You’re at a party, getting to know people, making small talk. One person begins to boast of his accomplishments, using the culturally-accepted markers of success: where he went to school, what he does for a living, how smart his children are. You know the drill.
At this point, you have a choice. You can think the guy is too full of himself, and walk away. You can listen intently, stroking his ego. You can join in the game, looking for ways to slip in references to your own accomplishments.
But what you don’t do is start listing your failures.
As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul purposely adopts the stance of a worldly fool to show the Corinthians how foolish they are to be taken in by the boasting of his opponents. Very well, then. If you’re so impressed by their boasting, let me boast for a bit:
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I’m speaking like a crazy person. What I’ve done goes well beyond what they’ve done. (2 Cor 11:22-23a, CEB)
That’s the kind of verbal sparring we’re used to: “Oh, yeah? Me, too.” Paul’s opponents were probably advocating at least some aspect of observing the Law of Moses, so Paul matches them point for point on every dimension of Jewish identity.
Then he ups the ante, from “Me, too” to “Anything you can do, I can do better.” On the matter of service to Christ, he’s got them beat. But from a worldly point of view, it’s an odd kind of victory:
I’ve worked much harder. I’ve been imprisoned much more often. I’ve been beaten more times than I can count. I’ve faced death many times. I received the “forty lashes minus one” from the Jews five times. I was beaten with rods three times. I was stoned once. I was shipwrecked three times. I spent a day and a night on the open sea. I’ve been on many journeys. I faced dangers from rivers, robbers, my people, and Gentiles. I faced dangers in the city, in the desert, on the sea, and from false brothers and sisters. I faced these dangers with hard work and heavy labor, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, and in the cold without enough clothes. (vss. 23-27)
The fact that Paul works so hard for a living, in order to preach the gospel for free in Corinth, has already been a source of controversy. But so are all the ways Paul suffers for the gospel, from both the Romans (the rods) and his fellow Jews (the lashes). Indeed, Paul’s willingness to continually risk the forty lashes (the maximum allowable punishment in the Law) demonstrates how much this “apostle to the Gentiles” loves his own people.
Paul is in danger from the elements and in danger from everyone, everywhere. He often goes without what people would consider the basic necessities of life. And if that weren’t enough, he suffers the heartbreak of his pastoral office:
Besides all the other things I could mention, there’s my daily stress because I’m concerned about all the churches. Who is weak without me being weak? Who is led astray without me being furious about it? (vss. 28-29)
He’s not being subtle. He’s already declared the danger he faces from “false brothers and sisters”; now he speaks of his anguish (the actual word means that he “burns”) over Christians who stumble. Sound familiar? Paul ends his catalog of suffering with his deep concern for the Corinthians themselves.
It’s a strange résumé. But it helps make the point that he will continue to illustrate: “If it’s necessary to brag, I’ll brag about my weaknesses” (vs. 30). More on that in upcoming posts.