Paul’s Resume of Suffering: 2 Corinthians 11:16-33

The following is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on June 10, 2018.  You can listen to the sermon right here.

Mean:

Verse 16-21:  “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 with the Lord’s authority but as a fool.  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.  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.”

Let’s go back to Aaron James’ passage from last week to get some context for our passage here.  The Apostle Paul said that he felt a divine jealousy for this Corinth church.  Paul had labored hard to get them the gospel which he describes that he did free of charge in verse 7. Paul even declared in verse 8 that he robbed from other churches in order to serve the Corinth church.  The Apostle had labored hard and had used up other generous resources given to him in order to minister to the Corinth church.  Now, these other groups were coming in…’super apostles’, ‘deceitful workers,’ and ‘false apostles’.  These groups are tied to Satan as Paul writes that the devil can come disguised as an angel of light.

‘Super-Apostles’ were false teachers but were perhaps more skilled then Paul at speaking and/ or being persuasive.  Some of these groups may have been Judaizers or other Jewish groups trying to add works or Old Testament stuff to the gospel of Christ.  Some groups may have been influenced by more Greek philosophy.  Mystery religions during this time emphasized ‘secret knowledge’ and often times that was a form of Gnosticism- material reality is evil and the spiritual realm is pure.

In our passage today, Paul’s frustration seems to have built up.  He is going full sarcasm. Apparently, some of these super apostles were calling Paul a fool so Paul embraces that and mocks the Corinthians for being ‘wise’ declaring himself a fool so the Corinthians should welcome him on in.  He is going for a lot of irony.

These false teachers were making slaves of the Corinthians and this likely means subjecting the Corinthians to a controlling and domineering style of leadership.  The phony teachers were also ‘devouring’ the Corinthians and this may mean financially taking them for what they were with.  Persuasively teaching a false gospel and charging the Corinthians for the service, all the while putting Paul down.

‘Puts on airs’ is a strange translation for the ESV.  It could also be translated ‘push themselves forward’ or ‘lifting themselves up.’  

Finally, we come to ‘strikes you in the face’.  This could mean humiliating the Corinthians in the sense of teachers pushing them around but some commentators think it may refer to a physical act of violence.  Some members of the church had perhaps been struck by domineering type leaders.

Paul again employs sarcasm.  ‘To my shame, I must say we were too weak for that.’  Paul is saying, ‘hey, we could have dominated you and punched you in the face and enslaved you’ but we didn’t.  Paul being filled with the Spirit had maintained an example of godly leadership in his presentation of the gospel to this church.

He says, I can boast with the best of them.  Paul says he would be a fool to boast but nevertheless, could certainly do it.

As you are hearing these verses, think about the pain that is here.  The irony and the sarcasm that Paul is using shows a deeper sadness as he had worked so hard to get the gospel to the Corinthians and they were betraying Paul and not trusting the Apostle.  More than that, they were being deceived, letting all these super apostles come teach, and turning away from the gospel.  A lot of pain is in these words and that is why some commentators think the severe letter has been tacked on here to 2 Corinthians.  Paul is sarcastically and aggressively calling the church out.

Verse 22-23:  “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- with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.”

Paul has a succession here to his boasting which he says is utter foolishness but plays along anyway.  There are three designations presented:  1)  Hebrew was the national designation of the people of God.  2)  Israelites was the theocratic name.  3)  Offspring of Abraham marked them as Abraham’s heirs that would inherit the messianic kingdom.  

This follows into being servants of Christ.  Of note here is that Paul doesn’t outright say that they are not professing servants of Christ.  Paul is simply saying, again probably with a degree of sarcasm, that he is more.  It is important to note again from Aaron’s text last week in verse 14’ ‘the devil can come as an angel of light.’  Perhaps appearing to be servants of Christ but carrying a toxic, perverted gospel.

While stating he is talking like a madman, he is being very, very sarcastic, Paul begins to describe his resume of suffering.  Considerable.  A list of trials and pains and agony that he has received as a result of him spreading the gospel around.  Even in his talking like a madman, his case for being a greater servant of Christ certainly holds water.

Verse 24-27:  “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.”

The resume of suffering begins by Paul talking about the 5 times he had received the forty lashes minus one.  This commandment of Jewish punishment comes from Deuteronomy 25:3 so the Jewish leaders being fully committed to the literal letter of the law did not want to go over the prescribed 40 lashes so they merely settled for 39.  Furthermore, there were later rabbi’s who claimed their whip would have 3 strands to it.  Apparently, this was to maximize efficiency because you could whip someone just 13 times with the three strands and it would equal 39.  Torture efficiency.  

Paul was whipped 5 times by Jewish leaders and then beaten 3 times by Romans.  There isn’t much of a record of these specific sufferings outside of this account in 2 Corinthians.  In Acts 16:22-23 is an account of Paul being beaten by rods.

He says once he was stoned and not the medicinal kind that one may find in northern Seattle on Aurora Avenue.   This account is found in Acts 14:19 where his enemies thought he was dead so he must have been unconscious for awhile.

Three times Paul was shipwrecked and we don’t have records of these shipwrecks either.  The famous shipwreck in route to Rome happened after the writing of 2 Corinthians and happened at a later date.  That means this guy was involved in at least 4 shipwrecks in his life.  Perhaps not the greatest sailor or just had bad captains he kept using or hiring.  Seriously though, the boats of this period of history were obviously not nearly as good as vessels today.  Vessels would have leaked easy and there were no life rafts.  They did not have storm warning systems either so it was impossible to track or predict storms.  Maritime disasters were a common occurrence.

He spent a night and day adrift at sea probably clinging to wreckage.

He continues about being in danger from rivers and crossings in order to keep preaching the gospel.  These rivers, with tributaries, probably included the Jordan in Judea, the Trachonitis, the Orontes in Syria, Cydnus in Cilicia, the Meander and Cayster in Asia and the Strimon and Axios in Macedonia.   Danger from robbers or bandits that one would find sometimes on the road was another danger.  Once private travelers got away from urbanized regions, they were subject to robbers.  There was a great deal of poverty in this time and that drove groups of people to join Brigands that would rob people.  Times of acute food shortage and political turmoil would cause the ranks of these Brigands to swell.

He experienced danger from his own people, the Jews.  They stirred up mob violence and opposition to the Apostle in Acts 9:23 in Damascus, in Acts 9:29 in Jerusalem, in Acts 13:50 at Antioch in Pisidia, in Acts 14:5 at Iconium, in Acts 14:19 at Lystra, in Acts 17:5 at Thessonica, in Acts 17:13 at Berea and finally among our Corinthian friends in Acts 18:12.

The dangers that Paul faced were all encompassing from Gentiles, to dangers in the city and country, to dangers at sea, and to dangers from these false brothers (super apostles) who were threats.  Paul was going through a lot to get the gospel out.

Verse 28-29:  “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?”

There are two possible readings for the daily pressure on Paul as he has anxiety for all the churches.  It could mean, ‘without mentioning other things, his daily oversight and care for the church.  It could also mean that Paul is anxious about the number of people that come to him.  The amount of people who demand his attention.  

Paul also had sympathy for what his fellow Christians were going through.  Who is weak, and I am not weak?  Meaning that everyone is weak as a human being.  He can sympathize in people being tempted to fall.

When false teachers led people to fall, Paul was indignant.  Angry that a person he had ministered too had fallen away and especially angry at those super apostles who were leading people astray.

Verse 30-31:  “If 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.”

The Apostle contrasts himself with the super Apostles.  The false teachers boast in their skills, their knowledge, their acumen.  Paul boasts in his weaknesses hence his resume of suffering.  The things that show him not as a super man or super hero of the faith in some way, but the things that make him human.

He appeals to God the Father of Jesus Christ who knows that he is not lying in his descriptions of his suffering and all that he has done for the spread of the gospel.  Paul is recognizing God,  not only as author of creation but also the author of redemption through the Lord Jesus Christ.  This is an oath that Paul is making.

Verse 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.”

Well, now we come to a weird verse.  Paul introduces this escape in Damascus and obviously it appears very disconnected from his previous thoughts.  For whatever reason, Paul saw fit to include this account here.  The account takes place in Acts 9:23-25.

The governor is a term applied to a prince or a ruler appointed by a sovereign over a city or province.  King Aretas was the father in law of Herod Antipas.  He was commonly supposed that King Aretas, who was the king of Petra, gained a temporary possession of Damascus around the death of the Emperor Tiberius.

The guards were station at the front gate of the city in order to arrest the Apostle.  But Paul escaped through a window in the wall.  This would have been a small door or aperture.  It could have been a house that was built into the outer wall of the city.  In that was the case, the episode would have been similar to the mode adopted by the spies in Joshua 2:15.

Still, why include this verse in Paul’s flow?

One explanation for the continuity here is Paul including being lowered down as an irony.  In chapter 12 (which we will hear next week)’ Paul talks about a man being caught up to the third heaven.  So there is perhaps a contrast and Paul is talking about lowering himself down to further illustrate his weakness.  His weakness which he says that he will boast in on behalf of the gospel of Christ. The above passage has Paul declaring his weakness’s by showing his suffering.

Matter:

In reading these verse where Paul is laying out what he has gone through on behalf of spreading the gospel, it is sobering to read.  He was a guy that was committed beyond comprehension to taking the message of Jesus as far as he could while making disciples along the way.  Paul is a heralded member of Christianity but in this passage, we see his humanness, his lowliness, and we see his weaknesses because we see he is a guy like us who has suffered.  Whether he was adrift at sea or starving or afraid of robbers or other violent people.  Not to mention the beatings and abuse he suffered.

Like Paul, we all can think of our own resume of suffering.  We have our own lists of the times in our life where we have gone through painful circumstances.  Some of us may be going through those times right now.  Physical pain, marriage troubles, worries about our children and difficulties they face, anxiety about the future, money issues or possibly other issues with our health.

Unlike other brothers and sisters in Christ in other parts of the world facing persecution for their faith at least in as far as being violently threatened for being Christians (like Paul was) we have that aspect relatively easy with our Constitution and country holding religious freedom as the law.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t face grief and pain as people just like the Apostle Paul when he was hungry, cold and filled with emotional pain while he watched churches he had founded and discipled turn their backs on Jesus and in some cases treat Paul as a villain or at the very least with suspicion.

We understand a lot of this as we are people like Paul and these trials that Paul went through can elicit similar feelings when we go through them today although the circumstances may be very different.

Parts of our lives are painful and suffering can come.

Thesis:  Even though we may suffer and not know why a lot of the time, God’s love never wavers as He identifies with us in our pain.

Struggle:

Our struggle with suffering is understandable.  I’m sure we have all had those moments where we existentially wondered why we were going through something so difficult.  Our culture has various false messages that we seem to innately hold on too for whatever reason:  bad things happen to bad people while good things happen to good people.  As individualistic Americans, we believe our fate is what we make of it.  If we work hard and apply ourselves and take care of our family and participate in being a good neighbor, we should have good lives and things should fall in to place for us.  

This often ignores the reality of things predetermined.  Yes, many of us lean to the Calvinist side of things here at Seed Church but even if you don’t, think of how much in your life you cannot control?  We cannot control what genes we have, the parents we are born to, the socio-economic status we are born into and many more things.  All of those things are decided without our input.

So how should we think about suffering and what does the Bible say about it?

When it comes to the topic of suffering, the Bible gives various reasons for why it happens.  A few years ago, I read a book that I really liked actually called God’s Problem:  How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question- Why We Suffer.  It was written by Bart Ehrman who is not a believer and he set out to show that the Bible contradicts itself on why people suffer.  My takeaway from this book is that the Bible introduces multi-faceted reasons for why people suffer.  The Bible does not contradict itself in this manner at all.  There may be many different reasons why people have chapters of pain and grief written into their lives.

One of those reasons given is:  1) Classical suffering- People suffer because God is punishing them for sin. This is definitely taught throughout Scripture. Amos 3-5 is a good example as well as some other prophetic genres in the Old Testament. Israel had sinned against God and was worshipping other gods. Therefore, this is why they were suffering famines, economic hardships, plagues, political setbacks, and untimely deaths. Prophets often preached that God had given (via the Law and prophets) instructions on how to love and worship Him. If these were not obeyed, there were consequences.

In our times, if you robbed a bank or hacked into a financial institution and transferred a bunch of money to your own account, you may wind up being prosecuted and out in jail.  In other words, you committed a sin and made a bad choice and that is why you suffer in jail.

2) Redemptive suffering- We see this with Jesus. Christ had to go through untold suffering in order to bring about our salvation and connection to God. God can bring good out of evil according to the famous verse is Genesis 50:20 about how God saved Jacob’s family and delivered one of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, from a terrible existence in bondage and slavery.

This is obviously a huge theme in Scripture given the death of Christ as another reason that people may suffer. Many people suffer for the greater good which is considered a completely altruistic act.

3)  People suffer for no discernible reason for why they suffer which is what a large part of the book of Ecclesiastes is about.  Also, we think of Job.  From Job’s perspective, he did not know why a mass amount of suffering came upon him.  His friends were trying to convince Job that he had committed some horrible sin. He hadn’t.  The Bible calls Job blameless.  Of course, us as the audience reading Job know that there was some weird deal between God and Satan but it still isn’t clear why those things happened to Job.

4) Apocalyptic suffering- God’s people suffer because evil forces in the world stand against the advancement of God’s kingdom. Examples: Christians being burned to death in Nero’s gardens, Christians being thrown to the lions, etc. Sometimes, people suffer because they stand for truth or are uncompromising about the right thing and factions that exist in the world punish them for that stance.  This represents some of Paul’s suffering in his resume of suffering.  He suffered because he stood for the gospel.

The reasons for our suffering in life and in the Bible are varied.  This is a big struggle in our lives for two reasons:

  1. Intellectually.   My old seminary professor, Dr. Forbes, used to smirk and cynically smile and call the problem of evil (or theodicy in fancy philosophical circles) was the nastiest question that Christians would have to deal with.  He was right.  In our world, there is suffering and evil and there is the good God of the Bible.  Those truths lead to the following statements:

A) God wills to undo evil and is unable too. This would be an impotent God and is not the God of the Bible.

B) God is able to remove evil but is unwilling. People might view this god as malevolent and mean-spirited. Perhaps a god that enjoys observing people suffer. Again, this is not the God of the Bible.

C) God is both willing and able to remove evil. This is the God that is revealed in the pages of Scripture but we still have to contend with an overwhelming presence of evil in this world.

As you can see, this can be an intellectual struggle when we are suffering because we eventually come to a place where we are not going to have any answers.

2) Subjectively.  We experience pain, grief, suffering.  Again physical ailments, the loss of a loved one or friend, emotional pain is what we may go through.  When we are in these chapters in life, obviously it’ s a massive struggle.  We wonder if things will ever be back to normal again.  Sometimes we forget about what normal feels like.

When we are really struggling, sometimes we believe bad messages that we have heard.  That because we are in such a bad circumstance, we must have a lack of faith or we are doubting too much or there is something wrong with our Christianity.  We have a bunch of heretics out there who imply that if you have a strong faith, you will be materially successful and be healed of ailments that afflict you and all this other stuff.  These are lies.  People’s faith has been severely damaged by teaching like this because when suffering arrives, the message of prosperity theologians brings an extra sense of guilt and spiritual tumult because during the episode of suffering, people beat themselves up because they believe they don’t have enough faith.

Throw that out.

Remember Paul’s life.  One of the greatest figures in Christian history and his resume of suffering.  His whole life was preaching the gospel and planting churches and discipling people.  This was all he did and he went through hell on earth sometimes.  Beatings, having rocks thrown at him, starving, and getting into shipwrecks, Paul had excruciatingly hard times.  He was hurt, devastatingly, by these same churches that he had helped.  They were sometimes selling him out for other super apostles and other more talented teachers.  And yet, he kept following Christ.

Gospel:

All of this said, there are a lot of us going through terrible things right now.  Why are these things happening to you- to us as a community- I don’t know.  Here is what I do know.  God loves you no matter what you are going through or what you face in life.  The gospel is not revoked when we suffer.  The gospel that Paul sacrificed to preach and spread still stands today and for all time.

Don’t be phony.  Be honest.  Be real.  And as a community we can rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.

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About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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