Why Does Paul Boast In His Suffering? 2 Corinthians 11: 16-21

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!

CrowingRoosterTo 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.” In the Testament of Job 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 Psalm 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.

14 thoughts on “Why Does Paul Boast In His Suffering? 2 Corinthians 11: 16-21

  1. “It seems strange for Paul to deny the need to boast then go ahead and boast about his superior qualifications.”

    It IS strange. Paul was wrong to do this.
    But, if you approach Paul’s writings with the “traditional” but misguided attitude that “It’s the Word of God because Paul said so, therefore if Paul said it then it must be true”…. it is problematic.
    Rather than stopping to think clearly and ask “was this right?”, we’ve been trained to jump to the conclusion and ask “WHY was it right?”

    Because, underneath, subconsciously, we’ve been programmed to believe that it’s a sin to ever question anything Paul wrote (or even said or did, recorded by Luke in Acts.) We’ve been trained to sing the rapture of Boss Paul the Pharisee –
    Paul says:
    “My sins are all theoretical….
    If I testify about myself it must be true…..
    If I did something it must be right…..”
    and Paul must be right because…. Paul said so.
    He’s the only man in all history whose testimony doesn’t need two or three witnesses to back him up…. right?

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    • “It IS strange. Paul was wrong to do this.” Maybe not, since if you read the text in 2 Cor, his superior qualifications are counter-cultural, not the things you boast it! He is superior as a servant of Christ because he has suffered, as opposed to the opponents who would consider suffering a sign of judgment.

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      • There is a huge section of American Evangelicalism, former hippies who are now in their 60’s and 70’s, who promote what we might call “Bad Boy Pride,” based on the bad example set by Paul the Pharisee, rather than the humble example of Jesus. They LOVE to speak to big crowds of strangers in stadiums or stadium-like churches, and boast and brag about “O what bad boy I was 40 years ago.”

        Sin sells, and they love to remind you of these gory details of their sinful life before they were converted, which God knows about but chooses not to accuse us with. Yet, no one can think of anything specifically they have done wrong for the last 10 years as a follower of Jesus. They think like Paul and act like Paul and talk like Paul, and see sin the way Paul did – which is the opposite of how Jesus (and God the Father) see sin.

        Paul reminded people of their pre-conversion sins, but Paul was blind to his own current sins as a follower of Jesus. Yet, Jesus sees sins the opposite way. Jesus NEVER reminded anyone of specific pre-conversion sins- (maybe I missed something, but I don’t think so. If you think I’m wrong quote me chapter and verse. The woman at the well was not a follower of Jesus when He first met her. And Jesus didn’t specifically mention adultery to the woman caught in that – “go and sin no more” is not bringing up her specific pre-conversion sin.)

        But God DOES see the sins of followers of Jesus AFTER we are converted, and He brings it up and rebukes us for them. (See Revelation 2-3)

        Followers of Paal will say something like “I’m not under the Law I’m under Grace, so God doesn’t see my sins..” To them I say, Wake Up! Read Revelation chapters 1-3.God is God, and our ways are in full view of Him.

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  2. Jesus commended the Church in Ephesus for having a rating system for Apostles, because they “tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” [Revelation 2:2]
    Those are the “Red Letters”.

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      • We agree – “Jesus gets to “rank” anyone he wants.”
        And in Revelation 2;2, Jesus is ranking Paul as someone who falsely claimed to be an apostle. Although Jesus doesn’t give Paul’s name, if you look at the entire text of our New Testament, it is fairly evident that Jesus’ words here are directed primarily against Paul – although not exclusively against Paul.

        (By the way, the tradition of dating Revelation as the very last of the books, around 90 AD, came later- the original church did not believe that, but it appears followers of Paul pushed this new tradition to cover for Paul, so people would miss that Revelation 2:2 is primarily against Paul.)

        Paul’s longest recorded ministry was also in Ephesus – not “3 years night and day with tears” as Paul boastfully claimed, but rather 3 months in the Synagogue and 2 years in his own school, teaching many people, as Luke recorded accurately in Acts. No one else in the New Testament outside the 12 claimed to be an Apostle except Paul, and obviously Paul taught many people in Ephesus that he was an Apostle. Paul was wrong about that, and Jesus commended people for testing Paul and finding him false in his claim to be an apostle.

        I think Jesus gets to define what an Apostle is, and the Apostles Jesus walked with for 3 1/2 years knew what a true Apostle is better than Paul did. Paul wasn’t wrong about everything – but he was wrong about quite a lot. No one besides Paul in the pages of the Bible ever said that Paul was appointed an apostle- it’s an uncomfortable fact about the text.

        Many “religions” have their one “special person” who can never be examined or questioned and is somehow “above the law” because they make the law, so the don’t need a second witness. Muslims have Muhammad, Mormons have Joseph Smith, Catholics have “Mary”…. and most Evangelicals have Paul the self-appointed Apostle.

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  3. As you said, “Paul rejects any sort of rating system for apostles”. I think that this is something that we should apply to our lives and our churches today, as well. Too often, we place teachers and pastors in a sort of hierarchy, based off of many factors – size of the church, how much money the person makes, and even how public or well known they are. We may think of those who are the pastors of huge mega churches, who stream all of their messages online, and how have written dozens of books, as those who are at the top of this hierarchy. We may believe that these people are the ones who have the “real insight”, and we may believe that they have much better insight on the word than those who are pastors of small, local churches. However, we need to be careful not to do this. Instead of focusing on the pastors or other individual involved in the church, we need to be focused on Jesus. We should be evaluating each message we hear, and instead of just going along with it and accepting their message as truth, we need to make sure that the message aligns with the word of God. It is important that we have our own understanding of the word of God, and that we don’t just blindly follow the teachings of mega-pastors, because this is where people begin to stray from the truth of God’s word.

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  4. It is interesting how Paul’s boasts are exactly opposite to what these “super-apostles” are doing. Rather than exerting his authority to strike others, Paul has been beaten many times (2 Cor. 11:24-25). Rather than accepting gifts for his own personal gain from the church, Paul made sure not to take money from any of them (verse 9). Instead of using his position to exalt himself above the other believers, Paul is instead trying to humble himself and exalt the Corinthian believers (verse 7). Indeed, Paul does not share the same methods as those who are supposedly more impressive.

    In our culture today, I think that there is a risk of over-boasting about suffering for Christ that could not really have occurred in the honor crazed Roman society the same way. But regardless of the method, being consumed by the gain of honor, advancement, and prestige is detrimental to any Christian ministry. When I think about dealing with this issue the correct way, my first thought goes to the youth pastor at my church. Whereas a youth pastor position can be seen as a stepping stone to attain a “higher” pastoral position, the youth pastor at my church has been working in this position for around 20 years now with no desire to change. He definitely has the qualifications to move up to a “higher” pastoral position, which could easily give him more compensation and prestige. However, he believes that he has found the place where God wants him and content to serve there.

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  5. I found it interesting that Paul does a one-up to the church Corinth, they show how blessed they are and Paul comes back with “How much have you suffered?”. This could be similar, maybe not, to how you get a job? Or how qualified you are? The church of Corinth shows Paul they have all of the knowledge and education to be called an apostle, but Paul essentially asks them; how much experience/suffering have you had? Even though they may have the knowledge or education to be proud of, Paul shows them all of the suffering that he had endured and that this is what acting out your faith or knowledge or teachings looks like. I think the analogy you made in the blog post, saying “…so it is possible Paul means Corinthian believers are willing to put themselves in the position of a young student learning from a cranky tutor!” fits so well with 2 Corinthians 11:1-3. Paul corrects them along with giving them advice. For 2 Corinthians 11:16-21 has a weird feeling or tension. Paul says in 16, “… then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting”. Paul knows what he’s doing, the church of Corinth is prideful and Paul doesn’t want to straight up tell them they are without encouraging them. He understands their pride and instead of showing them his credentials, which he is very well qualified to be called an apostle, but shows them his suffering and experience. It seems like he shows them his sufferings in Christ so that they see that if you don’t have understanding, and wisdom you wouldn’t be able to become the “cranky tutor” if the original post terms.

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  6. I think it is important to note in this case, that honor and achievement was highly sought after in the Corinthian culture. The people of Corinth had a strong sense of pride and honor and this was a large impediment Paul was battling with, within the Corinthian church. I believe that Paul’s “humble boasting” about the suffering he has endured for Christ, was to help shift the vision of the Corinthians off of their own honor, and onto honoring and helping others in Christ name, no matter what the cost. In fact Paul might be trying to show them, that they may not feel honorable at all when serving Christ, because it can be a painful and degrading process, trying to spread the gospel and live according to God’s desires. Paul wanted to show the Corinthians what it truly meant to be a Christian in the worst of circumstances, its not about honor or achievement, its about giving until you are bruised and broken, it is about the sacrifice you are willing to make for your Lord and Savior. The only honor you should seek is from the Lord himself, and you might have to suffer to get there.

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  7. No matter how we are feeling we meant to praise God. As a body of Christ we have a tendency to only praise God when He answers our prayers. This is not how our relationship with God should work. If we are going through hardship we need to praise God because we know that He already went before us and won the battle. When a situation is starting to lose control we need praise God, because we know He is the only one who can make things right. As we get our prayer(s) answered, then we need to praise Him even more for keeping His promise until the very end. I know for a fact this is why Paul continues to boast about God even during His suffering. That means Paul had so much faith that God would turn his situation around as He has done before. God has never failed us before and this is something that will remain true even when I am gone and long after that too. Even before the foundations of this planet were laid God already had a plan and future for each of His creation. Knowing this in return should put our minds at ease and strengthen our faith even more. We serve a powerful king that loves His people unconditionally and without any boundaries. This love that He has for us should be more than enough to give us the sense of purpose we need to wake up every day. Even when times are rough to know that God is on our side is definitely already a win we can be boasting about at all times.

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  8. The city of Corinth was dominated by a personal quest for honor. I believe that it is fair to say that today’s society mirrors this personal quest for honor. The fact that Paul is willing to boast in his suffering, rather than boast in his apostleship, his knowledge, his ministry experiences, etc. is very encouraging for Christians, including myself. It is important to understand how big of a figure Paul is. He is an Apostle, and he writes many letters/works in the Word of God. Clearly, Paul is a huge figure during Bible times. The fact that he is not worried about his own status, reputation, or personal honor. I believe that offers a model for other Christians to try and live by. Paul is setting an example for Christians to boast in their suffering that they have experienced, rather than their wealth, status, education, achievements, etc.

    Personally, I think about how I can connect this model to my own life. As a basketball player/athlete, everything is competitive in the sports area of my life. I want to be the best player I can be for my team but also for my own personal goals. I work hard every single day to be the best player I can be. Am I doing this for the right reasons? Am I doing this so that I can boast about my achievements and my team’s achievements later on in life, or am I doing this to honor God with the abilities that he blessed me with and to be a light for my teammates, opponents, fans, etc.? This is food for thought that I think about often, as basketball is very important to me and my life.

    In order to answer the question about whether or not the quest for honor is biblical, I tend to side on the side of “No.” Jesus Christ is a model of unselfishness in the Bible. Pursuit of honor is surrounded by a selfish nature, so that is why I tend to side with the “No” side of this debate/discussion. Unselfishness is preached throughout scripture (Philippians 2:4). Therefore, I think that a strong pursuit of honor is not biblical. That being said, I do think it is human nature. This culture predominated Corinth and society today. Social media is an excellent example of people using this media as an avenue to boast and seek honor over their peers and neighbors.

    Paul sets up an excellent example of how Christians should boast in Christ, not themselves and their own achievements. Longenecker and Still (2014) write: “Paul has plenty to boast about, he says, but his is a boast in the things that God has been doing through him (p. 153).

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