We have noticed with the Corinthian Christians that boasting is a problem in this church. Not only are they boasting in themselves and in their works, but they are denigrating Paul and the apostles because of their sufferings. In particular, Paul is denigrated for not having flair, style, entertainment value, and eloquence. The charge of his critics is specifically quoted in 2 Corinthians 10:10.
For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Corinthians 10:10 ESV)
What Paul is going to do in this chapter is teach these Christians what false and true servants of God look like. Since the critics of Paul are trying to claim their value and importance to this church and are discrediting Paul, Paul will spend his time describing true and false disciples so that the church can properly evaluate what Paul has done for them and what these critics are doing.
Describing Deceitful Workers (11:1-20)
The reason Paul desires to go through this important teaching with these Christians is because of how much he loves them. In the first two verses Paul tells them that he feels a divine jealousy for them. Paul brought them to Christ through the preaching of the gospel and cannot bear to watch them turn against him and what he taught them. What these false teachers are telling them is causing the thoughts of these Christians to “be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” These teachers are not helping you but causing you to turn away. He describes what is happening to them as being similar to the serpent deceiving Eve by his cunning. These people are tricking you. They are causing your thoughts to be turned away from sincere and pure devotion to Christ. This is happening because people are coming in and proclaiming another Jesus than what Paul and his companions have preaching in Corinth and they are accepting those messages (11:4). They are not seeing the way these people are but accepting them. We get even more of the sense of the problem in verses 5-6. These critics are super-apostles, mainly because Paul is unskilled in speaking in the eyes of these Christians. Again, we are seeing an emphasis and exaltation of oratory skill. We want good speakers. I would like for us to think about this criticism for a minute because I think many churches would have the same criticism and would support preachers based heavily on their speaking skill. But there are even bigger problems than this that Paul now addresses.
First, Paul notes a difference between how Paul came to these Corinthians and how these false teachers have come to them. The false teachers were exalting themselves while Paul came to them in humility. In particular, he is speaking about coming to them for free even though he had the right to ask to be financially supported while preaching the gospel there. Paul did not want to be a burden to the church in any way. He cared about the financial well-being of the church and did not want to take much from them, unlike these false teachers. This is an important characteristic. True disciples of Jesus do not try to take as much money from the church as they can. True disciples try to not burden the church at all. We do not look at the finances of the church and then try to get as much of it as we can. It appears that this is what these false teachers have done. They are quite happy to burden the church in Corinth, charging them unnecessarily and then criticizing Paul for preaching for free to them, taking his support from the churches in Macedonia. Paul is showing that the decisions he made was for the good of the church and not for the good of himself. Paul states in verse 11 that you know that I love you. This is what we should see: true followers will do what is in the best interest of the church, not the best interest of themselves.
There are many practical applications of this which we often do not see in churches today. How many times have you seen an elder or a preacher in a particular congregation and the Christians want the preacher to leave or want an elder to step down, but they cannot do it? The elder digs in his feet and does not step down. The preacher digs in and refuses to leave. I want us to see that Paul describes that the proper response is to always do what is in the best interest of the church, not self. I have seen preachers drain the church bank account so that the church has to close its doors. I have seen elders be wasteful with money so that the church is spiritual hurt and unable to function properly. Christian leaders are to help the church, not hurt the church. This is exactly what Paul is doing. Paul tells these Christians that he came to them selflessly. I have also seen many who claim to be Christians come to a church and try to get as much money as they can out of the church treasury, demanding benevolence money or hitting up every Christian in the room for money. This is not right and is not the heart of a true Christian.
This leads Paul to say something that is sometimes hard to believe: people will claim to be followers of Christ but are not. Now, we accept this when it comes to the world. We are used to people in the world claiming to be Christians, but we know they are not based on their beliefs or based on their actions. But what is harder is the person who comes through our doors claiming to be a Christian. Paul calls these people who are part of the Corinthian church “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13). False Christians are always disguised. They are not clear and obvious. Listen particularly to verses 14-15. It is no wonder that this happens because even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Even Satan makes you think that what you are doing is right and good. Satan does not come to us and tell us that sin is a horrible decision and that we should avoid it. Temptation tells us that the decision is good and right. So in the same way, we should not be surprised if the servants of Satan also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness (11:15). People are going to pretend that they are godly. They say things that are plausible and sound good. But their end will be disaster.
Finally, Paul describes more about what false teachers and false servants of Christ look like. They boast in themselves and what they do (11:18). They boast in their achievements. They make much of themselves. They think highly of themselves. Further, they enslave you and take advantage of you (11:20). They do not give to you but merely take. They act arrogantly toward you. They insult you. They abuse you. Paul says that you can identify them because they just hurt you and use you. You can identify them because they make a big deal about themselves. They disguise themselves but you can see them based on the way they talk and act. Now Paul is going to show us what a true follower looks like.
Describing True Workers (11:21-33)
Now Paul declares that the Corinthians apparently want a contest of boasting. These false Christians have been boasting about themselves. So he will gladly play the fool’s game and start boasting about himself. But notice what his boasting is. First, he is a true Jew. This may indicate that these false ones were also Jewish and claiming some sort of significance by it. Paul says that he has a pedigree but what does that matter! So notice where Paul’s “boasting” goes. He describes himself as a servant of Christ by all the things he suffered for Christ. Remember that this was the very thing that the Corinthians were critical of Paul for. His sufferings disqualify him as an apostle. So what does Paul do? Paul magnifies those sufferings all the more. Numerous imprisonments, countless beatings, often near death, scourged five times, beaten three times, stoned once, shipwrecked, drifting at sea, and in dangers from every person and place. He was without physical comforts. He hit quite a low part of his life when he was a fugitive, being lowered through a window in Damascus. The great Pharisee was now a fugitive for Jesus.
Paul overthrows the categories of boasting. Paul does not speak of great things that he has done. Paul does not say that he established more churches, preached in more lands, traveled more miles, brought about more baptisms, or wrote the most books of scripture in the New Testament. What is Paul’s boast?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:30 ESV)
Paul’s boast is in his weakness because it is not about himself but about God. If anyone could boast, would it not be the apostle Paul? Who else could compete with his resume? Who else could compare accomplishments? Yet what does Paul draw attention to? He draws attention to his weaknesses.
Paul never put himself forward. Paul never drew attention to himself. Paul did not boast in himself. He did not think highly of himself. He sacrificed and gave it all to Jesus and that was seen in how he interacted with the Corinthians.
The message of the apostle Paul can be boiled down to this question: is the person feeding me or feeding on me? Paul says that he fed these Christians in his letters and in his teachings when he was there in person. He did what was best for them, loved them, and cared for them. The false apostles and false servants, however, were feeding on the Corinthians. They put themselves forward. They took advantage of the Corinthians financially. They enslaved the Corinthians. They elevated themselves over the Corinthians. They hurt and abused these Corinthians. They were physically combative. This is the clear difference between who is true and who is false. Is this person helping us or hurting us? Is the preacher feeding us or feeding on us? Are the shepherds feeding us or feeding on us? Are the teachers feeding us or feeding on us? When someone tries to join to our spiritual family we look to see if they are trying to take from us and want to give to the Lord and to the family. The false are always taking and the true are always giving. Let us look at our own lives and consider which we are. Are we true or false? Are we servants or do we act like kings? Do we give to others or take from others? Be a servant of Jesus and be a true servant. Do not disguise yourself as a true Christian when you are false for God knows and your end will correspond to your deeds (11:15).