2 Corinthians 11:1-12:13 When discernment is needed (Foolishness)


Let us pray


I wonder if you’ve seen the film – or read the book – catch 22? 


In the book, the hero Yossarian meets Orr who wants to get out of the war – but who falls foul of catch 22:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.
Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; but as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to.
Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

Catch 22 – you stuck if you do – your stuck if you don’t.


Or have you read 1984 or seen the film?


In 1984, Winston Smith lives in London which is part of the country Oceania. The world is divided into three countries that include the entire globe: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.


Oceania is always at war with one of these other countries – but which country, changes.  Winston Smith’s job is to rewrite history – so when Eurasia is the enemy, they are always the enemy – and when Eastasia is the enemy, they are always the enemy.


1984 explores information and totalitarian government – but it is also a book about trust and loyalty – who can Winston Smith trust?


Both of these books – and films – paint a depressing picture of human life.  We are trapped by rules like catch 22 – we are in situations where it is difficult – seemingly impossible – to find someone to trust.


And whilst we might not be as pessimistic as George Orwell or Joseph Heller, we all recognise the problem, don’t we?


How do we know who to trust?  How do we discern what is wise – and what is foolish?


Tonight, Paul addresses those questions in our passage from 2 Corinthians, as he himself faces a catch 22 situation.  We’re on page 1165 of the bibles in the chairs.


We’ll look first at Paul’s situation, before we look at what he teaches the Corinthians, and us, about discernment – about wisdom and folly.


Paul’s Catch 22 Situation


Paul talks a lot about his foolishness in this passage – it’s there in verse 1 of chapter 11 –


2 Corinthians 11:1 I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but you are already doing that.


and again it’s there in 11:16.  Paul says that he is foolish to talk in the way he is talking – it’s how he ends in 12:11:


12:11 I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the "super-apostles," even though I am nothing.


He talks about his boasting – in verse 10 of chapter 11 – again in verse 17 – again at the start of chapter 12.


11:16 I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting.  17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast.


Paul knows that what he is engaged in is foolishness – that what he is doing is boasting – but he does it anyway.  Why?  Because he is forced into doing it by the way the Corinthians are treating him.


The church in Corinth has a problem.  They have come under the influence of super apostles - and they seem to prefer these men to Paul, and what he teaches – look at 11:5-6


11:5 But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those "super-apostles." 6 I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.


Paul is having to contest his rights of apostleship with these new people who have come into Corinth.  He finds himself in a situation where the Corinthians are preferring to listen to these new people.


And it’s not just a personality clash – Paul makes it clear that these super apostles are actually false apostles:


11:13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.


The situation is grave.  The Corinthians are listening to people who are leading them astray – leading them away from Christ – leading them to, as verse 4 says, a different gospel.


So Paul has to deal with this situation.  But how is he going to do it?


How can he convince the Corinthians that they should be following him, without sounding like he’s blowing his own trumpet? 


If he doesn’t say anything – then the Corinthians will continue to be led astray – but if he says something, he’s going to look like he’s the same as these super apostles, who are always boasting of there achievements.


Paul decides to risk the later – to save the Corinthians.  And in the way he talks about his foolishness and boasting he makes it clear that he does not want to boast – and that boasting is wrong – and that the things he boasts in are opposite to what the super apostles would boast in.

So what does Paul want to say? How do we discern what is good and what is wise?


Paul wants us to look and see how these people act.  What they say and do.


And he wants us to see what they should be doing – how they should be acting, what they should be saying.


How can we discern what’s wise and foolish?


An apostle is a messenger – someone who carries the message from one person to another.


Messengers work for other people – they pass on information.


Paul was an apostle of Christ – he passed on information about Christ.


The super apostles should have been doing the same, but..


1. False messengers speak falsely…


Look at 11:3-4:


3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.  4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.


Paul challenges the Corinthians for putting up with people leading them astray.


The false apostles were offering a different Jesus – a different spirit, and therefore a different gospel to Paul.


They didn’t preach the Jesus of the Bible – perhaps they didn’t like the idea of his weakness on the cross, and skirted over it – perhaps they missed other bits out because they didn’t fit with what they wanted to say.


Similarly today.  Sections of the church only want a Jesus who loves unconditionally, not Jesus who is the king of the universe and the judge of the world.  Others focus only on Jesus sufferings – and the way we can suffer after him – rather than on the Jesus who’s death on the cross was a unique, once for all event.


The false apostles offered a different spirit.  Perhaps they offered the spirit as a power source - that people could tap into to have their requests granted – like a genie in a bottle – rather than as God, as a person.


Or perhaps the spirit had come to dominate, so that Jesus – and especially his cross – wasn’t talked about hardly at all – but works of power took centre stage.


And so they teach a false gospel, a different gospel.


but true messengers speak the truth (11:2-6, 13-15)


But Paul reminds them of his constant and unchanging message:


2 I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.


Paul is like a father who has betrothed his daughter to a man – and no eagerly awaits the wedding day – but worries, not without reason – that the bride will make herself unfit for the wedding.


Paul’s message is consistent  He says the same thing - he has one goal in mind.


And he is prepared to challenge his hearers – he’s not worried about his rhetorical skills, but he’ll challenge his readers when he needs to.  He speaks the truth in love.


The false apostles were easier to listen to.  They spoke well – and they didn’t challenge their audience in the way Paul did.


But they spoke lies – a different gospel.


The first step in discerning true Christian witness and leadership is to ask – is this consistent with God’s word?  Is what is said what the bible says – or is it something different.


Because if it’s different it’s false – it’s leads away from Jesus, not towards him.


So let me encourage you to test the truth of what you hear.


Test the truth of what I say.  Have I misrepresented the passage?  Have I said something that isn’t there?  Have I missed something important out?  Tell me – ask me – nicely.


Maybe you could even make it your practice to take notes in sermons – of what’s said, of questions you have, of concerns  - I’m more than happy to discuss them.


Eve was deceived – she fell foul of the serpent.  But she was deceived because she didn’t know what God had really said – she hadn’t been listening.


Paul describes these false apostles as deceivers – as servants of Satan.  We need to be on our guard now, as then, armed with God’s word.


2. False messengers seek status, but true messengers serve. 


In these two sections in chapter 11, Paul contrasts his attitude with that of the super apostles, and we get a sense of what they are saying and doing from the way Paul acts differently.


a. Money or ministry?  (11:7-12, 12:13)


First, we see Paul’s attitude to money and payment:


7 Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge?  8 I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. 9 And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so.


Paul preached to the Corinthians free of charge.  He got the money from other churches – and from Macedonian brothers.


And the Corinthians didn’t like it – they thought it made them look inferior:


12:13 How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!


They were used to important people looking like important people – certainly not dirtying their hands with a trade like Paul did. 


And they wanted to pay Paul – so that he would be in debt to them.


But Paul’s boast is that he didn’t receive payment from them – unlike the false apostles, who can’t boast in this way!


10 As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine. 11 Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! 12 And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about.


Now we need to be clear here that Paul is not against Christian workers being paid –


1 Corinthians 9:4 Don't we have the right to food and drink?  …..  7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk?..... 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?

 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.


But he hasn’t taken up that right – for the sake of the gospel – because he knows that in Corinth, this would mean being thought of as being bound to someone – and Paul needed to be able to say what was needed to anyone, whether they were rich or poor.


And we can be tempted sometimes I think to act like the Corinthians.  If we give money to someone or something, we want to have rights over what they do with it.


Now it’s understandable that we don’t want to see our money going to waste – but isn’t there a danger that we make people beholden to us?


Let me give you a big example.  In some of the recent disagreements in Anglicanism over the authority of the bible, many churches in the global south have faced problems – because the Anglican church in the USA, the one that is preaching heresy and breaking communion – is wealthy.


Do these churches tow the line, or do they risk the loss of funds they might experience, if they criticise the hand that feeds them.


Or what about closer to home?  Do we give to God’s work – or to get our way?




Paul goes on.


b. Power or service (11:19-21, 28-29)


19 You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!  20 In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. 21 To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!


These verses drip with irony.  The Corinthians are so wise – that they put up with leaders who exploit, enslave and take advantage of them – and Paul apologises for being too weak to do that!


The super apostles exploited their position – but Paul as the leader of the church responds differently:


28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?


Paul serves – and that is costly.  He is concerned about everyone – he doesn’t exploit them, he serves them.


Paul’s heart is set on service, not power. 


His example challenges us. 


Do we have a position in the church?  Do we have it because it gives us power – or because it enables us to serve?


This is always something I face from up here.  You can do a lot of good spending half an hour with the word of God – preaching is the best service I can give you – but it would not be hard to use the sermon as a tool of domination – to make unbiblical demands, or to teach half truths.


Again, we’re in this together.  So keep me on my toes.


c. Status or weakness (11:21-27, 30-31, 12:1-10, 12)


21 What anyone else dares to boast about-- I am speaking as a fool-- I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more.


The false apostles wanted status – so they could exploit it.  They cared about their family descent – that they were true sons of Abraham – and that this somehow gave them status.


They took servants of Christ to be a title – the kind of title that lets you sit at the top table or in special seats.  But Paul let’s them know what service is really about:


I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27 I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.


Paul boasts in exactly the things that others would not find impressive – that might even indicate that Paul was weak.  After all, why would God allow his true apostle to be beaten like a common man?


And Paul has had experiences that would seem to mark him out as special – look on to the start of chapter 12:


12:1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.  2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know-- God knows. 3 And I know that this man-- whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-- 4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.


Paul knows a man – and the man is Paul – who was caught up in a vision to heaven.  He saw wonderful things – he heard wonderful things.


This is exactly the kind of vision that might mark Paul out as a super apostle – but that is not what Paul wants to do.


And Paul’s ministry has been marked with miracles:


12:12 The things that mark an apostle-- signs, wonders and miracles-- were done among you with great perseverance.


Paul won’t boast about spiritual experiences, but only about his weakness:


11: 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying


Why?  Why does Paul boast about his weakness?  Surely he would have been a more effective minister if he hadn’t been imprisoned, or didn’t have to work with his hands, or hadn’t been shipwrecked, or had told people the inexpressible things he had heard?


No.  Look at 12:7-10


 7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  9 But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.  10 That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.


The super apostles talked about their spiritual experiences – used their speaking skills to blow their own trumpets – to show that they had status, that they were worthy servants of Christ.


That they were exactly the kind of servants that God needed.




But look at verse 9.  Paul grasped something that the super apostles didn’t.  God works through our weakness, for the more we rely on God, and not our own strength, the more we are used by him.


When Paul stood up to speak, he couldn’t rely on his own gifts – he wasn’t a great speaker.  Like Peter at Pentecost – he relied on the Holy Spirit to speak through him.


And because he knew his weaknesses, he gave the glory to God.


Before his experience on the Damascus road, Saul relied on his own strength and knowledge, and was sure of himself against the followers of Christ.  But he was blinded – and healed by the lord.  He recognised his own weakness and frailty – and even when he was speaking well in Damascus, he had to be rescued in a basket.


But it is not always easy to recognise our own weakness, and God’s strength.


When David faced Goliath, he relied on God and the gifts God had given him, and he was victorious.  But when David saw Bathsheba, he decided he could have her because he was king – and he possessed her in his own strength – and his kingdom was nearly ruined.


Paul’s example challenges us.


He challenges us to get serious about discerning the truth.

And he challenges us to live lives of service – relying on God, not our own strength.


In a catch 22 situation, Paul challenged the Corinthians and us, to be discerning – and to follow his example, living lives worthy of our Lord Jesus Christ.


Let us then follow his example.


Let us pray


James Hughes

28th March 2004