2 Corinthians 1:12-22 — Operating by Grace Rather Than Worldly Wisdom

Paul makes ministry decisions according to the grace of God grounded in the faithfulness of God rather than according to fleshly or human wisdom rooted in self-interest and egoism. His goal is not to attain celebrity status within Greco-Roman culture but to embody God’s faithfulness for the sake of others.

Given Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, we might imagine the misgivings some had.

  • He appears fickle and unreliable in his plans; he does not do what he says he is going to do. It seems that with every encounter with Paul, he has a different travel schedule and fails to follow through on previous plans.
  • Paul’s history of suffering—from shipwrecks to beatings to imprisonments—is not the sort of credential that assures hearers that his message is true. Within a Greco-Roman context, suffering is not a strength but a weakness.
  • He is unimpressive in speaker with little rhetorical skill, and his presence is far from charismatic and striking. He sounds impressive from his letters, but in person he is weak and toothless.
  • He refused remuneration from Corinthian patrons, which made no sense in a Greco-Roman patronage system that respected teachers or philosophers typically followed.

The Corinthians, egged on by the “super-apostles” and Paul’s opponents in the community, have good cultural reasons to doubt Paul’s integrity and credentials, and this leads to doubting his message.

Paul does not fit the Greco-Roman cultural image of a respected and renowned teacher. But his response is: “No, I don’t, but I do represent the faithfulness of God who has established me with you!” That contrast is the subtle but foundational point of this opening to the body of the letter.

Paul’s Integrity (1:12-14).

Paul’s integrity, including the authenticity of his ministry, is the theme of the letter. This is Paul’s “boast” (or confidence).

This boast, however, is other-centered. He asserts his purity of motive—a singleness of purpose and a godly sincerity—in in order to say that he has conducted himself in this way for the sake of the Corinthians. His plans, and whatever changes that were made, did not serve his own interests but were directed primarily and abundantly toward the good of the Corinthians.

As such, his decisions are made according to the grace of God rather than by fleshly or worldly wisdom. His decisions are not driven by some selfish motive or desire to elevate himself. Rather, they are driven by his experience of and commitment to the grace of God. Paul has no ulterior motives except to promote the grace of God in the lives of the Corinthians so that the Corinthians and Paul might “boast” in each other on the day when the Messiah appears again. Paul maintains his integrity and makes decisions according to the grace of God so that even now but also eschatologically the Corinthians would be Paul’s “boast” and Paul would be their “boast.” This boasting, we should recognize, is rooted in God’s grace rather than human pride.

Since this “boast” is Paul’s hope and goal, he wants the Corinthians to understand the nature of his ministry. They may understand in part, but they do not yet fully appreciate what this means for Paul. As the letter will reveal, the Corinthians don’t understand how suffering is an integral part of the ministry of reconciliation. Some, if not many, see it as a sign of weakness, but Paul understands it as an occasion for boasting.

Paul boasts in his weaknesses and suffering because the grace of God is his strength and the gospel includes the suffering of the Messiah himself. When the Corinthians see suffering as weakness, then they do not understand the gospel. If they don’t understand the gospel, then they cannot fully understand Paul’s approach to the ministry of reconciliation. This is why Paul will spend the major portion of this letter unpacking that ministry (2 Corinthians 2:14-7:4).

Changing Travel Plans (1:15-18)

Nevertheless, the constant change in Paul’s travel plans created doubt (perhaps suspicion) among the Corinthians. Why can’t Paul keep his word?

In 1 Corinthians 16:5-11, Paul expected to visit Corinth after passing through Macedonia, then returning to Macedonian before once again visiting Corinth (“a double favor,” Paul calls it in 2 Corinthians 1:15). At that time, he was uncertain where or what he would do when he left Corinth.

In contrast to that expectation, Paul made an emergency visit to Corinth from Ephesus. This second visit was a “painful” one (2 Corinthians 2:1). Instead of going to Macedonia and then returning to Corinth, he sailed back to Ephesus but with an apparent promise to return to Corinth. Instead of returning, he sent a “severe letter” with Titus (2 Corinthians 2:4) and waited to hear from Titus. Thus, it was charged, Paul is more bold with his letters than with his presence!

Instead of coming to Corinth and then heading to Macedonia, Paul ultimately meets Titus in Macedonia. Paul, it seems, says or promises one thing, and then does something else.

Paul’s Plan in 1 CorinthiansPaul’s Plan after the 2nd VisitWhat Paul Actually Did
Located in EphesusLocated in EphesusLocated in Ephesus
  Went to Corinth
  Returned to Corinth
  Wrote the Severe Letter
 Go to CorinthSent Titus to Corinth
Go to MacedoniaFrom Corinth to MacedoniaWent to Macedonia
From Macedonia to CorinthFrom Macedonia to CorinthPlans to come to Corinth
From Corinth to ???From Corinth to JudeaPlans to go to Judea

It is rather easy to see how Paul is charged with saying “Yes and No” as if he were talking out of both sides of his mouth. Some may hear him saying what he needs to say to protect himself, advance his interests, and promote his status. He changes like the wind out of his own self interests. He does not want to deal with the Corinthians personally or perhaps particularly his opponents (including the “super-apostles”). He stays away and writes letters.

Paul admits he changed his plans. His intent when he wrote 1 Corinthians 16 was sincere but things changed on the ground. And he provides an explanation in the next section of the letter (2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4). But he is more concerned about the charge of insincerity and unreliability. Consequently, he addresses this first.

This is the crux: did Paul change his plans for his own sake or for the sake of the Corinthians? To what was Paul ultimately faithful? Was he faithful to his commitment to the gospel for the sake of the Corinthians or to his own self-promotion and ego?

Paul did change his mind, but his adjustment is not a matter of fleshly wisdom but is faithfulness to his love for Corinth, for their best interest.  Paul’s commitment to Corinth is his “Yes.” Paul’s integrity means he will change his travel plans if it is better for the Corinthians to do so. Paul is not living in a “Yes and No” mindset but is living out the gospel-shaped character that loves the Corinthians so that he might be their boast and they his on the day of the Lord Jesus.

The Faithfulness of God—why Paul is faithful (1:19-22)

Paul is faithful because God is faithful. 

The message Silas, Timothy, and Paul heralded (proclaimed) among the Corinthians was the faithfulness of God in the gift of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. In Jesus, God said “yes” to the divine intent to redeem the world from its sin and rescue it from the powers of evil in the world. Every promise of God is “Yes” in Jesus the Messiah. And the response of believers, in their hearts and in their assemblies, is “Amen!”

Paul’s message, then, was never “Yes and No,” but “Yes.” His commitment to the gospel means that Paul seeks to announce a “Yes” among the Corinthians, the “Yes” of the message of God in Christ.

Consequently, whenever Paul changes his travel plans, it is not about his comfort. He suffers for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation, for the sake of the gospel. Rather, it is guided by the grace of God. This is a godly wisdom that seeks the best interest of the other toward the goal of a mutual boast on the day of the Lord Jesus.

Paul changed his plans because of his faithfulness to the ministry of reconciliation, which expressed the faithfulness of God whose “Yes” appears in Jesus Christ. Paul was faithful to his commitment to the gospel when he changed his plans because he changed them so that the Corinthians might hear the gospel more effectively. He changed his plans for their sake.

What lies behind these decisions—made according to the grace of God rather than by fleshly wisdom—is the ongoing work of God in the lives of Paul and the Corinthians. God, Paul wrote, “establishes us with you in Christ.” 

This language is foundational and pregnant with meaning. God is the actor; God establishes, confirms, or provides a foundation upon which to stand. Jesus the Messiah is the reality in which this happens; we are established in or by our union with Christ. Paul and the Corinthians experience this as a shared reality; Paul is established “with you”—it is mutual. God, in Christ, establishes a community (Paul and the Corinthians), and God continues to do this. The verb is present tense.

This process of establishing—the continual activity of God—to form us into a community in Christ is grounded in God’s past (and present as well) pneumatological (Spirit) act:

  • God anointed us
  • God sealed us
  • God gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a first installment

God anointed us with the Spirit, just as God anointed Jesus with the Spirit. This is more than delighting in the anointed one. It is also a commission. The anointed are invested with a mission. Christians (those who belong to the Christ) are also anointed as the Christ was, and we are commissioned to follow Jesus into his ministry and participate in the mission he was given by God as God’s Anointed.

God sealed us with the Spirit, just as God sealed Jesus with the affirmation: “you are my son, whom I love; I am delighted with you.” God seals those who belong to him. Our identity is found in God’s community rather than the world. We act out of the grace of God rather than making decisions according to fleshly wisdom.

God gave the Spirit to us by pouring the Spirit into our hearts by whom we cry “Abba, Father.” God communes with us through the Spirit. To give the Spirit to our hearts is to enable an intimacy that exceeds God’s presence or immanence within the creation. This is true because this is an eschatological gift—it comes to us from a future dwelling with God that is face-to-face and full. As yet, we know this through the experience of the Spirit as a first installment or a down payment, but this first payment is a guarantee of what is to come. Our present experience of intimacy with God is the promise of a future intimacy that is beyond our imagination.

Some suggest, with good reason, that perhaps Paul is alluding to a common past experience that all believers have and share with Jesus himself: baptism. When we are baptized into Christ, we are anointed, sealed, and given the Spirit of God. While Paul is not explicit about this and his emphasis lies on the Spirit, the past tense (aorist), language, and relation to Jesus generate a baptismal allusion. This is the shared experience of believers in Christ. We can rightly imagine that the Corinthians would have recalled their baptism with this language. We can recall ours as well.


Paul heralds this message: God has faithfully kept his promises for the redemption of the world through Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. God has said “Yes” to the groans and cries of the world ravaged by death, sin, and the powers of evil.

Paul’s ministry also says “Yes!” His commitment to the faithfulness of God and the gospel of Jesus the Messiah means he will behave in the world according to the grace of God rather than according to worldly wisdom. While this means Paul will also suffer with Jesus, he will nevertheless seek the best interests of others through the gospel. Consequently, he will change his plans when it serves the interests of the proclamation of the gospel for the sake of others.

Paul is not fickle. He is committed. But his commitment is to the gospel of Jesus, the grace of God, and the work of the Spirit rather than boasting about his credentials. The ministry of reconciliation is his credential, not his own exploits and pride.

Part of Paul’s intent, then, is to deepen the Corinthian understanding of that ministry and the nature of the gospel. If they understand the gospel—including the cross of Jesus, then they will understand Paul’s affliction for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation. When they understand that, it will clarify why Paul boasts in his weaknesses and afflictions rather than in his credentials.

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