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Paul's Defense of His Ministry

Before we read from 2 Corinthians 10, I would like to remind you of what some scholars think is the chronology of Paul’s correspondence with Corinth...

  1. Paul’s connection with Corinth began with his first visit there sometime in AD 51 or 52.
  2. Scholars believe this first visit was followed by two letters. The first letter, some scholars think, is contained in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1.
  3. Paul’s second letter is 1 Corinthians.
  4. After writing these two letters, Paul made a second painful visit to Corinth, painful because he had to correct some problems in the church.
  5. This painful visit was followed by a painful letter, which some scholars believe is contained in 2 Corinthians 10-13.
  6. This painful letter was probably delivered by Paul’s protégé, Titus, whom Paul dispatched to Corinth with the letter.
  7. When Titus did not return right away, Paul got worried. So much so that he left Ephesus for Macedonia. But before he could get to Corinth himself, Paul met Titus in Macedonia.
  8. Finally, Paul wrote his fourth and final letter to Corinth which scholars believe we have in 2 Corinthians 1-9 (minus 6:14-7:1). 

So, 2 Corinthians 10-13 may have been Paul’s third letter to Corinth. With that background in mind, listen for God’s word to you from 2 Corinthians 10…


By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! I beg you that when I come, I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.

You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory. But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.

This chapter is all about Paul’s defense of his ministry. But before we look at the charges that were being leveled at him by the Corinthians, and before we look at Paul’s response, we need to notice…


Paul’s Tone

There are two key words that define Paul’s tone in this passage. The first word is humility. The word in Greek is πραΰτητος. The word refers to meekness (“gentle strength”) that expresses power with reserve and gentleness. For Christians, meekness begins with the Lord’s inspiration and finishes by his direction and empowerment. It is a divinely balanced virtue that can only operate through faith. In fact, Jesus is the perfect exemplar of this gentle strength, and he imparts it to anyone and everyone in whom his Spirit lives.

The second key word that defines Paul’s tone in this passage is gentlenessThe Greek word is πιεικείας.  The word means to be reasonable, fair, equitable. It refers to a justice-beyond-justice, a sweet reasonableness that, according to G. R. Berry, knows when to “relax the strict legal requirements concern­ing others . . . to carry out the real spirit of the law”.Barclay says that “By using this word Paul is saying that he is not out for his rights and to insist on the letter of the law; but is going to deal with this situation with that Christlike love which transcends even the purest of human justice.”


I wonder: do we have humility and gentleness as we go about our daily lives?


The Corinthians’ Charges


Of what were the Corinthians accusing Paul that required him to respond with gentleness and sweet reasonableness, a justice beyond justice? To begin with, the Corinthians charged Paul with two things. First, to use our modern way of speaking, the Corinthians accused Paul of being passive aggressive. According to the Mayo Clinic, the person with passive aggressive behavior has a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There is a disconnect between what a person who exhibits passive-aggressive behavior says and what he or she does.


The Corinthians accused Paul of something like this. Apparently, they were saying, “Paul, you are timid when face to face with us, but bold in your letters.” In turn, Paul says, I hope I don’t have to be as bold as I expect to be the next time that I visit you!


Personally, I do not see how the Corinthians’ perspective on Paul could be accurate. If he was passive aggressive in any way, he probably could not have accomplished all that he did in planting so many churches across the Roman Empire and winning countless people to Christ. No, there is every reason to believe that Paul was just as honest and forthright in his face-to-face speech as he was in his letters.


In fact, Paul probably knew the danger of writing letters when gripped by certain emotions. That word πραΰτητος that I have mentioned already was defined by Aristotle as “the correct mean between being too angry and being never angry at all.” Barclay notes that “Paul is saying at the very beginning of his stern letter that he is not carried away by personal anger but is speaking with the strong gentleness of Jesus himself.”


This exchange between Paul and the Corinthians is a good reminder not to ever send a letter or an email or a text that has been written in anger. Sometimes it is good to write an angry letter, just to get the feelings out on paper. But once one has done that, the next best thing to do is to destroy the letter, and deal with the person face-to-face once one has calmed down.


The Corinthians’ second charge against Paul is that he is following human motivesPaul responds to this charge by saying, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.” Another way of translating this sentence is: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.”


The word in Greek for flesh is sarx. Paul uses the word in two senses here. When he says, “we walk in the flesh,” he means that he is a human being just like everybody else. But when he says, “we do not war according to the flesh,” he is using the word sarx in a different sense with a different meaning. This second meaning reflects the way that Paul usually uses this word. Usually when Paul uses the word sarx he means flesh in the sense of the human sin nature. So, when you put these two statements together it is like Paul is saying, “Yes, I am a human being just like everybody else, but I try not to be dominated by my human sin nature.”


In fact, Paul recognizes that we are all engaged in a spiritual war. Paul elaborates on what he means by spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:12 where he says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”


These spiritual forces Paul is talking about are in fact demons, fallen angels, of whom Satan is the head. When you put this all together, Scripture is quite clear that we are engaged in a battle with three entities: the world, the flesh, and the devil. When we studied 1 John together, we read in 1 John 2:15 these words, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Now, when John uses the Greek word “cosmos” he means the world system that is set against God. And so, John and Paul agree that we are engaged in a spiritual war and that we are battling, not simply against other human beings, but we are battling against demonic powers, the pull of this world system that is set against God, and we are battling against our own human sin nature.


Paul’s Response


In Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ charges, he actually tells us some very important things about how we are to engage in spiritual warfare. First, he says: I don’t fight with human weapons. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.”

Again, the word translated as “world” here would be better translated as “flesh” because it is the Greek word: “sarx”. So, Paul is saying that his weapons are not fleshly. What are these non-fleshly weapons that have divine power to demolish strongholds? Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:13-17…


Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the Gospel of peace. In addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 


Almost all the armor that Paul describes here is defensive. The one offensive weapon we have for spiritual warfare is the sword of the spirit which is the word of God.


Now, Jesus is the ultimate word of God. And Scripture is the word of God in so far as it points us to Jesus. So, Jesus and the Bible are our weapons of warfare in the spiritual realm. The word of God is not a fleshly type of weapon.


Now, what does Paul say we should do with this divine weaponry? Are we supposed to clobber people with the Bible? No. Paul doesn’t say we demolish people in spiritual warfare. He says: We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”


In other words, Paul says that he is equipped to deal with and to destroy all the plausible cleverness of human wisdom and human pride. William Barclay says, “There is a simplicity which is a weightier argument than the most elaborate human cleverness.” And then Barclay shares this marvelous story…

Once there was a house party at which [Thomas Henry] Huxley, the great Victorian agnostic, was present. On the Sunday morning it was planned to go to church. Huxley said to a member of the party, “Suppose you don’t go to church; suppose you stay at home and tell me why you believe in Jesus.” The man said, “But you, with your cleverness, could demolish anything I might say,” Huxley said, “I don’t want to argue. I want you just to tell me what this means to you.” So the man, in the simplest terms told from his heart what Christ meant to him. When he was finished, there were tears in the great agnostic’s eyes. “I would give my right hand,” he said, “if I could only believe that.” It was not argument, but the utter simplicity of heartfelt sincerity which got home, In the last analysis it is not subtle cleverness which is most effective but simple sincerity.


It was Paul’s desire to take every thought captive to Christ. He wanted to win as many people as he possibly could to the way of Jesus. But he wasn’t about to do it using worldly or fleshly means. He sought to persuade people by the power of the Holy Spirit. 


Further Charges & Responses


You would think that the Corinthians would have recognized Paul’s spirit of sweet reasonableness and love. But no, they had further charges to make. Apparently, some of them were saying: You don’t belong to Christ like we do. Can you imagine telling the person who brought you to faith in Christ, “You are not a Christian like I am”? Apparently, that’s what some of the Corinthians were saying to Paul. If someone whom I had led to Christ said that to me, I would be tempted to throw my hands in the air and walk away. Not Paul. He responds humbly, “If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do.”


And the Corinthians still were not done. Some of them said to Paul: You boastfully claim authority. Again, Paul responds humbly, using the language the Corinthians have used, “So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it.”


Basically, he says, “Yes, I claim authority, but it is not my own, it is the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he gave me that authority to build you up, not to tear you down.” Do you hear the winsomeness, do you hear the love in Paul’s tone?


Still, the Corinthians were not done complaining. Some of them said: You are weak in person. Paul quotes the Corinthians saying about him: “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”


Again, if it were me, I think I would quit wasting my time on the Corinthians. But not Paul. Again, he responds humbly: “Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.”


Do you see what is going on here? The Corinthians are trying to give Paul a performance evaluation. But they are judging him in a human fashion. They are trying to measure Paul’s person and performance according to the wrong standard. Paul says, “There is only one standard: and that is Christ.” Christ is the only proper measurement.


Before we leave this passage, we must note one more thing that is very important…


Paul’s Motive


One of the most dangerous things I think we can do in human relationships is to attribute motive to someone else. We think we know other people’s motives. But we don’t! We merely see the outside. We see people’s actions. Only God sees the heart. Only God sees our motive. I don’t even understand my own motives sometimes. But God knows. If you are going to attribute motive to someone else, why not make it a positive motive?


The Corinthians were attributing all sorts of wrong motives to Paul. And they were wrong in their assumptions. You know what happens when you assume. Well, the Corinthians were making asses of themselves. 


Paul responds in humility, and he reveals his motive… “Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you.”


Barclay says, “Paul was haunted by the regions beyond. He never saw a ship riding at anchor or moored to the quay, but he wished to board her and carry the good news to the regions beyond. He never saw a range of hills blue in the distance, but he wished to cross it and to carry the story of Christ to the regions beyond.”


That’s what motivated Paul. He was, as he says earlier in 2 Corinthians, compelled by the love of Christ to take the message of Christ’s love to the world. That’s what motivated Paul to get up in the morning, and to endure all the things he suffered. 


I wonder: what motivates you? … What motivates me? … 


Let’s pray…


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