Like Philippians 3, in 2 Corinthians 11:23–33 Paul boasts about his ministry. Since this letter is written in the mid-50s, the list refers to Paul’s early ministry. But Paul does not list his accomplishments quite the way we would expect them.
First, Paul claims to be a servant of Christ (v. 23a) and then proves it by listing his hard work and suffering on account of Christ Jesus. In fact, he claims to be a “better servant” because he has suffered! The opponents claim to be servants of Jesus and Paul does not deny the claim. Be the word “servant” and “slave” are identical in Greek. For someone to claim to be a “servant” in English has a different feel than claiming to be a “slave.”
Second, Paul says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countless times 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!
Third, Paul has already suffered many times for the name of Jesus. “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).
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. In Acts 7, Stephen is lynched for teaching Jesus had replaced the Temple, although he did not go as far as Paul with respect to the Gentiles and the Law.
In addition to these beatings, Paul says he was “three times beaten with rods.” This 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.
Finally, Paul says he was “once stoned and left for dead.” This 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.
I suggest this list of suffering indicates Paul continued to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career. Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.” But he was also bringing the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world in such a way that he was thought to be a threat. In Acts 17:6 the leaders of Thessalonica claim Paul was “turning the world upside down.”
So Paul was Jesus’ slave who suffered greatly to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. How does this level of suffering for Jesus function as a kind of “missionary strategy”? From a modern perspective, being arrested for rabble-rousing might be seen as counter-productive to evangelism. How might Paul’s suffering for Jesus be a model for Christians today?