health. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And Paul, who, again, understands that ministry is servanthood and not lordship does not hesitate to employ severe mockery—the most biting irony—to bring needed correction to the straying sheep.
GraceLife, let me ask you: How would you respond if your pastor spoke to you in this way? If there was sin in your life—perhaps, as would have been the case with the Corinthians here, perhaps even something that you didn’t agree was sinful, but which your pastors were aiming to help you see; and if you were dangerously blind to the disastrous effects of that sin—and your pastors or elders or Bible study shepherds determined that they needed to administer a spiritual defibrillation, and they spoke to you like this, have you kept your heart in such a state of wisdom, soft and sensitive to correction, that you would feel the sting and nevertheless wring out the benefit from it? Or would your pride throw up a wall? Would you foolishly stiffen your neck against the benefit of that correction?
And you might do that in different ways! You might angrily buck against it and say, “Who does he think he is to talk to me that way?” But you might also convince yourself that you’re spiritual and say something like, “Oh, Pastor so-and-so is so great with speaking the truth. But he’s not very loving. He really needs to balance that truth with more love.” You see, we tend to like the idea of being corrected, but we don’t so much like actually being corrected. We say, “Yeah, of course! I’d love it if my brothers and sisters care enough about my soul that they’re courageous enough to call me on my sin. How else am I going to grow?” But then they actually do it—and depending on the severity of the situation may resort to the kind of correction that Paul brings in this text—and you’re like, “Whoa. Hey man, where’s the love?”
Now, I’m not saying you should expect to be regularly pelted with ironic mockery. Biblical correction does not always sound like it does in this passage. But friends, biblical correction does not never sound like it does in this passage, either. Sometimes, this is the strength and severity with which we need to be shaken from the sinful stupor that we’ve mired ourselves in. And I challenge you to examine yourselves and see whether you’d wisely receive it in spite of the sting, or whether you would look Paul in the face, accuse him of being unloving, and forfeit the benefit your shepherds’ correction.
Well, our time is gone. And after two full sermons on this passage, we’re still only scratching the surface. I’m glad to have made it through the first three lessons this text teaches us—the Christian’s view of boasting, the Christian’s view of ministry, and the Christian’s view of correction. We’ll finish up with the last three next time. Let’s pray.