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Playing a Necessary Fool for Christ’s Sake!

Sermon passage: (2 Corinthians 11:16-33) Spoken on: November 8, 2010
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Daniel Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 2 Corinthians

Tags: 2 Corinthians, 哥林多后书

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About Pastor Daniel Tan: Pastor Tan served as the youth pastor of Jubilee Church till his retirement. He is currently serving actively in missions.

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 11:16-33

During the early days of the Salvation Army, its founder General William Booth and his associates were bitterly attacked in the press by religious leaders and government officials alike. Whenever his son, Bramwell, showed Booth a newspaper attack, the General would reply, “Son, fifty years later it will matter very little indeed how these people treated us; it will matter a great deal how we dealt with the work of God” (W. Wiersbe). Yes, brothers and sisters, this was exactly what Paul was facing long ago in his ministry with the Corinthian congregation. We have been telling you many times that one of the reasons for Paul to write the Second Corinthians was to defend his authenticity as the apostle of Jesus Christ. It was because the Corinthian congregation had been infiltrated by a group of false teachers who made strong personal attacks against Paul, challenging his authority and status as an apostle. Thus, Paul need to vigorously defend himself against the attacks from those he called ‘false apostles’. But Paul’s compelling defense was not due to the concern that his reputation as an apostle might be at stake, rather he perceived those false teachers as a major threat that would destroy altogether his teaching, and thus his work in Corinth. In other words, Paul was more concern to maintain the true gospel and his converts’ devotion to Christ than his own personal reputation. Paul would therefore resort to all means to prevent the Corinthian congregation from following the false teachers and their teaching. In today Scripture passage, he was forced to boast about himself which he so much despised in others for doing so. As we know in the previous chapters (3:1; 5:12; 10:12), he had repeatedly insisted to the Corinthians that self-commendation was worthless. But because of the false teachers’ accusations against him, and the willingness of some of the Corinthians to believe them, Paul had to boast of himself by making comparison with them. By doing so, he called himself a fool because he knew it was indeed foolish to boast about oneself (11:1). To make the matter worst, he knew that when he did speak about himself, he was deviating from what the Lord called him to do. Nevertheless, the crisis of the Corinth church demanded that he stoop to what he condemned if he was going to preserve his converts. In other words, though reluctantly he needed to play a fool to win back the Corinthians to the right teaching of Christ. Hence, the title of my sermon is: Playing a necessary fool for Christ’s sake!

(1) Paul justifies his need for playing a necessary fool in the game of comparison.

Paul’s opponents have made boastful claims about their position, abilities and importance, thus gaining them a hearing in the Corinthian church while diminishing his apostolic authority. Paul is fully aware that by imitating their boasting, he is engaging himself in the act of a fool. He therefore needs to justifies himself for doing so. So, we now come to the first point of Paul’s self justification of playing a necessary fool.

Fearing that some of the Corinthian congregation might think that his boasting to come is anything but foolish and that he is a real fool, Pau gives his warning to them in the beginning of today’s passage: “I repeat: Let no one take me as a fool. But if you do, then receive me just you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast”. Paul does not want the Corinthians to accept him as a fool but as an apostle. But if playing the fool by boasting himself would make them listen to him, he will rather play the fool. After all, the Corinthians have tolerated the boasting of the false teachers. In other words, the Corinthians have no trouble with them glorifying themselves because that is exactly what they expect them to do. By contrast, they have been put off by Paul’s abject humility. If the Corinthians will not put up with him when he is humble and speaks according to the Lord, Paul reasons that perhaps they will put up with him when he acts the fool by self boasting, in the same manner as the false teachers they so esteem. He sarcastically calls them ‘wise’ for their putting up with his enemies’ boasting: “You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise”. Paul is saying that by bearing with the fools, the Corinthians thinking they are wise themselves, have in actual fact become as foolish as the false teachers who boast about themselves.

Their foolishness is further exemplified by their willingness to allow themselves being exploited by these false teachers. For Paul, if they are indeed wise enough, they would have never submitted themselves to a series of insults inflicted upon them by these false teachers. Paul now lists out the five evil actions of the false teachers that the ‘foolish’ Corinthians have put up with: “You even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slap you in the face” (V20). The Bible scholar, Frank Matera, has made a table of comparison between the behaviors of these false teachers and Paul which I think is well commented:

The False Teachers’ Behavior Paul’s Behavior
Domineering Does not exercise authority over their faith
Exploitative Not a burden to them
Take advantage of Not crafty or cunning
Haughty Abases himself to exalt them
Abusive Acts as their father

So, the way the ‘wise’ Corinthians bears with these false teachers must be most surprising to us. They not merely listen to and accept their boasts, but allow them to trample on them and their rights. Paul has never acted that way, but his behavior of meekness and gentleness towards the Corinthians are interpreted as a sign of weakness. But if being strong means doing what his rivals have done, Paul rather wants to remain weak. So, he says in v21: “To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that”. In other words, Paul admits that he is weak to the extent that he cannot perform the acts which his rivals have done to the Corinthians.

Thus, it is the circumstances beyond Paul’s control that have forced him into a situation he would have preferred to avoid, i.e. to boast about himself. Paul knows that if the conventional wisdom in a game of comparison is to prove one’s virtues, merits or intellect, or to enhance one’s reputation then he would certainly refrain from that kind of competition. In 10:12, he has already made it clear that “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise”. Thus Paul announces that he enters into the game of comparison, however reluctantly, not as a sane person but as one without sense or logic. Furthermore, boasting about oneself is not a proper Christian activity, for it is not something that the Lord would approve. Christians are fools when they engage in this game of comparison by boasting, that has nothing to do with “speaking according to the Lord”.

So, we see the nature of one’s boasting before others, rightly or wrongly, reflects the nature of one’s relationship with God. Paul boasts because his legitimacy as an apostle is being attacked, but the nature of his boast is determined by his understanding of the task that God has entrusted him to do. For Paul, if someone needs to boast let him boast in the Lord (10:17). Thus, if we do need to boast, we must know that we are playing the necessary fools, and that we must examine our attitude behind the boasting. Is it because of our self-confidence or self-importance that captivated us to boast? Or we boast only in what God has done in and through us, giving credit to God for all that we are and do? I think Jeremiah 9:23-24 provides the key to Paul’s practice and nature of boasting and to the contours of our own: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord”.

(2) Paul’s playing the fool is to mock the boasting of his opponents.

For Paul, what motivated his opponents in their boast is not love of Christ, but their own self-importance. Nevertheless, he needs to adopt his enemies’ ways to show how ultimately foolish they are. Wanting to be better than others in terms of status is foolish; wanting to show oneself better than others in terms of one’s achievement is even more foolish. We therefore come to the second point of the purpose of Paul’s playing the fool, which is to mock the boasting of his opponents.

Having qualified himself with appropriate sarcasm, Paul begins his dreaded boasting by declaring that “What anyone else dares to boast about, I also dare to boast about”. Paul’s boasting and his counter- attacking comprises of four rhetorical questions revolving around the theme of being a Hebrew, an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, and a servant of Christ. These four questions which Paul uses to compare himself with the false teachers can be best viewed with the following arrangement:

Are they Hebrews? So am I. They concern Paul’s background
Are they Israelites? So am I. and origin. Paul has no trouble
Are they the seeds of Abraham? So am I. matching. No distinction between
himself and his enemies.

Are they servants of Christ? I am more… It concerns Paul’s apostolic ministry.
A great contrast showing Paul’s
superlative nature of his ministry.

To put it in a simple term, the above first three questions deal with Paul’s Jewish pedigree. Paul has no trouble highlighting his ethnic, religious and privileged nature of what it means to be a Jew. In other words, in calling himself a Hebrew, Paul boasts of his racial purity, his ability to speak Hebrew. In identifying himself as an Israelite, he boasts of his membership as one of God’s chosen people. In proclaiming that he is also a seed of Abraham, he lays claim to the covenant promises that God made to the great patriarch, Abraham his ancestor. So, in short, Paul boasts that he is a pure-blooded Hebrew just like his opponents.

But when it comes to the fourth question concerning the true nature as a minister of Christ, Paul claims to be Christ’s minister in a superlative manner. Clearly Paul’s opponents must have said they are servants of Christ. But in actual fact Paul calls them in the previous verses as servants of Satan, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ (11:14-15). Even though they hold on to the claim that they are servants of Christ, Paul now enumerates how he eclipses his enemies. D. A Carson suggests that Paul’s enemies might have expected Paul to have said something like: I have established more churches; I have preached the gospel in more lands and to more ethnic group; I have won more converts; I have written more books (letters); I have raised more money; and I have seen more visions etc. But on the contrary, Paul gives a long list of trails and difficult experiences, which paradoxically characterize his apostolic ministry. The list describes the hardships and sufferings that reflect Paul’s weakness. We are not going into details this long list of Paul’s hardships and sufferings. Ernest Best broadly classifies Paul’s catalog of hardships into three areas: (a) sufferings at the hands of others, including exposing to death; (b) loss of the ordinary necessities of life, for example, food, clothing and sleep; which could come through the action of others and from the sheer danger and difficulty of travel in those days; and (c) inward stress from his pastoral heart worrying about his churches, in particular his concerns for the weak and for those who stumble.

Thus, we see Paul’s opponents claim to be ‘servants of Christ’, through boasting about their Jewish pedigree and their powerful, glorious lives as evidences of their apostleship. Paul likewise can boast in his Jewish pedigree to match them. But Paul’s main attack and mocking of them is that even though they claim to be ‘servants of Christ’, he is a superior minister because of the hardships and sufferings that he has endured for the sake of the gospel. So, Paul is in fact rejecting his opponents’ criteria of using strength and power to legitimate their apostleship as ‘servants of Christ’. In other words, it is not their glorious lives that prove them to be ‘servants of Christ’. Paul’s catalog of hardships and sufferings is the evidence of his superiority, the evidence that speaks against them. By this reverse comparison, Paul shows that it is suffering, not success, that authenticates his apostolic ministry. So, Paul is in fact mocking his opponents’ true foolishness by entering the game of comparison through the wrong boastings. Furthermore, Paul wants to highlight that a genuine servant of Christ is for him to show his personal concern for his congregations, and not in any way exploiting them. He is therefore outraged to see his opponents acting haughtily and taking advantage of the Corinthians. By associating himself with the weak, he burns with indignation when others scandalize them.

Indeed, the key to Paul’s boasting is found in his willingness to boast in his hardships and weaknesses, and it is this characteristic more than any other that distinguishes his boasting from that of his enemies. And it is also this characteristic that authenticates his apostolic ministry as the servant of Christ. Affirming their pure blooded Jewish pedigree and their glorious service record, Paul’s opponents thus claim to be servants of Christ. But Paul has overthrown all these criteria used by them for self-boasting and validation. So, brothers and sisters, it is not our Christian pedigree no matter how pure we are, or our baptized status, or our regular Sunday attendances, or even our impeccable service record in the church that enable us to affirm ourselves as servants of Christ. It is the grace of God and the power of Christ revealed in our lives and our services to others that make us servants of Christ. To this of course, we must add the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in us as well. Paul has also shown us that identifying with and caring for the weak is no less a sacred service than doing a big project for the church or leading a growing ministry. In fact, many commentators agree that Paul’s greatest suffering rested in his pastoral heart: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (V28) In other words, Paul’s great heart rose and fell with his people. Paul’s becoming weak when his people were weak testifies to his empathy, his feeling for his people. And this is what Paul wants us to learn as servants of Christ.

(3) Paul’s playing the fool is the reverse comparison for glorifying God’s power in his weakness.

Paul is cautious that the catalog of hardships and sufferings that he has listed, the Corinthians might view it as an indication of his endurance rather than weaknesses. Although Paul has already explained in the previous chapter (4:7-12) that his endurance and overcoming hardships is a clear sign that God’s power is at work in him, it nevertheless does not highlight his weaknesses. The Corinthians’ focus will still be on Paul’s endurance and his success in overcoming hardships. To make the matter worst, they might even misinterpret that the successful endurance of hardships would qualify one to be more godly than others. Thus, Paul needs to switch gears, he now turns to an episode that highlights his clear weakness. After all, Paul’s necessity of his boasting is to enter into a reverse comparison with his enemies, to prove himself to be the exact opposite of them, both in terms of his hardships and his weaknesses. And by boasting in his weakness will allow him to expound on God’s grace. Thus, we come to the third aspect of Paul’s playing the necessary fool, which is to glorify God’s power in his weakness.

Before narrating his escape event, Paul makes a summary statement: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”. And he invokes God’s name to verify what he is about to say. In other words, Paul is telling the Corinthians that he is speaking to them in the presence of God, that he is telling the truth. Paul now singles out his escape from Damascus in a basket through a window in the wall to exemplify his weakness. He recalls: In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands. Hiding in a basket is not something that someone with power would do. What should Paul tell this story with such an obvious sense of weakness and shame? Why must he put himself under oath, as if this is so hard to believe? (D A. Carson) The key to the answer comes from the name of the city called Damascus. It was to Damascus that Paul went as a proud Pharisee full of authority to seek out and destroy the people called Christians. But it was on the road to that city that he met Christ and received his call. In his letter to the Galatians (1:17), we are told that Paul went into Arabia (in the region of modern Jordan) immediately after his call/conversion. The region was under the control of the Nabateans, of same ethnic origin as other people of Arabia. Though Paul does not tell us why he is being sought, most commentators believe that his preaching in the region of Arabia may have disturbed segments of the Nabatean population, thereby incurring the wrath of King Aretas. Accordingly, when Paul returned to Damascus, King Aretas would have ordered the governor of that city to apprehend him. So, we see before encountering Christ, Paul had originally left for Damascus to persecute Christians, but he ended up leaving Damascus as a persecuted Christian. The hunter now becomes the hunted. Thus, this escape event exemplified his weakness occurs at the very beginning of Paul’s ministry. So, in effect Paul views the incident in Damascus as a paradigm for his life, for what is to come in his apostolic ministry. It is as if he is saying “This is how my ministry begins and this is how it continues”. In other words, his weakness will be at the heart of his calling from the very beginning of his apostleship, but God’s strength would be perfected in his weakness. It is possible that Paul’s enemies may well have used his escape event against him as a proof of Paul’s cowardice (cf. 10:1,10). Paul, however, has found a way to boast in it. Paul knows from the very outset of his ministry when he escaped the clutches of King Aretas in Damascus, God has been working in him. Thus, in chapter 12:9-10, he declares: “I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong”. Paul’s weakness is the same weakness as that of the crucified Christ: from it the power of God flows.

Yes, brothers, and sisters, what is our natural tendency? It is to hide our weaknesses! And we want to act strong, to think we have all the strength and wisdom to put all the acts together and know exactly what to do in lives! But Paul let us see that his apostleship begins with an act of weakness, his shameful escape from Damascus; and his weakness continues in his ministry as a servant of Christ. So, as believers in Christ, we should not be afraid to admit to our weaknesses, because rightly handled our weaknesses will serve to extol Christ’s strength in our lives and ministries. By acknowledging and embracing our weaknesses, we give them to Christ, and they will become occasions for His strength and glory. Someone remarks that he knows a Christian leader who openly advises his colleagues never to admit their weaknesses. To do so, they might give their opponents an advantage. Sadly to say, though as a leader, he thinks and acts like Paul’s enemies. He is indeed drawn to the society model of power and success. So, it is not by boasting about our education, our bank accounts, our successes or strengths or productivity in lives that make us intrinsically more acceptable to the Lord Jesus Christ. We are accepted by Christ in our weaknesses and that is the only thing we can boast about it. In humble trust, we must believe that Christ will turn our weaknesses to strengths for His own sake!