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Signs and Wonders and Sarcasm (2 Cor. 12:11-13)

Some time ago I met with a former student of mine who was considering leaving his church. One of the leaders had openly slandered him and called his character, as well as his theology, into question. He asked for my advice. Knowing so little of the situation, and not being able to hear the other side of the story, I was reduced to directing his attention to Paul's counsel in Romans 12:18 - "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all."

We explored the implications of this in terms of how it would dictate his response and his ultimate decision on whether or not to leave the church. More recently I received an e-mail from my friend with news of the first steps being taken by all toward reconciliation. Needless to say, I was greatly encouraged.

I mention this incident, and especially the passage in Romans 12, only to point out that the apostle Paul practiced what he preached. At least he did when it came to his relationship with the Corinthians. To this point in his letter to the church in Corinth he has bent over backwards, without compromising his integrity, to reconcile peaceably with those who had sought to undermine his reputation and authority. He has rebuked them, to be sure, but with irony and sarcasm.

Only now, here in chapter 12, does he launch what might be called an open assault on their contribution to the troubling state of affairs in Corinth. He will continue to use sarcasm, but he also speaks more pointedly and directly than at any previous time. "So far as it depended on Paul," one might say, he had done all he could. He now proceeds to put the ball in their court. Thus he writes:

"I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!" (2 Cor. 12:11-13).

Without hesitation Paul puts the blame where it belongs: on the Corinthians themselves. "I didn't want to boast," says Paul. "You have driven me to indulge in what I find foolish and detestable. The fact is, I should never have been forced to speak up for myself. You have all the evidence you need to speak commendably on my behalf. I established the church in Corinth. I trained you in spiritual truths. I lived among you for eighteen months (Acts 18:11)! I set an example for you of Christ-like humility and sacrifice. Where have I failed you? Notwithstanding all this, when the interlopers came strutting into Corinth, maligning my character and undermining my authority, you not only kept your mouths shut, you actually agreed with them!"

It would appear there were at least two specific charges brought against Paul by his enemies in Corinth. (1) Some were alleging that he was inferior to these so-called "super apostles" and had failed to provide evidence of his apostolic calling. To this Paul will respond by reminding them that whatever marks or signs are required of an apostle, he had them all (vv. 11-12). (2) A second charge was that as a result of his ministry the Corinthians were actually worse off than before (v. 13). Let's look at each of these in turn.

First, Paul begins with a brief explanation why he was in no respect "inferior to these super-apostles." Everything that could possibly be demanded of a true apostle characterized his ministry in Corinth. He reminds them that "the signs of a true apostle" were done among them. Even this brief foray into self-defense once again turns Paul's stomach, as he is quick to concede, "even though I am nothing" (v. 11b). Apart from divine grace, says Paul, I am a nobody. Whatever accomplishments you compel me to mention, make no mistake about their source: God. In his own estimation Paul was the least important of the apostles and unworthy to bear the title (cf. 1 Cor. 15:9).

But what precisely are the "signs of a true apostle" so evident in Paul's life and ministry? Some insist that the "signs" or "marks" or "characteristic features" of an apostle consist preeminently of the "signs and wonders and mighty works" that Paul performed while in their midst. The NIV contributes to this by translating as follows: "The things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles - were done among you with great perseverance." This rendering leads one to believe that Paul is identifying the "signs/marks" of an apostle with the miraculous phenomena performed among the Corinthians.

But those of you who can read Greek will recognize that the word "signs" is in the nominative case whereas "signs and wonders and mighty works" are in the dative. Therefore, contrary to what many have thought, Paul does not say the insignia of an apostle are signs, wonders and miracles. Rather, as the ESV more accurately translates, Paul asserts that the signs of a true apostle were performed among you "with [or accompanied by] signs and wonders and mighty works."

Undoubtedly all apostles of Christ ministered in the power of miraculous deeds. But so too did other, non-apostolic, Christians. Consider, for example, (1) the 70 who were commissioned in Luke 10:9,19-20; (2) at least 108 people among the 120 who were gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost; (3) Stephen (Acts 6-7); (4) Phillip (Acts 8); (5) Ananias (Acts 9); (6) Agabus (Acts 11 and 21); (7) church members in Antioch (Acts 13:1); (8) new converts in Ephesus (Acts 19:6); (9) women at Caesarea (Acts 21:8-9); (10) the unnamed brethren of Galatians 3:5; (11) believers in Rome (Rom. 12:6-8); (12) believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14); and (13) Christians in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19-20).

These three terms ("signs," "wonders," "mighty works") appear together on five occasions: here in 2 Corinthians 12:12, as well as in Acts 2:22; Romans 15:19; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; and Hebrews 2:4. If there is a distinction between them it is that "signs" have the capacity to authenticate and point to something spiritually significant beyond themselves, while "wonders" or "marvels" arouse awe and amazement and "mighty works" or more literally "powers" display the omnipotence of God.

To make my point clear, consider 1 Corinthians 12:10 where Paul lists among the many gifts that are distributed to average, non-apostolic, Christians in the body of Christ, "the working of miracles." The word "miracle" here is the same that we find in 2 Corinthians 12:12 translated "mighty works." My point is simply that whereas signs and wonders and mighty works were an essential element in the ministry of a true apostle of Christ, such as Paul, they were by no means restricted to that elite company. Average, non-apostolic believers also operated in these supernatural giftings.

One may rightfully say, then, that miraculous deeds were "a" sign or characteristic feature of a true apostle. But they were not "the" sign of an apostle if by that one means that only apostles worked miracles and that with their passing such supernatural phenomena ceased to be operative in the church. In Paul's case, he reminds the Corinthians that miraculous phenomena accompanied his ministry in their midst. They were attendant elements in his apostolic work. But neither Paul nor any other NT author ever suggests or implies that such supernatural activity was restricted to those commissioned by Christ as apostles.

A closer look at the NT reveals that there were numerous signs or insignia of a true apostle, only one of which was miraculous deeds. The distinguishing marks of true apostolic ministry were, among other things:

(1) Success in ministry (1 Cor.9:1b-2; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-3; Paul appealed to the reality of their conversion as evidence of the authenticity of his apostolic calling; but non-apostles also have great evangelistic success; see Philip in Acts 8).

(2) Signs and Wonders (Acts 5:12; Romans 15:19; 2 Cor. 12:12; but non-apostles also performed signs and wonders; see above).

(3) Extreme suffering (Col. 1:24; 2 Cor. 4:7-15; 11:23-33; etc.; certainly countless others also suffer).

(4) Christ-like life and humility (2 Cor. 1:12; 2:17; 3:4-6; 4:2; 5:11; 6:3-13; 7:2; 10:13-18; 11:6,23-28; but there is no reason why a non-apostolic believer might not live at this same level of maturity).

(5) Special insight into divine mysteries (Eph. 3:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:16; Rom. 11:25-32; 2 Cor. 12:1-4,7).

(6) Authority and the power to enforce it (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 4:18-21; 5:5; 2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10; 1 Tim. 1:20).

(7) God-orchestrated stigma (1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 6:3-10; 12:1-10).

Whereas the presence of these factors does not necessarily make one an apostle, their absence may well call into question the authenticity of one's claim to that office. One would be hard-pressed to find an apostle in the NT whose life was not characterized by these features.

Let's also remember that Paul does not refer to the "signs" of an apostle nor to the miraculous phenomena that accompanied his ministry as a way of differentiating himself from other, non-apostolic Christians, but from the false apostles who were leading the Corinthians astray (2 Cor. 11:14-15,33). "In short," writes Wayne Grudem, "the contrast is not between apostles who could work miracles and ordinary Christians who could not, but between genuine Christian apostles through whom the Holy Spirit worked and non-Christian pretenders to the apostolic office, through whom the Holy Spirit did not work at all" ("Should Christians Expect Miracles Today? Objections and Answers from the Bible," in The Kingdom and the Power, ed. Gary S. Greig and Kevin N. Springer [Ventura: Regal, 1993], 67).

Therefore, the fact that miraculous phenomena and certain of the charismata served to attest and authenticate the message of the gospel proclaimed by apostles such as Paul in no way proves that such activities are invalid for the church subsequent to the death of the apostolic company.

In keeping with their triumphalism, the Corinthians evidently wanted miracles without suffering and triumphs without trials. But Paul makes clear that all the true signs of apostolicity, as well as the miracles that accompanied his ministry in Corinth, were wrought in the context of endurance of extreme suffering. The "endurance" in Paul's case would most likely refer to his perseverance in the face of suffering as described earlier in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33, as well as 2 Corinthians 4 and 6.

One more thing should be noted. Paul is careful to say that the signs, wonders, and miracles "were performed" or "were produced" among you. This is probably another instance of the "theological passive" with God the Father or Jesus or the Spirit being the implied agent who actually produced these miracles through Paul. It bears witness yet again to Paul's humility and his distaste for boasting. "I ultimately had nothing to do with any miraculous deeds," he seems to say. "God did it all." This is virtually identical to what he wrote in Romans 15:18-19 where he speaks of signs and wonders as things which "Christ has accomplished through me."

The second accusation against Paul was that in comparison with other churches where he had ministered the Corinthians had supposedly suffered some disadvantage (they were "less favored", v. 13). And what was this disservice that Paul had shown the church in Corinth? He had declined to take their money! The only alleged "sign" or "mark" of an apostle missing in Corinth was his determination to work and not be a financial burden to them!

Paul can't resist the lure of sarcasm. "Evidently, my refusal to take your money, my determination to work hard for your sakes, is interpreted by you as proof that I regard you as less important and less valuable than other churches. Incredible! This can only be due to your warped triumphalistic view of leadership. Forgive me this terrible injustice!" Each time I read this I'm reminded of the sarcastic apology of comedian Steve Martin: "Well, excuuuuuse me!"

Carson is helpful here by pointing out a distinction between what he calls "apostolic marks or qualifications from apostolic rights" (158). "A mark or characteristic must be present in some sense; but a right need not be, since it might be cheerfully abandoned for some purpose of strategy, generosity, [or] goodness. The Corinthians' error lay in transforming an apostolic right that Paul chose to forego into a necessary mark or qualification of apostolic office. Their error was a particular form of majoring in the minors" (158-159).

Once again we see the destructive consequences of a worldly triumphalism. When standards of success or authenticity are derived from the world and its warped perspective, the church will lose its way. Things such as suffering, weakness, humility, and holiness may not put your name in the headlines or on the blogs, but they are the tokens of true spirituality and a life that magnifies the mercy of Christ.