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Boasting in Weakness

2Corinthians: Paul's Most Underappreciated Epistle

Feb 21, 2021


by: Jack Lash Series: 2Corinthians: Paul's Most Underappreciated Epistle | Category: Paul the Apostle | Scripture: 2 Corinthians 11:21–11:33

I. Introduction
A. There’s a lot of disagreement about what Christians are supposed to look like? If you ask a Pentecostal, he’ll give you a different answer than a Baptist. And a presbyterian will give you a different answer than a non-denominational Christian. Christians disagree on more than just theology.
1. Now I’m not talking about personality. I’m talking about one’s view of what the ideal Christian is.
2. I think Paul gives us a pretty good answer to this question in our passage this morning.
B. This is our last week in chapter 11 and our last week looking at Paul’s long list of hardships – sadly.
C. I apologize to all who’ve been paying attention all along and have had to hear the background explained over & over. But the fact is, the background of this letter is rather complicated.
1. AND, the background is very important to understanding and benefitting from this letter.
2. The background we need to remember for this sermon is that Paul planted the church in Corinth, but then – after he left – some men infiltrated the church and began to try to drive a wedge between the congregation and Paul. Not only did they claim to be true apostles, but they claimed Paul wasn’t a true apostle.
3. And so Paul writes this letter to the Corinthians partly to persuade them that he is a true apostle and that they should stop listening to his adversaries.
D. 2Corinthians 11:21b-33 But whatever anyone else dares to boast of — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast of that. 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—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 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; 26 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; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.
II. We’re going to give special attention to two verses we haven’t looked at yet, starting with v.22.
A. 21b But whatever anyone else dares to boast of — I am speaking as a fool — I also dare to boast of that. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I.
1. Paul was a Jew, and the false apostles in Corinth were also Jews. “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I.”
2. It seems from this that Paul’s detractors took pride in their Jewish heritage.
3. This is one of the reasons scholars have concluded that these Jewish false apostles in Corinth were Judaizers.
4. (The other reason they have concluded this is because in chapter 3 Paul spends considerable time explaining the superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant. The only way this makes sense in a letter to a Gentile church is if someone was trying to convince them to become Jews in order to be Christians. This is what the Judaizers did.)
5. You see, the word Judaizer comes from the word Judaism. It refers to a group of Jewish Christians in the first century who tried to Judaize the Gentile (non-Jewish) church.
6. They tried to convince Gentile Christians that, in order to be true Christians, they needed to convert to Judaism, going through circumcision and obeying all the laws of Moses and the Jews.
7. You see, in the first century many Jews took their Judaism very seriously. Some thought Judaism was everything. They identified Israel with the God of Israel so closely that they couldn’t see that God was the big thing and Israel was just a little nation God had adopted and chosen to be the blood family of His messiah.
8. The expected the messiah to restore Israel’s glory. But that’s not what happened when Jesus came. He was like the sun rising in the morning, which suddenly makes the moon seem almost insignificant. Judaism faded when Jesus arrived — but these Jews couldn’t bear to see Judaism taking second place to the kingdom of the messiah. Christ is the glory of God — but they thought Judaism/Israel was the glory of God.
9. Even some of the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Jewish messiah still tried to cram Him into their thinking of who the messiah was supposed to be. They were pouring new wine into old wineskins (Mark 2:21-22). They were sowing new patches onto old pieces of clothing, and it ripped the new patch (Luke 5:36). These were the Judaizers.
10. The Judaizers were like Jewish Christian Pharisees. And Paul understood them well, for he himself grew up a Pharisee (Phil.3:5, Acts 26:5).
a. In Matthew 23:4-35 Jesus actually warned His disciples that the Pharisees would be their adversaries. And His description sounds just like the Judaizing false apostles of Corinth:
b. “5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. ..They love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others...23 (They) neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness... 25 (They) clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 27 (They are) like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 (They) outwardly appear righteous to others, but within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 (They build fancy) tombs for the prophets and decorated the monuments of the righteous, 31 (but they) are the sons of those who murdered the prophets... 34 (I will) send them prophets and wise men and scribes (like Paul & the other apostles), some of whom (they) will kill and crucify, and some (they) will flog in the synagogues and persecute from town to town.”
c. These are the people who had Paul flogged in the synagogues and persecuted him from town to town undermining his ministry. (Of course, not all of Paul’s Jewish opponents were Judaizers, because many did not accept Jesus as the Jewish messiah, and saw Jesus as a threat to Judaism.)
B. In America a lot of value is placed on rising from humble beginnings. But that’s not the way it is in much of the world and in much of history. Good breeding was supremely important in both Jewish and Hellenistic society, and was necessary for a person to enjoy real prestige. So, it is no surprise that the Judaizers in Corinth touted their noble parentage to prove their qualification as apostles.
C. But this is not the way of Christ. And he reminds them of this in 1Cor.1:26-29, “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
1. Paul had their same heritage. But Paul knows this is irrelevant. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 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.” – Philippians 3:4-8
III. And this takes us to another verse we haven’t examined yet, 11:30: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
A. When Paul is forced to boast, he doesn’t boast in how many churches he planted, or how many converts he made, or how many territories he visited, or how many sermons he preached, or how many people he preached to, or how many times he’s had contact with the other apostles, or how many interactions he had with prominent figures in the society.
1. Rather, he boasts in the things which show his weakness. This is why his list of boasting is a list of sufferings. Paul does not boast in his sufferings in order to make himself look brave and wonderful, but to show how great and wonderful God is who sustains him in his weakness.
2. Paul boasts in the way his life manifests the pattern of the cross.
B. Often the best way to boast in God’s power and goodness is to boast in our weakness.
C. He’s been freely discussing his weakness this whole letter — and he does it in 1Corinthians as well.
1. Listen to 1Cor.2:1-5, “When I came to you, I 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.”
D. But the Corinthians had a very different idea. For a number of weeks, we have been talking about how the Corinthians esteemed someone not who was humble, but who was brimming with self-confidence and self-assurance, who was an eloquent speaker, who was impressive & sophisticated. That’s why they were so quick to question Paul’s apostleship.
E. We have a similar view in our culture.
1. Some people are just cool: they’re funny, they have charm, they’re good-looking & likeable, they’re confident to the point of having a certain swag about them. And we’re drawn to them.
2. Let’s face it: How many big famous Christian speakers or singers are there who are homely? How many are humble, and self-effacing? — Isn’t it clear? We like our leaders cool.
3. When a denomination is looking for someone who could be a successful church planter, they often look for someone who has charisma and appeal, a person people will easily rally around.
F. When I was in seminary, I had a friend who was tall and handsome and winsome and very cool.
1. But when we found out that he was sleeping with his girlfriend, and began to probe and confront him, it turned out that his life was full of lies and deceptions and unrepentant sin.
2. He was so smooth and so convincing – and connected – that he had managed to escape notice.
3. We did all we could, but I lost track of him for a few years after I graduated and came to GPC.
4. But maybe five years later he resurfaced. Our presbytery had been working to start the first PCA church in Washington, DC. And at one presbytery meeting, they had this big announcement that they had finally found the right man to plant the first PCA church in the city.
5. And you know who it was. It was this friend from seminary. Well, it wasn’t long before I was meeting with the committee and telling them who this guy actually was.
6. They thought it must be a big misunderstanding or something, but it didn’t take them long to follow the leads I gave them and track down the truth, and drop this guy like a hot potato.
7. The point is this: if even a committee of godly, experienced pastors are drawn to a man who has all the outward appeal, but without an ounce of humility, if even they swallow all his boastful accomplishments, how easy it is for other church folks.
8. It seems to me that this explains much of what’s going on in the Christian church today.
9. It explains the popularity of so many preachers and so many Christian trends today.
G. DA Carson’s wrote a book on this section of 2Corinthians entitled: From Triumphalism to Maturity.
1. Here’s a top-notch NT scholar who has studied this section of Scripture so much that he can write a book about it. And what does he call the two approaches to Christianity that are vying for the Corinthians allegiance, one from Paul and one from the false apostles? Triumphalism & maturity.
2. The Corinthians had gotten caught up in the triumphalism of the false apostles, and Paul was now trying to bring them to a place of maturity.
3. Triumphalism may be slick; it may be cool. But it’s not Biblical, and it’s not the way of Jesus.
4. Nor the way of Paul. When you read this passage, it makes you think of Paul as a bedraggled, beaten-up, broken-down person – yet who was full of Jesus Christ.
IV. This brings us back to the question we began with: What is a Christian supposed to look like?
A. Is a Christian supposed to be boastful and self-assured, well-dressed and well-off, impressed by his own accomplishments? Or is a Christian supposed to be humble and self-deprecating, able to admit his weakness and even laugh at himself.
B. Many years ago a former member of GPC was telling me about inviting another Christian family to church. She told me she said something like this to them, “You should come and see church the way it’s supposed to be!” At the time it may me feel good to hear that, but now that sounds to me more like the boastful false apostles than like Paul.
C. What I like to say is what I heard Earl Palmer say 45 years ago when someone asked him how his church was doing, and he said, “Oh, we’re muddling through by the grace of God.”
D. There are an awful lot of Christian circles where the first is closer to the ideal than the second.
E. So, if this isn’t persuasive enough as to what a Christian should look like, think about this question in light of places the Bible give us the most direct answers.
1. Jesus said the greatest command was to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves (Matt.22:37). No one does this perfectly, of course, but some do it more than others. And this is a good place to start.
2. Or how about the fruits of the Spirit in Gal.5:22-23? What does a person look like who is full of the Spirit? Their lives are filled with the fruits of the HS: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
3. Micah 6:8 He has told you what is good; and what the LORD requires: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
4. Isaiah 66:2 This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble & contrite in spirit & trembles at my word.
F. Jesus models this perfectly, of course. But what does it look like in a sinner? It looks like Paul.
1. I say this for three reasons:
a. Paul is the only apostle the HS inspired to say, “Imitate me.” (1Cor.4:16, 11:1; 2Thes.3:9)
b. The HS has told us far more about Paul that all the other apostles combined. The last two thirds of the book of Acts is about him, and he wrote almost half the NT.
c. And he is the most transparent of all the NT writers, revealing so much about himself, especially in this epistle of 2Corinthians.
2. And yet there is no Bible author who has been more villainized, more criticized, more resented, more hated.
a. All sorts of people are exalted. All sorts of Christian leaders are paid lots of money. All sorts of Christian speakers and authors become big celebrities.
b. But in many parts of the church you will hardly ever hear praise for Paul. It’s like many parts of the Christian church are doing the same thing today as the Corinthians did in the 1st century: they are listening to leaders who are contradicting Paul instead of listening to Paul.
V. Conclusion: But there’s one more very precious thing I want to point out before we move on to ch.12.
A. One of the very remarkable things Paul here is his attitude toward suffering. He could have a close and painful brush with death one day and go out the next day preaching in the next town.
B. Acts 14:19–21 They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city (Lystra), supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.
C. How can we explain this? If you and I experience pain, we want to avoid what led to it at all costs.
D. In order to answer this, I want to think about Paul as he was writing this list of sufferings.
E. To do this inventory of hardships, Paul had to do a lot of remembering, a lot of counting:
1. “Let’s see, how many times have I been beaten? There was the time in Crete, and the time is Troas. And then there was the time in Derbe.” It’s not like he kept score as he went along. He had to think hard to do a rather complete inventory of the things he had gone through.
2. And after he finished his list and wrote it all down, he had a new and deeper appreciation for all the things he’d been through, how God had protected him time and time again, and strengthened him through it — just like after I prepared my testimony, all that history was fresh on my mind.
F. And it was still fresh on his mind when he wrote his next letter a few months later, this one to the Romans – which he may have even written from Corinth after he finally got there – and he seems to be reflecting on the very list we’ve been reading (2Cor.11:23-33) when he writes these words in: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ...37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35, 37)
G. He knew the love of God so personally and so vividly that all these sufferings didn’t damper his appreciation of it or his experience of it.
1. Paul was not driven by fear. He was not driven by a desire for popularity.
2. Paul was driven by Christ. He was driven by love.
3. Paul didn’t need to guarantee his own safety. He knew God was with him, watching over him.
4. Paul knew he had a Protector and Provider. He knew he was being lovingly watched over by the One who held even his enemies and perils in His hands.