2. Corinthians 11 – Paul and false apostles

Pasi Hujanen
Reija Becks

Read or listen the Second Epistle to the Corinthians - chapter 11 online (ESV, Bible Gateway)

Paul is looking for what is best for the church – 2 Cor. 11:1-6

Before Paul begins to "praise” himself (2 Cor. 11:16-12:10), he justifies why he had to behave so foolishly (verse 1). Paul points out that in everything he sought the best of Corinthian Christians.

Paul compares himself to a matchmaker who brings the bride and groom together. Israel considered itself the bride of God. The background to this is e.g., Hosea's marriage as a metaphor of the relationship between God and the people of Israel (Hosea 1-3). The metaphor of the church as the bride of God appears often in the book of Revelation too (Rev. 19:6-9, 21:9, 22:17).

Paul feared that the false apostles would mislead the Corinthian church in the same way as Satan deceived Eve and Adam in paradise (verse 3). Adam and Eve were driven out of paradise; followers of false apostles will not enter heaven. The matter was therefore extremely serious. There is only one gospel (verse 4, 1 Cor. 3:11; Gal. 1:6-10). Everything but the gospel of Christ's atoning work is delusion, not gospel.

It is important for us to remember that there were no written books of the gospel at that time. The Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, is from the 60s, that is, about ten years after the writing of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Before the gospels, there were various shorter written accounts of Jesus (cf. Luke 1:1-4), but we do not know what they were like. And hardly any of them had reached Corinth by then.

Therefore, Corinthian Christians had little knowledge of Jesus and the Christian faith. Paul had of course taught them for a year and a half (Acts 18:11), but we must keep in mind that the church grew all the time; probably not all the Corinthians who went to church had even seen Paul. The seven letters of the risen Jesus to the churches of Asia Minor in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 give us an idea of ​​how various heresies had spread to the churches during the next generation, in the 90s.

Why do people believe false preachers so easily (verse 4)? Because the true gospel, the will of God, is not in accordance with the human mind (Isa. 55:8-11; 1 Cor. 2:1-5). When there comes a preacher who speaks what people expect to hear, he does get followers. Also, the less people have Christian knowledge, the easier becomes the work of those who are preaching heresy.
We don’t know very much about the teaching of Paul’s opponents. However, Paul attributed it to Satan (verses 14-15), not to God.

It is important to distinguish between the form and the content of what is proclaimed. If the content is rubbish, not even a pretty package will save it. The right content is most important, the form is secondary. This does not of course mean that we can proclaim the gospel badly and in a careless manner. The gospel is a great gift from God and therefore it must be proclaimed in a manner worthy of it (Rom. 1:16-17).

It is surprising that Paul says he is a poor speaker (verse 6). His letters testify to quite the contrary. And his work would hardly have progressed in the way described in the Acts if he had had a very "slow tongue" (cf. Acts 14:1-7). The point is apparently that Paul did not want to be a rhetorician, an eloquent speaker esteemed in the ancient culture. Paul believed in the power of the gospel, not in his own rhetoric.

The gospel is free – 2 Cor. 11:7-15

Manual labour was despised in the Greek culture. Paul really humbled himself by earning his living as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3, 20:33; 1 Cor. 4:12). Why didn't he agree to take money from the Corinthians (verse 12)? Nowhere in his letters does Paul explain the reasons for his mode of operation. Two possibilities have been presented:

  1. Corinth was a rich port city. A wide variety of preachers and prophets from all over came there in the hope of making money. Paul did not want to be thought of as one of them.

  2. The gift of God, that is, salvation, is free; it cannot be bought or earned. If the Jewish rabbis proclaimed the Law for free, shouldn't the gospel be proclaimed free of charge? Therefore, Paul could not take money for his preaching. Paul was reluctant to receive even the gift from the church of Philippi (verse 9, Phil. 4:10,15), and he received it specifically after leaving Philippi.

This kind of action by Paul had caused problems previously in Corinth, (1 Cor. 9:3-12). His opponents had charged for their preaching (2 Cor. 2:17, 11:20, cf. Gal. 4:17). Apparently, they had mocked and despised Paul for preaching without charging anything.

There were many accusations against Paul and lots of doubts about him.

  1. Didn't Paul have the right to earn his living from his preaching (1 Cor. 9:14)?

  2. Didn't Paul dare to demand the maintenance he deserved?

  3. Perhaps Paul did not love the Corinthians as much as he loved the Macedonians (verse 11)?

Nevertheless, Paul did not intend to change his ways (verse 12). With ill will, human behaviour can always be misunderstood. If Paul had accepted money, he would surely have been accused of greed.

Paul acknowledged that a preacher of the gospel has the right to live at the expense of the church (1 Cor. 9:14; 1 Tim. 5:18; cf. also Luke 10:7). He himself had given up that right but did not insist on others doing the same (1 Cor. 9:6). Regarding mission fields, it is difficult to say when a church or congregation should be self-supporting. No church is of course meant to be forever on the help of others. There are examples – besides Philippi – of how very poor churches have greatly supported missionary work, even sacrificing their own needs (cf. Eccles. 11:1).

In verses 12-15, Paul condemns his opponents very sternly. He saw what it was all about: eternal life or eternal death. It was not a question of differences of opinion, but of giving up the faith (cf. Gal. 1:6). Discretion must be set aside when the eternal destiny of man is at stake. Heretics must not be supported, not even received, if they do not accept rebuke and repent (Titus 3:10).

This is the third passage in which Paul is talking about Satan's work in Corinth.

  1. Satan tried to break the church into groups quarrelling with each other (2 Cor. 2:10-11; compare 1 Cor. 3:1-9).

  2. Satan blinds the sinners so that they cannot see their sin (2 Cor. 4:4).

  3. Satan spreads false doctrine into the church (2 Cor. 11:3, 14-15).

Satan's plots must be identified and prevented. That is what Paul tried to do with his letters, and he often succeeded in it.

Boasting is foolish – 2 Cor. 11:16-21

Paul again apologizes (cf. verse 1) for his foolish boasting. In ancient times, bragging was not considered as uncivilized as today. The Roman emperors boasted of their victories and heroic deeds. Jesus told the parable of the publican and the Pharisee who was praising himself in the synagogue (Luke 18:9-12). Similar spiritual boasting is also referred to in Matthew 6:1-6.

There were feasts in Paul's day, when "fools” became “lords”. The fools were allowed to tell even ugly truths about those in power. However, the real fools were the Corinthians who accepted to be exploited (verse 20).

From our standpoint it is good that Paul boasted of himself in these passages. We get to know about things that he says nowhere else, and they are not found in Acts either. But did Paul follow his opponents’ ways? Did he too start praising himself so that he would not lose out? We should note what Paul boasts of: hardship, affliction, pain, etc. (cf. verse 30).

Many times, the church is tempted to act like the world. But even then, the church must be as "salt and light" (Matt. 5:13-16). In competing with the world for the favour of the world, the church always ranks second. We must go deeper, and bring people something new: the gospel.

Paul confessed his weakness (verse 21), but God used him in His work just as he was (2 Cor. 12:9). The "strong" Christians were so full of themselves that there was no room for God to work in them and through them.

In verse 19, Paul states that if the Corinthians were as wise as they thought they were, they could surely listen patiently to Paul's foolishness for a moment – they can bear with it.

In verse 20, “enslave” may refer to various requirements of the Law that the new teachers had demanded of the Corinthians.

The Apostles’ hard lot – 2 Cor. 11:22-29

Verse 22 reveals that Paul’s opponents were Jewish Christians. But so was Paul himself (Acts 23:6, 26.4-5; Phil. 3:5).

Things had not been easy for Paul. Many would have already given up, but Paul had received his mission from God – and at the same time he was “promised” many sufferings for the sake of the apostle's mission (Acts 9:15-16; cf. Jer. 20:7-18). The list of Paul's troubles in verses 24-28 reminds us that Luke did not tell us everything about Paul's activity in Acts. Of the afflictions that Paul suffered, Luke only talks about Paul's beating in Philippi (Acts 16:22-23) and about his stoning at Lystra (Acts 14:19-20).

Because Paul was a Roman citizen, he should not have been beaten (Acts 22:25-29, cf. Acts 16:37-39), but laws were broken, as this episode in Philippi shows. Jewish Law (= the Old Testament) allowed a maximum of 40 stripes (Deut. 25:3), but to prevent giving too many lashes by some miscalculation, 39 blows was the maximum given.

Stoning was the Jewish way of enforcing the death penalty (verse 25, Acts 7:58-59).

In those days, sailing was dangerous, as is clearly shown by Paul's three shipwrecks (verse 25), and on his way to Rome he experienced a fourth shipwreck (Acts 27:39-44).

Towards the end of his life, Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians, "I have learned how to be content with whatever I have." (Phil. 4:11) This episode speaks of the same attitude toward life.

Paul had accomplished a great deal, in fact incredibly much. But he had also paid a heavy price for it. We would like to “cherry-pick”, to receive all of God’s blessings without pain and anguish. Unfortunately, it will not work. It is the “school of hard knocks” that brings us closer to God, to be better fit for God’s use.

Verse 29 raises a serious question for us, "Do I want to take responsibility for other Christians?" Or am I focused only on my own salvation? It is also good to remember the other side of the coin: no one – except Christ – can bear the worries and sorrows of the whole world. So, we must find our own part in God’s plans and be faithful to it.

God is mighty in the weak – 2 Cor. 11:30-33

One of the greatest honours of a Roman soldier was to be the first in a conquered city. Paul was let down in a basket through an opening in a wall. He was not a conqueror (in the secular sense), but rather an "escaper".

Aretas IV was the king of the Nabataeans. He ruled his kingdom to the east and south of the Jewish land from 9 BC to 39 AD. The capital city was Petra, a city carved in stone.

Damascus was one of the ten cities of Decapolis (Matt. 4:25; Mark 5:20, 7:31). It is not known whether it belonged to the land of the Nabataeans. If it did not, then the passage must be interpreted so that the Aretas’ commander could not arrest Paul in Damascus, but Paul had to be caught outside the city. Luke says (Acts 9:23-25) that the gates of the city were guarded. In the dark of the night, Paul slipped past the guards and came to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26), where he was beyond the powers of Aretas. On the other hand, it is worth remembering that we know very little about the conditions of the time. It may be that at some point Damascus belonged to the land of the Nabataeans and the purpose of guarding the gates, as mentioned by Luke, was to prevent Paul from getting out of the city.

Paul humbles himself so that Christ would be exalted (cf. Matt. 23:12): "I am nothing; Christ is everything!"