Boasting in Weakness
A sermon on 2 Corinthians 11 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 3/7/04
What does a godly church leader look like? I don’t mean is he old or young, clean shaven or with facial hair, wearing a suit and tie or having an open collar. But: How does he act within the church? What does he think of his own abilities? How does he respond when rebuked?
Last week: we started this discussion by drawing out four principles from 2 Corinthians 10:
Today we consider 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul continues and deepens this discussion. We will see that he contends that your very salvation may depend on the leaders you follow. We will see that the very characteristics Paul condemns are common in many churches today. And we will see that Paul gives us two additional descriptions of church leaders that are exceptionally valuable in today’s church culture.
This is a long and somewhat complicated passage, so before we draw out principles, let me point out to you the overall flow of Paul’s argument. We’ll go through the text, highlighting the major sections, and making a few comments along the way. Then we’ll draw out three principles from the chapter as a whole.
Recall the situation. Although Paul planted the church in Corinth, opposition sprang up quickly. Some who called themselves true apostles, who had letters of recommendation from important people, accused Paul of not being an apostle at all. They declared, “He suffers too much – clearly God is not protecting him. And he’s always changing his mind, not following through on plans. Furthermore, he’s so unimpressive as a speaker – he needs to go study rhetoric! He really knows this, because he never even asks for money when he speaks!”
With that background, consider Paul’s words in verses 1-4:
I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! 2 I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. 3 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4 For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.
We might entitle this section: “Who you listen to matters!” They seemed to listen to Paul initially, but now they are in danger of being led astray, even as Eve was led astray. For these other teachers are indeed preaching a different gospel, a different Jesus, a different Spirit. To follow them is very dangerous – yet the Corinthians are putting up with these false teachers!
In verses 5 to 15, Paul addresses two of the charges they have made against him: In verses 5 and 6, that he is not a good public speaker, and in verses 7-15, that he never asked for money from them.
5 For I consider myself not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles. 6 Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.
Generally I have been using the English Standard Version as our text, but for verse 5 I substituted the New American Standard. For when speaking of “the most eminent apostles”, Paul refers not to his opponents, but to Peter, James, John, and the others. Only with this understanding does the flow of the argument make sense. Paul is therefore saying, “I am not a fancy speaker, but I know the apostolic truth, the true gospel, and I have made this knowledge plain to you.” Thus he is emphasizing not the fact that he has knowledge, but that, whatever his communication flaws, he has given them this precious truth.
So Paul is saying, “Rhetoric is unimportant. Truth is important. And I have given you the most important truth in the world: the apostolic truth of the gospel.”
Now for the second charge in 7-15:
7 Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God's gospel to you free of charge? 8 I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. 9 And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. 10 As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. 11 And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! 12 And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
Paul’s opponents are saying, “He didn’t charge a thing! He didn’t even take up a collection! He himself knows his words aren’t worth anything!”
How does Paul respond?
Verse 7: “I did it to exalt you!”
Verse 9: “I did it so as not to burden you!”
Verse 11: “I did it as evidence of love!”
Verses 12-15: “I continue not charging in order to distinguish myself from the false teachers. They disguise themselves as apostles, just as Satan disguises himself as an angel. Their end is hell.”
So at this point Paul has said that who you listen to matters, and dealt with two objections:
“Paul is not a good public speaker.” He claims he spoke clearly enough to impart to them the true, apostolic knowledge.
“Paul charges nothing for his services.” He says this was the way he served them, this was the way he showed them love!
Having dealt with these two objections, now Paul says he reluctantly will use their technique of exalting themselves.
I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. 17 What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not with the Lord's authority but as a fool. 18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. 19 For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 20 For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. 21 To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! But whatever anyone else dares to boast of- I am speaking as a fool- I also dare to boast of that. 2 Corinthians 11:16-21
Here Paul says, “They are very foolish to have a boastful confidence, to be proud of themselves in a worldly way. But please, given that you have foolishly listened to them – even though they are enslaving you! - bear with me as I act foolish like them.”
Having said that he would boast foolishly, in verses 22 and 23a he does so:
22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one- I am talking like a madman-
Do you see what Paul is boasting in, and why that is foolish? He first boasts in his ancestry. He is a Hebrew, an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham. But John the Baptist already showed that such boasting was nonsense:
And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Matthew 3:9
Ancestry means nothing. God can create descendants of Abraham any time He wishes.
Paul’s second foolish boast is that he is a great servant of Christ – a better servant than they are. Such boasting about who is a better servant, about who as accomplished more, is foolish.
But when Paul continues writing, he no longer boasts foolishly. For the evidence he provides here does not concern pedigree or personal accomplishment but concerns his failures! Indeed, Paul now boasts of the very suffering that his opponents have used against him:
23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one- I am talking like a madman- with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.
Paul was almost killed, he was imprisoned, he was shipwrecked, he was always in danger, he was without sustenance, he was exposed to the elements, he was anxious for the welfare of the churches he planted. He is weak – and, indeed, his whole Christian life began with an act of weakness, his blindness. So he says, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” This is in marked contrast to the slick, professional, successful false apostles.
So this is the overview of Paul’s argument. What principles about church leadership can we draw from this text?
Paul knows his weakness. That’s obvious in this text; he has also said this earlier:
Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 2 Corinthians 3:5
All God’s servants used greatly for His glory across all the ages of church history have known their weakness. Consider these words of William Carey, often called the father of modern missions:
If after my removal any one should think it worth his while to write my Life, I will give you a criterion by which you may judge of its correctness. If he give me credit for being a plodder he will describe me justly. Anything beyond this will be too much. I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.
From John Piper I learned the use of the acronym APTAT every time I speak. Here John’s words on this tool for humility:
"A" -I acknowledge
that apart from Christ I can do nothing of eternal value (John 15:5). I acknowledge
with Paul in Romans 7:18, "In me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good
"P" - I pray. I pray with Paul in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 that Christ would make me abound in love. I pray that grace might reign in my life through righteousness (Romans 5:21). I pray that God would produce in me the obedience he demands (Hebrews 13:21; 2 Thessalonians 1:11).
"T" - I trust. This is the key. . . . The ongoing work of the Spirit to enable us to love as we ought happens only as we trust the promises of God (Galatians 5:6). So by faith I lay hold on a promise like Isaiah 41:10: "Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand." I trust that as I act it will not be I but the power of Christ in me and me only clinging to him in faith.
"A" - I act in obedience to God's
word. But, O, what a world of difference now between such an act and what Paul
calls works of law. The acknowledgment that I am helpless, the prayer for
divine enablement, the trust that Christ himself is my help and strength--these
transform the act so that it is a fruit of the Spirit not a work of the flesh.
"T" - Finally, when the deed is done . . . I thank God for whatever good may have come of my life (Colossians 1:3-5). I thank him for conquering at least in some measure my selfishness and pride. I give him the glory (1 Peter 4:11).
God’s servant leaders know their weakness.
In verse 30, Paul says, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
What is our natural tendency? To hide our weaknesses! To pretend we are better than we are! To act strong, to pretend we have our act together and know exactly what to do!
I try to accomplish this in part by not only doing APTAT privately, but expressing my weakness and lack of ability regularly in public prayers prior to preaching. I encourage you to do something similar. This is not false humility. Rather, this is a recognition of the real state of affairs.
I face this temptation particularly when people outside the church ask me about Desiring God Church. “How’s your church going?” I feel the urge to brag, to say we’ve got our act together, to compare us to other churches. But I try to remember to say, “God is bringing together a dedicated group of believers.”
All leaders have weaknesses; sometimes those weaknesses cross the line into sin. When that happens, leaders must be willing to listen to rebuke. Many, many leaders refuse to do this, often arguing that if they publicly acknowledge the sin, it will hurt the church. My friends, we do not advance the cause of Jesus by disregarding His commands! Paul says explicitly,
Those [elders] who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning. (1 Timothy 5:20 NIV)
If you ever believe that I, or any future elder, is guilty of a public sin, seek that elder out: Raise the question. Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe you’re right. In either case, you need to raise the issue with the man concerned. Consider these Proverbs:
Proverbs 9:8 Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Proverbs 25:12 Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.
Proverbs 12:1 Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.
God’s servant leaders know weakness, and boast in it.
Look again at verses 2 and 3:
2 I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. 3 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
Paul draws a parallel between Satan leading Adam and Eve astray in the Garden of Eden and what is happening in Corinth. Adam’s sin led to the fall of mankind. The implication here is that if the Corinthians follow these self-appointed leaders, they could fall similarly.
In November of 2000, the night before I left to being three months at Bethlehem Baptist, I had a dream that John Piper was a fake. In my dream I arrived in Minneapolis and over the next week discovered that he was really a selfish, self-seeking person. I woke and lay awake in bed, asking, “What if all the supposed God-centeredness of Bethlehem is just a façade? Having turned my back on my career, having left my family to study, what if I find out that this church is all about self-aggrandizement? Even worse – what if he is a fake, and I don’t find out?”
That night, I had to do what we all must do when faced with doubts: remember what we know. Recall to mind those things we know are true. And I had plenty of evidence that John Piper was not self-seeking – so I went back to sleep. And the following months at Bethlehem were wonderful and life-changing.
But the question is a good one. We should take great care in choosing the leaders we follow. We should be attuned to warning signs, indicating something may be amiss. Here are three such warning signs, in addition to false doctrine:
a) Does the leader encourage you to search the Scripture and follow them, or does he demand that you follow him?
b) Does the atmosphere within the church encourage Scriptural questions about what is taught, or do members within the church stifle an questions, saying something like, “Don’t disagree with the Lord’s anointed”?
c) How does the leader respond when confronted with sin? Is he repentant and willing to face the consequences, or does he say something like, “Yes, I’ve sinned, but if you talk about that with anyone else, you’re worse than me!”
In the Desiring God Community Church vision and values statement, we say:
Our leaders are not lords. We value leaders who are servants, who are transparent, who are accountable, who are humble, who live a modest lifestyle, and who have a team approach to ministry.
Thus all elders at DGCC will agree that our goal is to get the congregation to search the Scriptures, not to agree with us; to consider carefully any appearance of sin in our lives, and to approach us with any questions; to submit to public rebuke for any public sins.
So salvation is at stake when you are deciding whom to follow. Choose carefully.
God’s servant leaders know they are weak and incompetent on their own. God’s servant leaders boast in their weakness, rather than hide it. All God’s people must take care when choosing leaders to follow. Their salvation may depend on that choice.
Ask these questions of yourself:
As believers in Christ, we are free to admit our weaknesses, for our standing before God does not depend on our performance. You don’t need to pretend that all is ok when it is not. Like Paul, you can boast in your weakness – for God is your strength, and he is worth boasting about! As Isaiah write:
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10
When He strengthens us, we will be strong indeed, to live by His grace and for His glory. May we all live to this end, from the oldest leader to the youngest child.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 3/7/04. Scott Hafemann’s The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Zondervan, 2000) was particularly helpful on the structure of the passage. The John Piper quote is from his sermon of 3/13/83, available at www.soundofgrace.com/piper83/031383m.htm
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