Reading 2 Corinthians 11:21-33 leaves me breathless. Even more important, it leaves me embarrassed and ashamed. It reminds me of those many occasions when people have asked me to share my spiritual journey or perhaps themselves proceeded to recite what they consider my accomplishments in life and my achievements in ministry. Awards I've won. Pulpits I've filled. Books I've written. Places I've traveled. People I've known. Money I've raised. Sermons I've preached. Endorsements I've received. Churches I've pastored. Degrees I've earned. Enough already!
On several occasions in this series of meditations I've cited the work of D. A. Carson and his book, From Triumphalism to Maturity. At the close of his commentary on this passage he provides three final reflections "on the appropriate application to our own lives of so moving and candid a self-portrayal" as we find in Paul's words (129). I've decided to mention these at the beginning of our study, rather than at its close, as I pray these principles will sink deeply into our souls and with the Spirit's help transform how we think of ourselves and others and, above all else, the Lord Jesus Christ.
First, says Carson, "Christians ought to be greatly ashamed of boasting about strengths, skills, victories, training, successes, and productivity in their lives as if, on the one hand, we either earned those things or deserved them, or as if, on the other, such things make us intrinsically more acceptable to the Lord Jesus Christ" (129). Brief reflection on Paul's comment in 1 Corinthians 4:7 ought to help us greatly in this regard: "For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?"
Second, "Christians ought to be quick to admit to their weaknesses, because rightly handled our weaknesses will serve to extol Christ's strength and therefore bring glory to him" (129). Although some say that leaders should hide their weaknesses lest they give their opponents an advantage, Paul openly paraded his in almost unqualified and unashamed fashion.
Third, "Christians must not uncritically drag over from the world criteria of self-assessment whose underlying values actually betray biblical discipleship to Jesus Christ" (130). That's a tall order, especially for people, like myself, who love recognition and praise and honor from men. That's also why this passage in 2 Corinthians 11 is so crucial for each of us and our relationship with the Lord Jesus.
And let's be honest. The world doesn't make this any easier! Consider, for example, the common practice of writing one's resume or, as it is known in professional circles, one's Curriculum Vitae, or C.V. When it comes to evaluating a person's qualifications for a job, an up-to-date C.V. is essential. An employer has to know an applicant's education, experience, and history of employment, among other things.
But what about our spiritual C.V.? When it comes to listing our qualifications as "servants of Christ" (2 Cor. 11:23), what might we include? Would the document look any different from the one we submitted to our most recent employer?
The apostle Paul provides us with his spiritual C.V. in 2 Corinthians 11:21-33, and it's nothing short of shocking. As noted on several occasions, Paul is being forced against his better judgment to compare himself with the false apostles who had cunningly won over the allegiance of the Corinthians. He repeatedly qualifies his comments with statements such as,
"I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness" (11:1)
"What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not with the Lord's authority but as a fool" (11:17)
"I am speaking as a fool" (11:21)
"I am talking like a madman" (11:23).
To stoop to the level of these impostors and play them at their own game is agonizing for Paul, indeed, nauseating. But he concluded that there's no other way to jolt back into reality the saints who had been deceived by the triumphalistic and demonically inspired stratagems of these enemies of Christ.
In this and the coming meditations we will look closely at what Paul includes on his C.V. Let's begin by reading the first three verses of this remarkable paragraph:
"But whatever anyone else dares to boast of - I am speaking as a fool - I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one - I am talking like a madman - with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death" (2 Corinthians 11:21b-23).
Depending on how one chooses to count, there are over thirty items mentioned by Paul in vv. 21-33. Of these, all relate to aspects of his suffering and weakness except for what we find in v. 22. There he focuses on his pedigree and concludes that he falls short in nothing when compared to these false apostles.
What does Paul have in mind in saying that he, no less than they, is a "Hebrew", an "Israelite," and the "offspring of Abraham"?
Some think that by "Hebrew" he is referring to their claim to pure Jewish descent. Of course, Paul also was born of Jewish parents (unlike Timothy, whose mother was Jewish and his father a Gentile; see Acts 16:1). Others are probably correct, however, in suggesting that the focus is less on one's bloodline and more on issues of language and culture. Paul was himself well educated in Semitic thought and could speak not only Hebrew but Aramaic as well (see especially Acts 22:3).
The word "Israelite" denotes "those who belong to Israel, the chosen, covenant people of Yahweh" (Harris, 795), together "with all the rights, privileges, and heritage that entailed" (Carson, 113; see Rom. 9:4-5). Likewise, Paul can lay claim to being the "offspring" or "seed" of Abraham, a true physical descendant of the patriarch to whom the promises of the covenant had been made.
If one wonders what Paul really thought about the value of such a heritage when it comes to one's spiritual relationship with God, we need only read Philippians 3:4b-8,
"If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ."
It borders on insanity ("I am talking like a madman") for Paul to speak of himself as a superior "servant of Christ" (v. 23), but he has no choice. But of what does that service consist? It is simply remarkable that "instead of talking about his exploits and his victories [of which there were many, I might add], Paul details his sufferings, loss, shame, and defeats. It is almost as if the primary (if not the only) incontestable criterion of true apostleship is massive suffering in the service of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 4:7-12; 6:4,5). There is very little for triumphalists to say once Paul has finished" (Carson, 117).
Paul begins with what Harris has called "an avalanche of hardships that sweeps the reader along in dazed disbelief" (798). Here I'll only note the first four that are designed to provide a general introduction, the specific details of which follow in vv. 24-33.
First, he mentions "far greater labors" (v. 23a), a reference no doubt to his strenuous and exhausting commitment to evangelistic and pastoral ministry. I can't help but wonder: Did Paul ever take a vacation? Did he ever resent the demands placed on his time? Would he have approved of the concept of retirement? My guess is that the answer to each question is, No.
Before Paul wrote 2 Corinthians the only imprisonment we know of occurred in Philippi (Acts 16:23-40). "Far more imprisonments" indicates, therefore, that Luke's record in Acts of Paul's life and ministry is highly selective in nature. We have no way of knowing how many times or for how long he was cast into jail, but it must have been with considerable frequency.
How strange that a devoted and powerfully anointed apostle of Christ (often referred to in today's world as "the man of God") would have become so accustomed to rat-infested, disease-ridden accommodations, when today's "leaders" complain about criticism for their second home in Palm Springs, or their third in Phoenix, all the while hoping that no one discovers they recently purchased a private Lear jet with ministry funds.
The third item on Paul's C.V. is "countless beatings" (v. 23c). This general reference will be unpacked with more detail in vv. 24-25. And trust me, he's not talking about verbal assaults or a "blow" to his investment portfolio or a "hit" to his reputation. I often ache from sitting too long in my leather chair. Paul's pain was of a different order.
Fourth, and finally, I was also "often near death," says Paul (v. 23d). One such near-death encounter has already been described in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10. In 4:11 the apostle spoke of "always being given over to death for Jesus' sake" (cf. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:31). I suspect the closest many of us come to "death" in the pursuit of ministry is increased cholesterol brought on by a second and third helping of fried chicken, and perhaps a generous serving of strawberry shortcake.
I'm not an apostle, nor do I live in the same time frame as Paul, nor am I exposed to the same political and physical pressures as he. Yet like Paul, and I trust like you as well, I am a "servant of Christ" (v. 23). What expectations do I have in light of that? In what ways do I publicize this truth? How do I boast of it? "If I must boast," said Paul, "I will boast of the things that show my weakness" (v. 30). This isn't because of some "artificial self-loathing" (Carson, 130) or a weak attempt at false humility, but flows from a desire "to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7).
So, if we were to follow suit, what would our spiritual Curriculum Vitae look like? Perhaps we need simply to stop there, and reflect (and then repent).