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!
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.
Paul initiated the Collection as a part of his mission to the Gentiles (1 Cor 16:1-4). Before the first missionary journey in Acts 13, Paul had delivered funds to Jerusalem collected by the Antioch church. This famine relief visit is the subject of Gal 2:1-10. In Gal 2:10 Paul said that the James had only encouraged him to “remember the poor.” The “poor” likely refers to the community in Jerusalem, the people the famine visit was intended to help. This “famine relief” visit indicates the Jewish Christian churches in the Diaspora were not living in common as Jerusalem was, but they also felt a responsibility to support the Jerusalem believers financially.
The Jerusalem community appears to be still living in a sort of shared community, supported by gifts when Paul returns to Jerusalem in Acts 21. It is possible Judea was suffering from another famine and possibly the effects of a Jubilee year. If this was the case, then the poor in Jerusalem were even more dependent on Antioch than ever. Paul uses the word “relief” (ESV, translating διακονία, service, assistance) in 2 Cor 8:4 and in 9:12 the same word describes the collection as an opportunity for service for the poor in Jerusalem.
When Paul spoke of the “collection” in 1 Cor 16:1, he used a word (λογεία) associated with an irregular tax or contribution of money for some charitable or sacred purpose (MM, BDAG). In 2 Maccabees 12:43 Judas Maccabees takes up a collection from his men to be sent to Jerusalem to pay for a sin offering on behalf of the soldiers who had been killed in battle. The word appears in a Theban ostraca of date 4 Aug. A.D. 63 with reference to a tax for the priests of Isis (Deissmann, LAE, 104).
The Greco-Roman world used a system of public benefaction to help the poor, but there was nothing like a modern “fund-raiser” where people solicit money to be distributed to the poor. In Judaism the poor received alms from individuals, but money was not collected by any organization to be re-distributed to the poor. The only exception appears to be Queen Abiabene, who brought relief to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20:51-51).
It is possible Paul picks up this word from the word from a letter from the Corinthians themselves. They may have considered this collection as a kind of tax (a millage?) like a Greek temple collecting funds to meet the need of the priests. But that is not Paul’s point at all: this is not a tax but rather a special way to share a gracious gift in order to meet a very serious need in Jerusalem.
Since this collection was unprecedented, it would have looked very suspicious to outsiders. What is Paul doing with this money? Paul is careful to bring representatives of the Gentile churches to assure the churches he was not going to disappear with the funds. Since traveling with such a large amount of money was dangerous, a large group would be required to protect the collection. During Paul’s second stay in Corinth he arranged for the Collection to be brought to Jerusalem (Romans 15:22-29; Acts 20:1-6). Paul plans to travel from Corinth to Jerusalem with an entourage of representatives of the Gentile churches. The list of travel companions in Acts 20:4 includes Greek names, representatives of the now successful Gentile mission.
Paul’s plan, therefore, is to collect a gift for the poor believers in Jerusalem who are suffering from famine and poverty. Based on Acts, it appears Paul wants to deliver the gift at Pentecost as a kind of “first fruits” from his harvest among the Gentiles. That is really the point of the collection, to show the church at Jerusalem that God has already done great things among the Gentiles. This is not a bribe to the apostles or a payment to them to remain an apostle, but a way to demonstrate the way God has been working among the Gentiles.
But according to 2 Corinthians 8, the church at Corinth was slow to participate in this collection. Paul describes the generosity of the poor churches in Macedonia (vv. 1-5) and compares this service to Jesus, who was rich yet he became poor (v. 9). This is a similar argument to Philippians 1 where Paul encourage the church to follow the example of Jesus who did not think equality with God was something to be grasped but took on the form of a human servant. If anyone in Corinth was thinking their social standing was too high to participate in this particular project, Jesus is the ultimate challenge!
To what extent is Paul trying to shame the Corinthians? Compared to the churches in Macedonia, they are wealthy and have not experienced any persecution which would have resulted in a similar kind of poverty. Paul himself was able to spend 18 months in their community, more time than he was able to spend in all of the other communities combined.
The Corinthian church has already made a commitment to participating in Paul’s collection for Jerusalem, but because of the conflict between Paul and the church (and perhaps some suspicious thinking prompted by Paul’s opponents), they have been slow in following through on that commitment. Paul legitimately is shaming them for their dishonorable lack of commitment to the Collection. If the Macedonians can participate, and if the ultimately rich and power Jesus can set equality with God aside in order to become poor in order to serve us in his death, then the Corinthian church can make good on their commitment to offer a gift to support the Jerusalem church.
Honor and Shame were powerful motivations in the Greco-Roman world, and Paul has resorted to shaming the Corinthians several times in 1-2 Corinthians. But this is very difficult for a modern preacher to apply since a rhetorical “shaming” is likely to have the opposite effect on church member in America today. Paul’s collection is often used by preachers to encourage people to give regularly to the church or other ministries. “Giving a gift” should not be considered an obligation or tax, as it has been at various times in history. In America “pew rentals” helped churches to raise funds. If you wanted a good seat, you had to pay for it.
Is this passage an encouragement for regular giving to the local church?
Bibliography: D. J. Downs, “The Collection in 2 Corinthians” in Martin, 2 Corinthians (Second Edition); Witherington, Acts, 429; Bruce Winter, “Acts and Food Shortages” in The Book of Acts in its Greco-Roman Setting, 2: 59-78.
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.