2 Corinthians 11:16-33

Paul’s Defense of His Apostolic Authority, Part 3 — Paul Boasts in the Lord as a Response to his Opponents’ boasting

We’ll see in this passage that Paul engages in “foolish” boasting in order to match his opponents in the eyes of the Corinthian believers. But Paul’s boasting is of a different type. Paul will give some of his credentials, but he much prefers to boast not of his strengths but of his weaknesses and how God uses those weaknesses for his own purpose of Kingdom building.

16 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.

  • So that I too may boast a little. Note the adverb too in this phrase. I believe this is a subtle jab at his opponents; he’s calling them fools.
  • Boasting is the act of fools and Paul proclaims that he’s about to do some himself, though as we’ll see, his boasting is of a different sort than that of his opponents.
  • Paul decided to boast as his opponents do because he knows the Corinthians’ determination to compare him with his rivals and their vulnerability to those who commend themselves. This may be an example of Paul answering fools according to their folly.
    • Pr 26:5. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

17-18 What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast.

  • Many is a pronoun in this case and it’s used here as a reference to Paul’s opponents.
  • According to the flesh.
    • Cf NET. According to human standards.
    • Cf HCSB. In an unspiritual way.
    • Cf NIV (84 & 2011). In the way the world does.
  • I too will boast. Paul will engage in boasting, but his boasting will end up being boasts in God, not in himself.
  • Under normal circumstances, of course, Paul’s conduct and words as a servant of Christ and of the Corinthians would have been marked by the meekness and gentleness of Christ (10:1), not the self-confident boasting of a fool (11:17). It was not the example of Christ or Christ’s special direction that had driven him to this desperate measure of self-exaltation, but his need to win over the Corinthians by following the foolish example of his opponents.

19-21a 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. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!

  • You gladly bear with fools. You tolerate or put up with fools.
  • You gladly bear … you bear it. Grk. anechō. To put up with, to tolerate, or to sustain with the attitude of calm or indifference.
    • Cf 11:3-4. I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.
  • Puts on airs. Grk. epairō has two basic meanings: (1) To lift up, raise up, raise on high. (2) Metaphorically, to be lifted up with pride, to exalt one’s self.
    • Cf NET. Behaves arrogantly toward you.
    • Cf NASB. Exalts himself.
    • The same word is used in 2Co 10:5. We destroy … every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.
  • Strikes you in the face. This is a reference to the opponents insulting the Corinthians, perhaps by literally striking them (cf. Jn 18:22; Ac 23:2).
  • All five actions listed in v20 are signs of an arrogant, domineering attitude on the part of these false leaders.
  • In v21a, which is another statement of irony or sarcasm, Paul says that he was too “weak” to act like his opponents.
  • Under the assumption that Paul’s opponents were from Palestine, it can be further assumed that they had reduced the Corinthians to slavery by robbing them of their liberty in Christ, seeking to impose on them the Mosaic Law (Gal 2:4; 5:1).
  • None of Paul’s readers or hearers would have failed to catch this message with its indictment of their inconsistency. Claiming to be followers of a meek and gentle Christ, they were impressed by and willingly submitted to the aggressiveness and authoritarianism of these teachers who were masquerading as apostles of Christ (v13); yet they were unimpressed by Paul’s weak considerateness.

21b But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that.

  • Paul, having avoided the detailed boasting to this point, now brings himself to it. (See 10:8; 11:1, 6, 16.)

22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I.

  • Hebrews. This refers to Jews of Palestinian descent, especially those whose native tongue was Aramaic or Hebrew and those whose intellectual and cultural heritage was within Palestinian Judaism rather than Diaspora Judaism.
    • If this is an accurate description of Hebrews, then Hellenists would describe Jews living in Palestine or the Diaspora for whom Greek was the first or only language and whose outlook owed more to Diaspora Judaism than to Palestinian Judaism, though this distinction would not usually be pressed.
    • Whether Paul was brought up in Tarsus or Jerusalem, he was a Hebrew of Hebrew parentage (Php 3:5).
  • Israelites. This refers to a citizen of Israel. As an Israelite, Paul was a member and citizen of the nation of Israel.
  • Offspring of Abraham. As a descendant of Abraham who had been circumcised on the eighth day (Php 3:5) Paul was an heir to the covenants based on God’s promise (Eph 2:12). Paul was not a proselyte.
  • All in all, with regard to descent, citizenship, and heritage, Paul was the equal of his rivals—genuinely Jewish.

23-25 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea;

  • When Paul turns from the matter of nationality (v22) to that of achievement (v23-29), he lays claim to superiority over his rivals, not simply equality with them.
  • Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman. What is the correct order of phrases here? What does the phrase I am talking like a madman modify?
    • Is it as the ESV has it?
      • If so, then at first glance it seems that it modifies I am a better one. But that doesn’t make much sense. Why would Paul claim to be a better servant of Christ and then say that that’s talking like a madman?
    • Cf NASB. Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so.
    • Cf NET. Are they servants of Christ? (I am talking like I am out of my mind!) I am even more so.
    • Of the major English translations, I only found one other translation that ordered the phrases like the ESV—the RSV—which is to be expected since the ESV was based on the RSV.
  • Paul begins his list of “accomplishments” at v23; however, the list recounts not triumphs but apparent defeats and relates not to strengths but weaknesses.
  • Forty lashes less one. Grk “forty less one”; this was a standard sentence. The word “lashes” is supplied to clarify for the modern reader what is meant.
  • The Jewish punishment of 39 lashes was given by the synagogue for false teaching, blasphemy, and serious lawbreaking, all of which could have been applied to Paul’s preaching of the gospel, especially to Gentiles (Ac 9:20; 13:5, 14–43; 17:1–3, 10–21; etc.). Forty lashes was the most severe beating allowed by Scripture according to Dt 25:1-3. The Jews, in order to prevent an accidental miscount, reduced the number to 39.
    • Dt 25:1-3. If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.
  • Beaten with rods. This refers to the Roman punishment of admonitio and was the punishment for disturbing the peace. Ac 16:22 describes one of these occasions in Philippi; in this case it was administered by the city magistrates, who had wide powers in a military colony.
    • Ac 16:20-22. When they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.
  • Once I was stoned. Luke describes this in Ac 14:19. Stoning is the most common form of execution in the Bible.
    • Ac 14:19. Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.
  • Three times I was shipwrecked. Of course, this would not include the shipwreck described in Acts 27, which occurred after Paul wrote this.
    • Paul’s description of shipwrecks and other dangerous aspects of his journeys aligns well with other ancient travel narratives, even if Paul’s experiences were especially intense. Nautical archaeologists have identified many ancient shipwrecked boats around the Mediterranean.

26-27 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.

  • In speaking of dangers from rivers and danger from robbers Paul may be thinking of crossing the Taurus range between Perga in Pamphylia and Antioch in Phrygia near Pisidia (Ac 13:14; 14:24), a journey made hazardous by the mountains and the Pisidian highlanders, a very predatory people.
  • Danger from my own people, dangers from Gentiles. Acts records several examples of Jewish plots against Paul’s life before this time (eg Ac 9:23, 29; 14:19; 18:12) but only two incidents involving Gentiles (at Philippi, Ac 16:16-24; and at Ephesus, Ac 19:23-41).
  • Danger from false brothers may point to Paul’s being betrayed to local authorities by counterfeit Christians.
  • Many a sleepless night. This may refer to insomnia because of physical discomfort or illness, but it may also refer to voluntary abstention from sleep owing to the pressure of the work.
  • Often without food. This is referring to fasting, a voluntary abstention of food.
  • In cold and exposure. Grk “in cold and nakedness.” Paul does not mean complete nakedness, however, which would have been repugnant to a Jew; he refers instead to the lack of sufficient clothing, especially in cold weather. A related word is used to 1Co 4:11, also in combination with experiencing hunger and thirst.
    • 1Co 4:11. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless.

28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

  • Apart from other things. Paul refers here either (1) to the external sufferings just mentioned, or (2) he refers to other things he has left unmentioned.
    • I lean toward the latter. Paul’s list of afflictions was illustrative, not exhaustive.
  • None of the hardships in v23-27 were constant. The daily pressure of his concern for the churches, however, was.
  • Paul did not violate Jesus’ teaching about anxiety (Mt 6:25-34). Paul’s concern arose from seeking first God’s Kingdom. He was grappling realistically with present, not future, problems; and he had no anxiety about the relatively trivial matters of food and clothing.
  • As a faithful undershepherd he shared the constant burden of the Chief Shepherd with regard to all the sheep.

29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

  • Who is weak, and I am not weak? Paul sympathized with the weaknesses of his converts in faith, conduct, or conscience (cf 1Co 8:7-13; 9:22; 12:26).
  • Who is made to fall.
    • Cf NET & NASB. Who is led into sin.
  • And I am not indignant? It’s difficult to know what Paul means by this, but several suggestions have been made. Any or all of these might be in view.
    • Paul was angry with the person who caused another to sin.
    • His heart burned with shame when a Christian brother or sister fell or when someone dishonored the name of Christ.
    • His compassion burned for those who were led into sin and longed to restore them to repentance.
    • Cf NASB. Without my intense concern?
  • Perhaps the Jono paraphrase of this verse might be: I am gentle and sympathetic with the weak. If someone is made to fall into sin, I’m angry about it.

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

  • This seems to be a summary of the previous paragraph.
  • Both Paul and his opponents boasted, but Paul’s boasting was distinctive, since he prided himself on evidences of his weakness that became occasions for displays of God’s surpassing power in supporting and delivering him.

31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.

  • Paul realized that the record sounded incredible and that his rivals might easily dismiss it as gross exaggeration. Hence his appeal to divine omniscience.
  • There is probably also a forward reference to the instances of Paul’s weaknesses cited in v32-33, and perhaps also to 12:7-8 (regarding the events surrounding his thorn in the flesh).
  • We have already seen that the trustworthiness of Paul’s accounts has been brought into question by his opponents (1:17-18).

32-33 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.

  • Paul’s experience in Damascus shortly after encountering the risen Christ (Ac 9:8–25) took place under the Nabatean governor there during the reign of the Nabatean king Aretas IV who reigned from 9 BC to AD 40.
    • King Aretas IV was the father-in-law of Herod Antipas and reigned over the Nabatean Arabs.
    • Nabataea (the Arabia of Gal 1:17) stretched east and south of the Jordan River.
  • Governor. Grk “ethnarch.” The governor was an official called an ethnarch who was appointed to rule over a particular area or constituency on behalf of a king.
  • The city of Damascus. Grk “the city of the Damascenes.”
  • Grk sarganē. A basket made of rope or a hamper.
    • In Acts 9:25 the same basket used in Paul’s escape is called a spyris. It is defined as a reed basket or a hamper.
      • Ac 9:23-25. When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul [Paul]. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
    • Whatever the type of basket, it was obviously large enough to fit Paul inside, at least mostly.
  • Having to flee in a basket was a striking example of Paul’s “weakness” (v30) as a result of being called to suffer for Christ’s name (see Acts 9:16).
    • Ac 9:16 [Jesus speaking]. I will show him how much he [Saul of Tarsus] must suffer for the sake of my name.
  • Why did Paul mention this? It seems out of place, or like an afterthought. Options include:
    • Perhaps Paul mentioned it because it had shattered the residual pride of Saul the Pharisee and had become the supreme example of the humiliation and weakness he was boasting about.
    • Perhaps he was referring to it because his opponents had used it to ridicule him and prove his cowardice.
    • Maybe he spoke of it because it was probably the first attempt on his life and such a significant reversal of roles that it had been indelibly impressed on his memory.
  • Whatever the reason for its inclusion, this forms a very suitable backdrop for what follows: an embarrassing descent to escape human hands and then an exhilarating ascent into the presence of God. But that’s a discussion for next time.


Final notes:

All throughout this passage there is a comparison between Paul and his rivals at Corinth. To itemize them in the Final Notes section would be to almost re-quote the passage, so I won’t do that.

In this passage Paul simply outboasts the boasters showing that he outranks his opponents in suffering service and, paradoxically, taking pride in his weakness (v30)—all in order to win back his converts to their former affections (6:11-13; 11:3).

Over the last several years, we’ve been looking at Paul’s journeys as recorded by Luke and placing Paul’s letters within the Acts narrative. If we compare Paul’s lists of sufferings (quoted below) with Luke’s account of his experiences given in Acts, it immediately becomes clear how fragmented, but not unreliable, Luke’s record is. Since the writing of this letter fits into Luke’s account in Ac 20:2, only the events recorded before Ac 20:2 relate to the comparison. To be sure, Luke gives ample proof of Paul’s hard work (v23; Ac 18:3) and records his stoning at Lystra (v25; Ac 14:19). But he mentions only 1 imprisonment before Ac 20—that at Philippi (Ac 16:23-40)—and one of his three Roman beatings with rods (v25), also at Philippi (Ac 16:22-23). From Acts we know nothing of other imprisonments (v23); those at Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome occurred later.

  • Cf Clements account in 1 Clem 5. Paul obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned.

We also know nothing of the five whippings in the Jewish synagogues (v24), about the other two beatings at the hands of the Gentiles (v25; but note 2Ti 3:11), or about the three shipwrecks and the night and day in the open sea, when he probably clung to wreckage while awaiting rescue. (The shipwreck in Ac 27:13-44 happened later, of course.)

Paul’s lists of sufferings in his Corinthian letters:

  • 1Co 4:9-13. I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
  • 2Co 4:8-12. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
  • 2Co 6:4-5. As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger….
  • 2Co 11:23-28. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; 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.
  • 2Co 12:10. For the sake of Christ, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Php 3:2–11

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.




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