2 Corinthians 11:21b-29: Enduring Hardship for the Sake of the Gospel

Finally, after preparing his readers for twenty-one verses, Paul begins his foolish boasting.

Paul’s boasting matches, in some way, the “super-apostles” (hyperlian apostolōn; 2 Corinthians 11:8; 12:11). Whatever boasts they may have boldly announced, Paul can match them and more. Just as the “super-apostles” are apparently Hebrews, Israelites, descendants of Abraham, and ministers of Christ, Paul is as well but a “better” (hyper) minister. The “hyper-apostles” are not superior to Paul; moreover, Paul is a “better” (hyper) minister than the “hyper-apostles.” They share the same pedigree, but Paul excels them in the last particular.

  • “Hebrew” may probably means his ethnic purity or perhaps, according to some, his capacity to read/speak Hebrew and his study of the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • “Israelite” identifies Paul with the covenant people of God whom God adopted from among the nations, which speaks to a privileged status in the history of redemption.
  • “Descendent of Abraham” highlights that the promises to Abraham belong to him as much as they do to anyone else.

These first three are saying essentially the same thing with different words. It has the rhetorical effect to say, “I am as much of a Hebrew, Israelite, and descendant of Abraham as anyone, especially these ‘super-apostles’.” The fourth one, however, is where Paul claims “more” than the “super-apostles.”

  • “Minister of Christ” does not refer to all believers in this instance, but presumably to people commissioned as servants of the Messiah in some way as co-workers in the ministry of reconciliation like Epaphras (Colossians 1:7) or Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:5).

The “super-apostles” and Paul share a similar identity—they share a heritage, training, and status. But the difference emerges when the nature of their Christian ministry (“ministers of Christ”) is considered. Paul is “better” or “more” (hyper) than the hyper-apostles. But in what way is Paul “more” (hyper)?

Paul’s boasting about his hyper ministry leans into his suffering rather than his success, prosperity, or rhetoric skills. Rather than promoting his authority, success, or gifts, Paul lays out more specifically why he is a “better” minister than the “super-apostles” by noting how his suffering for the ministry of reconciliation is “more” than the “super-apostles.”

This boasting about “more” suffering falls into four nice categories as several commentators have noticed.

  • “More” labors, imprisonments, floggings, and near death experiences.
  • Suffering enumerated in ministry: five lashings, three beatings, one stoning, three shipwrecks, and one day and night in the sea.
  • Risks or dangers in ministry: rivers, bandits, his own people (Jews), Gentiles, cities, wilderness, sea, false brothers and sisters (Christian).
  • Struggles in ministry: in toil and hardship, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, and without food, warmth, and clothing.

If the Corinthians are looking for recommendations, commendations, and credentials, Paul lays out how he is “better” (hyper) than the hyper-apostles. Essentially, he suffers more. He humbles himself to work with his own hands (“toil”) and endures paucity that comes with the way he pursues ministry. His travels put him in constant danger, and his ministry endangers him by the responses he might receive from his own Christian family as well as Jews and Gentiles outside his Christian family. Some of those responses included lashings (a Jewish practice) and beatings (a Roman practice), even a stoning (Acts 14:19-23), as well as the normal hazards of sea-travel (three shipwrecks already and at least one more to come in Acts 27). Paul endures this suffering for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation. The list stresses Paul’s endurance, not his failings.

But most importantly—beyond these moments of suffering as significant as they are—it is his care for the churches that burdens him the most and identifies him as a hyper minister of Christ.

To my mind, this is the most distressful aspect of Paul’s ministry. It is the climax of his boasting about “more.” Indeed, Paul is the one who has the care of the churches at the top of his list in the way he conducts the ministry of reconciliation. In three sentences, he articulates the depth of his commitment, and the Corinthians ought to recognize this when they consider how Paul has lived and served among them.

  • “I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”
  • “Who is weak, and I am not weak?”
  • “Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?”

Paul’s ministry burdens him—a burden he gladly accepts—with an intense concern for “all the churches.” This anxiety or care (merimna), the only time Paul uses this word, is a legitimate one as there is real danger. The bride of Christ is under attack, and Paul—especially for the Corinthians—feels the burden of a father for his virgin daughter. It is stressful, even distressful. It arises out of his love for the body of Christ, and he willingly carries this weight because he understands how important it is to care for the church.

The second line reminds us that Paul’s ministerial method means that he becomes all things to all people: “to the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak” (1 Corinthians 9:22). In relation to weaknesses within the family of God, Paul does not have to run them over and cater only to the strong. Paul, in other words, does not throw the weak under the bus or insist they get off the bus. He ministers to them, loves them, and becomes one of them as he practices the ministry of reconciliation in conformity to the image of Christ who became weak for our sakes (2 Corinthians 13:4).

The third line reveals Paul’s commitment to the weak. When someone is scandalized, Paul becomes angry (or, literally, he burns). When people are scandalized, Paul becomes upset and distressed. Whether it is about eating food offered to idols (as in 1 Corinthians 8:13) or something else, Paul prioritizes the scandalized (the weak). In the context of 2 Corinthians, this may refer to how some have been treated by the “super-apostles” or by other Corinthians who considered themselves strong or thought they knew more or better than others. Scandalization refers to destroy another’s faith such that they are no longer committed believers; it is not about petty feelings or offences (see Romans 14:15).

Paul is working with the theology that shaped the way he encouraged the Corinthians to share generously in 2 Corinthians 8-9. He humbles himself through working with his own hands rather than being a burden to them, becomes weak for the sake of the weak, and he becomes a fool through boasting for the hope of reconciliation. In other words, Paul’s ministry is cruciform; it follows the path of Jesus to the cross. And it lives in the hope of the reconciliation and resurrection.

The style of ministry in the American church, and in other moments in history, is often more shaped by prosperity, success, celebrity pastors, megachurches, popularity, and positions of strength rather than weakness. That is not Paul’s style, nor is it the way Jesus ministered.

When the weak are excluded, ignored, or thrown under the bus, we are called to indignation because we love the church, boast in the cross of Christ, and embrace the goal of reconciliation. When power abuses the weak in our churches, the appropriate responses are tears of grief and indignant confrontation. When arrogant and empowered people abuse the weak, they conform more to the American values of success and public reputation than to the witness of the cross of Christ.

Authentic leaders, conformed to the gospel of Jesus, must bear the burden of care for the church as a parent for their children, become weak for the sake of the weak, and burn with indignation when the weak are abused by the system.

May God give the church such leaders in abundance!

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