Listen Up

“As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! 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. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. 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. What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not with the Lord’s authority but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 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.” —2 Corinthians 11:10-20

It is important to understand what Paul was doing here. He was communicating a profound and serious criticism of Greek philosophy and Greek culture. Paul was critical about the way that the Greeks understood reality, and he was voicing his criticism in Greece. Paul was not talking about the Greeks behind their backs. He was not stirring up gossip about the Greeks. He was correcting them directly by challenging their worldview. And he didn’t just undermine their beliefs and leave them to dangle in the wind. Rather, he challenged one system of thought with another. He didn’t leave them with nothing. He left them with Christ as the key to unlock the mysteries of the Bible, the Old Testament. Many things in the Bible had been mysteries prior to the light of Christ, even to the Jews. But with the advent of Christ they were no longer mysteries. In the light of Christ the wisdom of the ages had been revealed for all who had eyes to see and ears to hear.

To those who clung to the categories of Greek philosophy and the traditions of Greek culture, it seemed as if Paul was a dangerous revolutionary who was attacking the very foundations of Greek society. They asked why Paul was doing this. Why was he so intent on destroying Greek culture? Paul answered rhetorically, “And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!” (v. 11). Was Paul attacking Greek culture because he hated the Greeks? No, he loved them. He was doing what he was doing because he loved them. He was putting his life on the line for them, trying to break through the cultural habits that had accumulated over 600 years of what the Greeks understood to be their great cultural success. Greece had been a dominant world power.

The Greeks had done very well culturally. Like the Corinthian church Greece had been large, successful and influential. Though they had been defeated by the Roman Empire, the Romans had simply adapted what they thought to be the superior Greek wisdom into Roman culture. Rome’s defeat of Greece had been more of a corporate merger than the destruction of Greek culture. In Paul’s day Rome was the dominant political and military force in the world and Greece provided the dominant philosophical foundation that under girded Greco-Roman civilization. Greek philosophy continues even today to provide the dominant foundation of Western culture and academics. The modern philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Paul was intent on challenging, criticizing and replacing that foundation, which he called philosophical foolishness. Paul had been working to replace the Greco-Roman worldview with a biblical worldview, with biblical culture. But not with the then-existing Old Testament culture of the Jews, which he knew had gotten diverted from its initial perspective and purpose. Rather, Christ Himself had provided Paul with a vision of the world in the light of Christ, the long-awaited Messiah of Old Testament prophecy.

Contrary to their fears, Paul was not recommending a revolution against Rome or the Greek academy. Rather, he was recommending Christ. His intent was not to destroy Rome or Greece, but to save them from their own internal corruptions with the grace and wisdom of Christ. Paul’s mission was not destructive, but was constructive in that he was applying the light of Christ to the foundations of reality. He was showing them a better way. Christ had come to change the world, not to destroy it.

But the old order, the old way of thinking and doing things would not easily release its grip on the hearts and minds of those who had embraced it. Old habits die hard. Right or wrong, there is emotional comfort in established habits and ways of thinking and being. Fundamental change comes hard to human beings.

Paul continued, “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” (v. 12). Paul claimed to represent Christ, and was teaching a whole new way of thinking and living that was not only different from that which the Greeks had been teaching, but was opposed to the Greek categories of thought and use of logic at every point.

Paul was fighting a two-front intellectual and cultural war. On the one hand, he was critical of the Jewish establishment in which he had been a significant leader. With his conversion he became increasingly critical of the established Jewish way of interpreting and understanding the Old Testament. He had been given a new vision of the Old Testament in the light of Christ. He himself had been wrong, and the Lord had corrected him. Consequently, he was in conflict with the Old Testament worldview as the Jews had framed it at the time.

But he was also critical of the Greco-Roman worldview because his vision of Christ had shown it to be foolishness in comparison, as well. Paul’s vision of Christ as the capstone of the Old Testament and the Messiah of the Gentiles put him at odds with both the Jews and the Greeks.

But that wasn’t all. In Corinth and elsewhere a further difficulty had arisen in the form of false apostles, false teachers who masqueraded as representatives of Christ. These false apostles had been teaching the same old perspective(s) but dressed them in Christian garb. They talked about Christ and adapted some of Christ’s truth into their various teachings. But they forced various elements of the Bible and Christianity into the old categories of Greek philosophy. They were trying to make sense of Christ by assimilating Christ into Greek philosophy (wisdom), by adapting Him to fit into the Greek philosophical categories that they thought accurately reflected and explained the truth of reality.

They were looking at Christ through the categories of Greek culture, where Paul was looking at Greek culture through the categories of Scripture in the light of Christ. They valued the art of philosophical syncretism, without realizing that syncretism had itself been an ancient enemy of God. For instance, the ancient tradition of the Golden Calf was syncretic (Exodus 32:1-ff). Syncretism has always been popular because it makes sense to sinful people. It appeals to their experience, intellect and feelings. But syncretism of any form is a violation of the First Commandment because it denigrates the uniqueness and exclusivity of God’s claim on the hearts and minds of His people. Syncretism uses Scripture to prop up its own thoughts and ideas about God and reality. Whereas God’s wisdom, biblical wisdom reveals the ultimate foolishness of all human thoughts and ideas about God and reality.

He was committed to what we would call a divisive mission—proving that the false apostles were unlike the real apostles at every point. He was committed to creating and maintaining a division between himself and the false apostles. He was committed to revealing their pride and their false ideas and assumptions every chance he could get. And from Paul’s effort to divide the false from the true, Christ’s church grew. It thrived on the differences and divisions that Paul revealed. Paul did this “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” (v. 12).

I am tempted to soften Paul’s blow in the interest of not offending people. I am tempted to back peddle Paul’s attack so as not to drive people away because of what may be seen as excessive negativity on my part. But that is not what Paul did. Paul accented the divisions. “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (vs. 13-14). Paul buried the proverbial blade in the belly of his opponents and then twisted it. Paul did not think that good people—smart people, qualified people, faithful people—could differ on this matter.

Those who stuck to their guns—the Pharisees who sought to kill Paul, and the Greeks who thought his teaching to be nonsense—were bad enough. The Jews and the Greeks provided substantial difficulties for Paul’s ministry. But worse than those who blatantly refused to conform to the light of Christ were those who disguised themselves as apostles of Christ, those who thought that they were helping the cause of Christianity by redefining it to fit into their own ill-conceived ideas. They usually tried to fit Christ into some veiled vision of the Old Testament (which led to Christian Kabbalah) or into the traditional understanding (categories) of Greek philosophy (which led to Gnosticism). Apparently, the errant Corinthian leaders had been involved in these kinds of creative adaptations of the gospel. As much as Jesus had opposed the Pharisees, Paul opposed the false apostles. Both were guilty of perverting the doctrines and wisdom of Scripture.

Such efforts to conform Christ to anything other than Paul’s vision of Christ as the capstone and fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah were deceitful in that they disguised and perverted the truth. They hid the truth, suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). And the particularly damnable thing about this effort was that they were doing it in the name of Christ. They twisted the teachings of Christ while posing as agents of Christ.

While Paul couldn’t say that speaking in tongues was Satanic because he didn’t understand what they were saying, he knew what these false agents of Christ were saying. And he called them Satanic, “for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (v. 14). The forces of Satan had set up shop in the church!

Before we think that this idea is impossible because it is so outrageous, we need to realize that this modus operandi is not at all unusual. Satan’s methodology has always been to counterfeit the truth because he has no truth or light himself. Satan goes the extra mile to make his wisdom look like Christ’s wisdom—and many people are fooled by it (Matthew 24:24, 2 John 1:7), “as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning” (2 Corinthians 11:3). It’s the same old same old, a different instance of the same thing.

“So it is no surprise if his (Satan’s) servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (v. 15). Pretending to be an apostle or representative of Christ is the most common method of Christian deceit. Too often the disguise is so good that people even fool themselves. They falsely believe themselves to actually be representatives of Christ. Jesus Himself acknowledged this tendency. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” Such people believe themselves to be faithful! “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:22-23). They believed themselves to be faithful, but Jesus knew otherwise, and their end will match their deeds, their fruit.

“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” (v. 16). Paul was not concerned about what they thought of him. They shouldn’t think that he was foolish—stupid, but even if they did, he asked for their temporary acceptance so that he could complete his argument. Paul was taking a different tact, “What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not with the Lord’s authority but as a fool. Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!” (vs. 17-19).

In verse 17 Paul said that they did not need to think of themselves as believers in order to understand what he was saying. They didn’t need to accept God’s authority, biblical authority, to understand his argument. He knew that he was speaking to both believers and unbelievers, true believers and false believers. He spoke with boastful confidence, complete confidence, not in himself, but in Christ, not in what he was saying, but in the vision that Christ had given to him.

Nonetheless, if they would simply allow him to put his whole argument on the table, he believed that he would be vindicated by the truth itself. He asked them to go ahead and consider him to be a fool if they must, but to hear him out anyway. He didn’t mind that they thought him to be foolish because his argument was not about him. It was about Christ.

Think me a fool. It’s okay. But please indulge me. Allow me to finish, to put my whole argument before you so you can make an intelligent assessment of it. But don’t dismiss it before you understand it. Bear with me. I’m not asking for any more courtesy than you give to the other fools who surround you all the time.

Pandering to their vanity, he suggested that they often had to bear with fools. Indeed, most of them thought that anyone who disagreed with them was a fool. And they often disagreed with each other! So, surely they could bear with Paul’s foolishness. Surely they were used to putting up with a certain amount of foolishness—their being so wise and all.

“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” (v. 10).

When someone makes a slave of you, you must put up with all sorts of foolishness because you are in an inferior social position. You can’t afford to do otherwise. How might this happen? Paul listed various scenarios that could lead to slavery—poverty. A war could be lost that could result in the slavery of the defeated people. This was a common occurrence at the time. Or someone could fall into slavery by going into debt, another common occurrence.

“The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender” (Proverbs 22:7).

How likely was it that someone could fall into poverty and/or debt—slavery. One way was to be devoured (katesthio), literally to be eaten down. This simply means that you run out of money and resources. For whatever reasons—good or bad—you simply use up all of your money. It actually happens all the time. Suddenly you are poor and can no longer afford to not put up with the foolishness of others who might give you a job or lend you some money or provide some kind of help. You need to be “nice” to people and not offend them so that if they have an opportunity to help you, they might. At least they won’t think poorly of you, and simply write you off. If you make people mad by calling them fools, they will be less likely to help you. In this case, it’s not that someone swindled you or tricked you out of your money.

But someone could swindle or trick you out of your money. Again, this happens all the time, too. Greedy, selfish scam artists are not new to the current age. So, if someone scams you out of your money, you’re still poor and in the same boat.

Another way is to get taken advantage of. The Greek is one word (lambano) and the AV translates it as, “If a man take of you” (v. 20). This still amounts to being swindled or tricked, but it’s a nicer version of it. The culprit is more polite, has a better story. Perhaps it is a child or relative who takes advantage of you by suggesting that you have a moral responsibility for his or her care.

And that care then depletes you of funds. Whatever the case, the result is the same—you end up in poverty.

Another way is to get taken in. Here the Greek (epairo) literally means to exalt one’s self or to put on airs. This is a higher class swindle, perhaps an investment scam where someone poses as a rich person, convinces you of the success of some hair-brained venture, gets you to invest in the project, and leaves you high and dry. You’ve still been scammed and you still end up in poverty.

The last method on Paul’s list is simple robbery. Someone knocks you out and takes your money. Same result.

Paul’s point was that these kinds of things happen all the time to all kinds of people. So, people have to put up with different kinds of foolishness from all kinds of fools all the time. Therefore, they could put up with what seemed to them like foolishness from Paul. Why should they do that? Paul argued that they couldn’t understand his position until they had the whole story in mind. Paul was certain that intelligent people would understand the wisdom of Christ if they would simply allow themselves to hear the whole argument.

This is still the case, and for the most part those who reject Christ do so before they understand the whole story. Oh, they think they understand the whole story, but they don’t. Not really. Few people are willing to study the issues long enough or hard enough to come to a realistic conclusion. Most people today have been fed various godless thoughts and ideas about reality from so many sources—teachers, parents, media, movies, etc.—that any serious consideration of the actual biblical truth about Jesus Christ is rejected before it is even considered. The truth of Jesus Christ does not fit into the categories of the current Western worldview. People don’t have to hear anything about the biblical story because it is categorically rejected by their own presuppositions about reality. That’s where we are today, and that was exactly where Paul was at in Corinth.

To counter this tendency Paul wrote some letters to the Corinthian church and asked them to consider them carefully. That’s what I’ve been doing here. And when we finish our consideration of Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians, we will then and only then have the whole of his argument before us for consideration. Until that time, until people have the whole argument before them, they should bear with it. Allow it to be put before them (you).

If you want to think that I’m being foolish in this effort, that’s fine. Go ahead and think it. It’s okay. Just listen until I’m finished. That’s what Paul said in these verses.

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