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.” 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.