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Liftin, Duane. Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 392 pp. Pb; $40.00. Link to IVP
In recent years interest in Greco-Roman rhetoric has exploded for Pauline scholars. Liftin is somewhat responsible for this interest since he published a similarly-titled monograph in 1994 (St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation: 1 Corinthians 1-4 and Greco-Roman Rhetoric; SNTS Monograph Series). As he states in the introduction to this new book, prior to the twentieth century, interpreters understood “words of wisdom” in 1 Cor 1:17 as a reference to Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy. Due in part to growing interest in Gnosticism, the first half of the twentieth century understood “words of wisdom” in the light of Gnostic mythology. Paul’s opponents were “gnostic pneumatics” who downplayed the significance of the Cross. In this book, Liftin argues the earlier view was correct. When Paul describes his own mission as preaching the Cross “not with words of the wise,” he has Greco-Roman rhetoric in mind.
The first part of Liftin’s book is an introduction to Greco-Roman Rhetoric. In these early chapters Liftin attempts to avoid the “wearisome minutia” typically found in introductions to rhetoric. This is not a monograph-length book on rhetoric, so he illustrates the main features with one or two key original Greco-Roman texts. He also avoids the tendency to reduce rhetoric to techniques for manipulation or simple ornamentation. Liftin argues rhetoric was so pervasive in first-century Corinth Paul could not avoid using some aspects of rhetoric even if he has a negative assessment of the impact some orators have had on his Corinthian churches.
After a short chapter tracing the history of rhetoric from Socrates to the Second Sophistic movement, he demonstrates the goal of rhetoric is persuasion. A successful orator used all possible means of persuasion to “create or produce belief in their listeners” (73). This required the orator to know a great deal about human psychology and their audiences worked. In chapters 3-5 (The Power, Reach and Genius of Rhetoric), Liftin shows how this power to sway an audience provided a foundation for power in Greco-Roman society. Virtually everyone in the Greco-Roman world understood what good rhetoric was and treated the best speakers with honor. In fact, the audience was the ultimate judge of a successful orator.
In chapter 6 (The Appraisal of Rhetoric) Liftin argues audience in the first century were experienced listeners and were capable of critiquing an orator even if they were not specifically trained in rhetoric. Just as most sports fans are able to critique the performance of their team despite not being professional athletes, most people had enough experience listening to orators they could make a judgment on the speaker’s skills. In Chapters 7-8 Liftin contrasts the hazards and rewards of rhetoric.
The second part of this book applies this history of rhetoric to 1 Corinthians 1-4. This opening section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is the only place in Paul’s letters where he expresses anything like a “theology of preaching.” In addition, Paul makes some dismissive remarks concerning the “wisdom” of this world. Liftin points out the usual arguments about Paul’s education in rhetoric are not as important to his goals since he has argued for the pervasiveness of rhetoric in the first century. It does not matter if Paul was a professionally trained orator or not, he was being judged in ways consistent with the Greco-Roman world by the Corinthians and found wanting.
Liftin reconstructs the situation in Corinth as follows. Paul preached the Gospel in Corinth, people responded and a community was established. After Paul left and Apollos arrived the church began to have reservations about Paul with respect to his deficient public speaking. He was unskilled, something Paul admits in 2 Cor 11:6 (Liftin has an excursus defining what he means by “bad rhetoric”). Since the Gentile Corinthian believers were part of a culture which highly honored rhetorical skills, the church was embarrassed by Paul’s poor skills and began to look elsewhere for apostolic guidance. Specifically, Liftin thinks Apollos is was an eloquent speaker who “unwittingly” caused a division in the church (p. 156). 1 Corinthians 1-4 is therefore Paul’s response to criticism of his ministry style. Over several chapters Liftin supports this contention with careful observation and exegesis of the text of 1 Cor 1-4.
The third part of this book offers some analysis of Paul’s ministry model and suggestions “appropriate strategies” for applying the “Pauline model.” While the Greco-Roman world sought to use rhetoric to persuade an audience by means of their own skills, Paul “disavowed the task of inducing belief in his listeners” (p. 263). For Paul, it is the Holy Spirit who prompts faith in a listener, not “words of wisdom” as judged by contemporary standards. Paul is only the herald of the Gospel, someone who presents the truth of the Gospel. It is the power of God who brings a listener to belief. If this is the case, then there are two important implications. First, there is a certain ambiguity of “persuasion.” Paul certainly wanted to persuade, but he did not resort to the strategies of the Sophist to achieve this goal. Second, a good herald must adapt to the audience. This is exactly what Paul claims to do in 1 Cor 9:19-23. Paul is functioning as any herald might when he is “all things to all men.”
Liftin deals with the problem of Paul’s consistency in chapter 18. When Paul decries use of rhetoric, is he not employing a classic rhetorical style? If the goal of rhetoric was to persuade, then Paul’s letters have to be considered examples of rhetoric since they are trying to persuade an audience. Liftin thinks his “limited definition” of what Paul rejected defuses this criticism of Paul. Paul is not saying he rejects all forms of rhetoric since this would be virtually impossible if he was going to communicate the Gospel. Paul’s denial of rhetorical skills means he shifted the power of his speech away from himself to the Holy Spirit. To a large extent, Paul’s rhetorical skills gave the Holy Spirit “something to work with” for bringing people to Christ.
Paul’s missionary model is therefore humble and servant oriented. Paul was a herald announcing the Good News, leaving the power of persuasion to the message preached rather than then messenger.
Liftin includes five appendices. First, Liftin comments on the relationship between Paul, Apollos and Philo. Although he things “Philo might have written 1 Corinthians 2:13 almost as comfortably as the Apostle Paul” (p. 326), he ultimately rejects Philo as a source for the “words of wisdom” in Corinth. Appendix Two briefly discusses the Book of Acts as a source for background to 1 Cor 1-4, concluding Acts is reliably complements 1 Corinthians, but Acts is inadequate for the rhetorical skills of Apollos. A third Appendix concerns Paul’s Epistemology.
In the fourth appendix Liftin discusses the implications of his study for contemporary preaching. This chapter is adapted from his 1977 Christianity Today article. He makes some pointed critiques of “gatherings centered on a charismatic, pseudo-celebrity communicator who revels in the spotlight” and other manipulative strategies used to wear people down and force people into an emotional response (p. 348). In contrast to this, the preacher “should do everything possible to build comprehension of the reality of Christ’s claims upon the listener” (p. 349). Amen and amen.
The final appendix suggests several “Broader Implications” of Paul’s ministry model with respect to the Church Growth movement. The appendix was originally an address to the American Society for Church Growth (ASCG) in 1995. Liftin is critical of marketing strategies used by churches in order to stimulate growth. Rather than presenting the Gospel as a product to be marketed, driven by the need for results, churches must be “obedience driven” (358).
Conclusion. Liftin admits early this book requires “tolerant readers” (p. 29). There are lengthy citations of primary sources in the first part of the book in order to illustrate some aspect of rhetoric. In order to keep the text readable, he placed technical material in a series of short excurses scattered throughout the book. These text-boxes are indexed in the table of contents and tend to be no more than a page or two.
This is a stimulating and challenging book operating at two levels. On the one hand, Liftin provides an academic introduction to Greco-Roman rhetoric as a background for reading 1 Corinthians 1-4 in a proper cultural context. But at another level, Liftin wants to challenge the churches to be faithful to God in their preaching of the Gospel. His call is to reject the sin of the Corinthians who used their culture to judge the success of the Gospel. In the end, it is this topic which needs to be addressed more directly by Liftin.
NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Looking back on everything he has written thus far, Paul says his defense of himself is really intended to “upbuild” (ESV) the church. Paul considers his letter to be a legal defense against an attack coming from his opponents in Corinth. He describes it as an apology in the legal sense of the word (ἀπολογέομαι). Acts 24:10 uses the word for Paul’s legal defense before Felix, the Roman governor. Paul has been defending himself, but not for the purpose of winning the argument with the church and proving himself to have been in the right all along. His goal in this defense is to build up the church in Christ.
The word Paul uses is used for buildings or structures (οἰκοδομή), the ESV uses the odd word “upbuild” the NIV has “strengthening,” the KJV has “edifying.” Paul uses this metaphor frequently to refer to things that “build up” the church in contrast to tearing down the church (1 Cor 14:12, spiritual gifts, 14:16, orderly worship). In Romans 15:2 it refers to speech which “builds up” a neighbor.
Paul has used architectural metaphors in 1-2 Corinthians several times (the temple of the Holy Spirit, etc.) Sometimes to construct something new old things must be destroyed. Old structures need to be demolished and the ground needs to be properly prepared for a new structure to be built. Edification therefore requires Paul to occasionally knock down old ways of thinking (especially the pagan worldview of the Corinthian church) before he can build up the church to maturity.
If the church felt they had been wronged by Paul or they were offended by his change in plans, it was because their suspicions about Paul were wrong or the accusations coming from the opponents were wrong. Paul’s defense in the last few chapters was to allay their fears so that their anger with Paul will no longer hinder their maturity in Christ. If Paul has hurt the church, it is because it as necessary to tear down their existing ways of thinking in order to replace those structures with a Christ-like world view.
This is a very difficult aspect of ministry to get right since most people in the church feel attacked if a pastor tries to deal with tough issues from the pulpit. I think Paul has it right, he preaches Christ crucified seeks to apply the death and resurrection to all aspects of life. In my experience, preaching through the text of the the Bible will raise issues in context churches need to hear.
To a large extent, any pastor who is leading a congregation needs to worry less about their reputation or legacy than the spiritual growth of their congregation. A pastor who is seeking to pad out a resume for the next (bigger and better) church has completely missed the point of being a servant of Jesus Christ.
Paul has refused to accept gifts from the Corinthian church in order to avoid a patron/client relationship. Rather than patronage, Paul describes his relationship with Corinth as a parent and child (12:14b-15).
In the Corinthian letters, Paul uses parent/child metaphors frequently, more than in any other of his letters. One reason for this is his desire to avoid patron/client language, but also because the family relationship reflects the body of Christ. If we are indeed new creations in Christ, then the image of brothers and sisters in Christ becomes the driving factor in our relationships with each other. Paul did not want to create a hierarchy in which he was the distant father figure who dispensed prestige and honor to his children, nor did he want the church to think Paul was a poor relative in need of assistance!
The children are not required to “save up” for their parents. This is not the daily needs of children, but rather the family responsibility for building wealth to pass down to the children. In a Greco-Roman context, family name and wealth was extremely important. The father was responsible for creating wealth and prestige for the family and the family name. This wealth and prestige could then be passed down to the children with they were mature enough to contribute to the honor of the family.
In fact, children were not able to contribute to the family honor until they were mature. Paul may be implying the role of the Corinthian church is to grow in maturity themselves! This is consistent with how Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians began, they were still immature and not able to move on to the “deeper things.” In 1 Cor 4:14-15 Paul describes himself as a father to the church, even if thy have many other teachers.
Within the metaphor, Paul is the patron/father figure who is doing everything he can to create an environment where the Corinthian children can grow to maturity and contribute to the family for themselves. Looking ahead to the next generation, they will “have children” and the church’s responsibility is to maintain and grow the wealth and honor of the family so they too can grow to maturity.
Paul is willing to spend everything he has for the church because he loves them as his dear children. Paul sees his relationship with the church in terms of a family in which he is like a parent and the church are children. He does not want to accept patronage from the church because it changes the relationship and would give the Corinthian church certain privileges over Paul.
This is a powerful image of the relationship of a pastor and congregation. While Paul does want churches to care for the needs of the people who serve in the church, his model for ministry is a caring parent who does everything to give the children want they need to succeed. Pastors who considered the local church their personal kingdom or use the church to enhance their own wealth and prestige have failed to follow the model Paul gives here in 2 Corinthians or the model of humble service demonstrated by Christ.
Once of the main reasons Paul wrote 2 Corinthians is because he cancelled his plans to visit the church (1:15-2:4). Paul’s reasons for the change in plans was to spare the church. He was angry with them and knew the visit would be painful indeed. Instead of a visit, Paul wrote a “tearful letter” and sent Titus to deliver it to the church.
His change in plans contributed to a rift between Paul and the church. Although the letter and Titus’s visit seems to have settled the church, Paul’s absence gave and opportunity for opponents of Paul make serious accusations against him. These “super-apostles” claimed higher authority than Paul primarily because Paul was not a polished orator and was always suffering some sort of calamity. They may have accused Paul of trying to extort money from the church by means of a collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Paul is forced into a foolish exercise of boasting in this weakness (11:1-12:13). Having concluded his boasting, and putting the claims of the “super-apostles” into perspective, Paul finishes the letter by telling the Corinthians he will visit them for a third time.
Paul’s intention is to travel back to Corinth for a third time, but he does not intend to be a burden to the church. Paul did not accept support from the Corinthian church, and this seems to have been a source of some conflict with the congregation. He did accept financial support from Philippi, but directly refused support from Corinth. Paul has already said he does not intend to be a burden (2 Cor 11:9). The verb Paul uses (καταναρκάω) refers to being a “dead weight” so Paul might mean, “I do not want to take money from you if I am not going to work for it,” as if the church wanted to offer him a retainer fee for his services as an apostle!
The background here is the patron/client relationship in the Roman world. If the church gave Paul gifts, then Paul has an obligation to the church. They are his patron, and he is their client. Paul wants to avoid the perception of patronage, so he refuses to take money from the Corinthians.
If the Corinthian church gives Paul support, then they are his benefactors. They could potentially boast in their support of Paul in the way a Roman would boast in the any public benefaction. Since the Christians are not yet building churches, there is no way for a Gentile Christian to offer a gift to the church in a way that makes sense in their culture. If they were worshiping a particular god, they could offer to pay for a sacrifice or a new statue of the god or to improve the temple in some way. Naturally they would get “their name on the plaque” and everyone would know they had benefited the community in this way.
There is nothing a Roman Christian can do to show his generosity to the church other than to contribute to the needs of the poor, and that is something which would not bring honor to a person in a Roman context. Really the only thing the church could do is to support Paul as his patron, a relationship Paul does not want to encourage at all!
If this context is correct, then Paul’s refusal of patronage would be seen as a kind of insult, and likely a painful insult at that. If Paul is “their apostle” then he ought to be thrilled to receive a gift! Paul says he does not want their possessions, but a genuine relationship with them.
The difficulty for a contemporary reading of Paul’s relationship with Corinth is that Paul does encourage paying those who minister. If a church as the need for one or more full-time staff members, it is important for the church to pay them appropriately. But can the pastor/congregation relationship devolve into a patron/client relationship? If a pastor puts a paycheck before the spiritual needs of his congregation, then there is a serious problem with the relationship with the church.
The “thorn in the flesh” is directly related to Paul’s “great revelations.” This is not something Christians need to fear, Paul is unique in salvation history as the apostle to the Gentiles, and his visionary experience is unique as well. The “thorn” is a metaphor emphasizing the ongoing, painful nature of the oppression.
The noun Paul uses (σκόλοψ) refers to any kind of splinter or thorn that works its way into the body, but the thorn is also called a “messenger of Satan” of “angel of Satan.” By describing the thorn this way, Paul may be referring to a person who was harassing him, continually causing him to suffer.
This messenger “harasses” Paul. This verb (κολαφίζω) is a violent physical beating, the same word is used for Jesus’ beatings in Matt 26:67 and Mark 14:65. Since it is not clear what Paul means by this thorn, Christians have suggested the beatings are not physical. Suggestions include: hysteria, depression, headaches, severe eye trouble, malaria, leprosy, and even a speech impediment (See BDAG for scholars associated with each suggestion). If this is a physical illness, it could be a sign of God’s judgment; the opponent could use something like this to call into question everything Paul teaches!
God allowed Paul to endure this suffering in order to keep him humble. This is an ongoing torment of some kind, since Paul prayed three times to have the thorn taken from him. The purpose of the thorn is to keep Paul from being exalted because of his visionary experience. The verb (ὑπεραίρω) refers to developing an “an undue sense of one’s self-importance” (BDAG). The thorn therefore was given to keep Paul from getting a big head about how important he is!
The only response to this prayer given by the Lord is “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This is one of the most memorable verses in the New Testament and has helped many people through extremely difficult times. Like Paul, people who suffer physical or emotional torment consider this verse a great comfort since God’s grace is all they need. But notice it God’s grace does not guarantee Paul will be rescued from his thorn in the flesh! In fact, the comfort of this verse is that despite intense suffering, God’s grace is all Paul wants or needs!
It is when Paul is weak the power of God is most clearly seen. If Paul were an elite orator or a well-trained sophist, or a prophet who has the most glorious of visions, then the success he had in Corinth would be all his; he would easily slip into the error the opponents are making and glorify himself.
It is not that we ought to forego any preparation for ministry and only appoint the most unprepared people to serve; but when that preparation becomes a platform for boasting then the Lord is no longer glorified. Paul therefore concludes this chapter the same way he started in 2 Cor 13, boasting in his suffering all the more!
What is Paul’s point by boasting in his suffering in 12:10? As he concluded after his catalog of suffering in chapter 11, Paul claims his suffering proves he is a true apostle (and the “super apostles are not). As Barrett concludes, “The real point is that the requirement of self-sacrifice … marks out the true apostle from the false” (284-5). The pastor who works two jobs to serve a small country church is nearer to Paul’s model, his imitation of Christ, than a pastor who asks for 65 million for a private jet.
Would a Mega-Church pastor give up his wealth to care for a small inner city congregations for little or no money at all? Jesus gave up everything, as did Paul; but Paul’s opponents would not. What makes them spiritual leaders is their wealth and prestige, the exact opposite of Paul’s point here in 2 Corinithians.
Paul says he was caught up to the third heaven and receive revelations of “surpassing greatness.” Paul reports this vision in a way consistent with other visions of heaven in the literature of the Second Temple period.
Like other prophets, Paul is “caught up” into the third heaven. He uses the same verb as 1 Thess 4:17, ἁρπάζω. This word has the sense of being snatched away and appears in the LXX in Gen In both cases the verb is passive, as expected in a vision report. In 1 Enoch 39:3 a whirlwind catches the prophet up and takes him into the “ultimate ends of heaven” where he sees the dwelling places of the holy ones.
Paul says he was caught up to the “third heaven” (τρίτου οὐρανοῦ) or into paradise (παράδεισος). The noun paradise is used for Eden and originally described the pleasure garden of the great kings of the Persians. T.Levi 18:10 refers to heaven as the “gates of paradise.” In 2 Enoch the seer is taken up to a “garden of righteousness” in his heavenly visions. In 2 Enoch 8 and “inconceivably pleasant” Paradise is located in the “third heaven.”
2 Enoch 8.1-3 And those men took me from there, and they brought me up to the third heaven, and set me down there. Then I looked downward, and I saw Paradise. And that place is inconceivably pleasant. And I saw the trees in full flower. And their fruits were ripe and pleasant-smelling, with every food in yield and giving off profusely a pleasant fragrance. And in the midst (of them was) the tree of life, at that place where the LORD takes a rest when he goes into paradise. And that tree is indescribable for pleasantness and fine fragrance, and more beautiful than any (other) created thing that exists.
In Paul’s vision, he heard “inexpressible words” (ἄρρητα ῥήματα). This may mean they cannot be spoken in human language (something like Spock’s real name?). But this might mean Paul was not given permission to report what he heard while he was in heaven. This second option is a common feature of heavenly vision reports, some things are so great the seer holds them back from people who are not ready to hear them. In Daniel 12:4 the prophet is told to “seal up the prophecy” and Revelation 14:3 John hears seven thunders but is not permitted to report what they said.
Even though Paul has had a visionary experience on a par with his opponents in Corinth, he chose not to mention it since it has no value for the church at all! Why should he boast in some spiritual experience they can never have? What spiritual benefit could possibly come from Paul telling them the details of the vision?
Paul continues his boasting in 1 Cor 12, this time mentions a vision in which he was transported to the “third heaven.” We do not know when this vision occurred, and the way Paul describes it is hard to place in the book of Acts. He describes his experiences as a vision (ὀπτασία) and a revelation (ἀποκάλυψις). The first word is usually associated with a god allowing himself to be seen by a human, or allowing a human to see something usually hidden (BDAG). Although a little later than the New Testament, the Martyrdom of Polycarp used the word to describe a “trance.” Paul calls his experience on the road to Damascus a vision (Acts 26:19). The second word is Paul’s usual word to describe his revelations from God, usually in the context of salvation history or eschatology.
When did Paul have this vision? He says it was “fourteen years ago,” which is about A.D. 40. Paul is therefore not referring to his Damascus Road experience, but an experience after his conversion but before the beginning of the first missionary trip (about A.D. 48). Paul founded the Corinthian church 50-51 on the second missionary journey.
Why does he Paul suddenly boast about a vision he had some 14 years earlier? This is part of Paul’s “humble boast” throughout this section—he has had visions (just like the opponents) but his are un-reportable and from the distant past. Unlike the opponents, he is not “making up visions” to impress his audience.
Does Paul refer to his experience in the Temple as reported in Acts 22:17-18? Luke uses a similar word to describe Paul’s vision, a “trance” (ESV, ἔκστασις). Chronologically it is possible since it is after his conversion and we do not know how many years between the conversion and that particular Temple visit. A major difference is the vision in Acts 22 includes a warning to leave Jerusalem and go to the Gentiles. (Check out Richard Fellows’ comments on the chronology of 2 Corinthians 12. Fellows says “It seems to me that 2 Cor 12:2 lends a little support to the chronology of Acts.”) It is really impossible to know when or where Paul had this vision. Paul’s only point here is his vision came in the past and it is something he is not able to relate to the church.
Paul reports the vision in the third person and does not really give any details. He does not know if he was “in the body” or not, and really does not know what happened to him when he had the vision. Again, this is a completely different report than would come from the opponents who seem to boast in great detail about their own experiences. It is as if Paul is saying, “Sure, I had one of those visions too, but I do not really consider it worth recalling now…”
In 2 Cor 11 Paul catalogs his suffering in this paragraph. Since this book was written while Paul was in Ephesus (Acts 19), we know he will face even greater suffering than this (two separate two-year house arrests and a shipwreck between!)
He says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countlessly and has been near death many times. Paul uses a series of adverbs (περισσοτέρως twice, ὑπερβαλλόντως once, and πολλάκις once) to overemphasize his difficult life as a servant of Christ. These were not one-time problems he endured for a short time. This is the constant state of his life since he began his ministry!
“Five time lashed 40 less one” is a reference to Jewish punishment. The Greek says, “I received the forty less one,” which is a clear reference to a lashing. Josephus uses the phrase twice in describing the Mosaic Law (Ant. 4:238. 248). This punishment came from the Jews—it was an attempt from synagogues to bring Paul back in line with his heritage. The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3).
Since the Law says more than 40 lashes is degrading to the one giving the punishment, the tradition developed by the first century to stop short of 40 (m.Makkot 3:10 simply recommends a number near forty but less than forty; 3:11 gives some instruction for beating people who are physically unable to take a full flogging). If the punisher “added even a single stripe and the victim died, lo, this one goes into exile on his account” (m.Makkoth 3:14c). In the Mishnah there is a list of offences which could result in a flogging (m.Makkoth 3:1-9). While some of these are moral offences, there are quite a few violations of the Law which can result in a flogging (Including “He who makes a baldness on his head” and tattooing one’s body (m.Makkoth 3:5-6)!
What is significant is Paul received this penalty five times! Early in his ministry Paul may have been expelled from the synagogue for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, and certainly if he taught God-fearing Gentiles they could be fully save without keeping the Law. This indicates he still was trying to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career, as Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.”
“Three times beaten with rods” is a reference to Roman punishment. The Greek (ῥαβδίζω) refers only to beating someone with rods, the Latin term fustigatio was distinct from catigatio, lashing, and verberatio, flogging with chains (BDAG). Paul received this treatment in Acts 16:22 for creating a “public disturbance” even though he was a Roman citizen.
“Once stoned and left for dead” refers to Lystra (Acts 14:19). Stoning was a typical way for a Jewish group to execute someone. In Acts 7 Paul himself participates in the stoning of Stephen and he is about to be stoned in Acts 21:30 when he is falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple courts.
His “frequent journeys” put him in danger typical of travel in the ancient world. As Barrett says, “Paul does not exaggerate the perils of his day” (298). Despite Pax Romana and the Roman roads connecting major cities, it was extremely dangerous for anyone to travel in a small group.
“Danger from false brothers” refers to people claiming to be Christians who are looking to accuse Paul. This attack comes from inside the family, from people claiming to be Christians who attack Paul’s theology and missionary methods. Perhaps he has in mind here the troubles he has had with people in Galatia and personal attacks leading up to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. It is also possible he has in mind the opponents in Corinth who are attacking him without cause.
Perhaps the most suffering Paul faced is from his own churches (v. 28). He has a great deal of anxiety for the churches he founded, trained, and then left to themselves. He describes this as “daily pressure” (ἐπίστασις) and “worry” (μέριμνα). This concern comes from Paul’s deeply felt personal responsibility for his congregations. He is in constant contact with them and is well aware of the pressure they face from the same sources persecuting Paul.
Paul chooses to boast is in his only weakness (v. 29-30). Paul now returns to the problem which began this long section of foolish boasting. The Corinthian Church seems to have require Paul to put his achievements up against his opponents so they might choose who would bring them the most honor if they were to give them patronage. As C. K. Barrett says “Paul has finally worked off his fit of folly and has returned to his normal sound mind” (302); he will not engage in the typical Roman pursuit of honor with his opponents!
[I had the opportunity to preach at Bethesda Church in Prior Lake, Minnesota this Sunday, this is a “highlight” from my sermon. I am teaching an extension course this week in Minnesota, back to Grand Rapids in a week.]
It seems strange for Paul to deny the need to boast then go ahead and boast about his superior qualifications. But other than his heritage as a Jewish leader, everything he boasts in is the sort of thing that would have been dishonoring to a Greco-Roman philosopher. If you were a philosopher who was poor or was regularly attacked by people for his message, then you were not a very good philosopher!
To be thought a “fool” (ἄφρων) in this case refers to someone who lacks prudence or good judgment (BDAG). In the LXX, the word translates a wide variety of Hebrew words for foolish, insolent, naïve, stupid or even “young.” TJob 26.6 uses the Greek word for a “senseless woman.” In a culture dominated by honor and shame, to be considered a fool is something to be avoided.
Paul says he is not a fool, but if the opponents want to boast in their achievements, he will boast in his folly! Think of this as a “fight fire with fire” strategy, but with a twist. Rather than boast in his achievements (as the opponents may be), Paul will boast in things considered by both Greco-Roman and Jewish culture as indications of failure. In verse 21, Paul recognizes all he will boast about is not honorable, but a shame. Paul could present a list of achievements which would put the opponents in their proper place, but is that really necessary, given his relationship with the church at Corinth?
- Paul’s opponents in Corinth appear to be taking advantage of the Church, accepting privileges expected by their status as “apostles.” Paul says the church will “gladly bear with fools” like the opponents, because they think they are wise. The church is willing to put up with the opponents and their demands because they consider it a kind of honor these teachers are in their congregation.
- The opponents “make slaves” of the church. This may refer to the opponents insisting on being served as any elite teacher might expect in either a Greco-Roman or Jewish context. Likewise, the word “devours” (κατεσθίω) can refer to literal eating, but probably has the sense of exploiting the church for personal gain. In Ps 13:4 the word is used for enemies eating up the bread of God’s people.
- The opponents take advantage of the church by “putting on airs.” This single Greek word (ἐπαίρω) has the sense presumption and arrogance, doing things to exalt oneself over others (1 Clem 39:1, for example, couples this self-exaltation with “Senseless and stupid and foolish and ignorant men jeer and mock at us.”
- How literal is “strikes you in the face”? In Acts 23:1-3 Paul himself is struck in the face when he spoke to the Sanhedrin. Physical punishment was something used by teachers to correct their students, so it is possible Paul means Corinthians believers are willing to put themselves in the position of a young student learning from a cranky tutor!
Paul’s model for ministry is not at all similar to a Greek philosopher or a Jewish Rabbi or Scribe. Paul’s model is only Jesus, and Jesus crucified! As he has said in the previous chapter and in Phil 2, Jesus himself is the ultimate model for Christian service since he did not insist on using his status of “equality with God,” but rather he set that status aside in order to serve others.
This is challenging since most Americans see achievement and advancement as an honor to be pursued tenaciously. We are celebrating graduates this time of year. Most of us would expect every teen to graduate from high school and go on to college, and it is not at all unusual to hear someone graduated with honors, high honors, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, etc. Pastors are supposed to move up from youth pastor to “real pastor,” or from small “starter churches” to larger churches with more prestige. College professors are supposed to pad out their resumes with publications and honors and move up the academic food chain.
But is this pursuit of honor “biblical”? We do not often hear of top-notch pastors of larger churches with national followings boasting in their suffering for Jesus. In fact, do they suffer much?
Paul rejects any sort of rating system for apostles. He is not interested in comparing his resume with the opponents in Corinth, nor is he going to offer the Corinthian church an update on his personal achievements to prove he is the “better apostle” and they ought to listen to him and not the opponents. Rather, he compares his suffering to that of his Lord, Jesus Christ.