2 Corinthians 12:11-21 — I’m Coming to You for a Third Time

In this section, Paul concludes his boasting (2 Corinthians 12:11-13) and anticipates his third visit (2 Corinthians 14-21).

Paul has played the fool. He has engaged in, what he regards as, foolish boasting. He was compelled to do so because the Corinthians had accepted the credentials of the “super-apostles” above his own. Whatever the “super-apostles” offered in their boasting, Paul has “more” (2 Corinthians 11:23) and is not the least inferior to the intruders (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11).

According to Paul, this was a foolish procedure for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, boasting in one’s credentials is arrogant and prideful. It is not becoming of a minister of the Messiah, and it does not participate in the humble ministry of Jesus. It does not serve the ministry of reconciliation but is antagonistic to it. On the other hand, it is foolish because it should have been totally unnecessary. Paul has planted and watered the church at Corinth; he is their father. They know him, and they know his ministry (though they have misunderstood it at times). In other words, they know his credentials as an apostle and minister of the Messiah.

Paul is uncomfortable with this boasting because he knows he is actually “nothing.” I don’t think this is false humility. Rather, it reminds us of 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 where Paul acknowledges God alone makes one sufficient for ministry, and it is by the power of God that Paul ministers. It is because he is “nothing”—a humble servant of the Messiah—that Paul boasts in his weaknesses rather than in his commendations and revelations.

That contrast should have been obvious to the Corinthians, but they were blinded by the presence and credentials of the intruders even though Paul does not lag behind them one bit. If they are seeking signs (and some did, cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25), Paul—whatever the claims and actions of the “super-apostles”—performed the “signs of an apostle” among the Corinthians. This include “signs and wonders, and mighty works,” which includes not only what we might call “miracles” or “supernatural” acts but also the wondrous work of the transformative power of the gospel among them.

Moreover, Paul performed these signs with “with utmost patience” or “all endurance.” It seems Paul hints that ministry in Corinth was difficult and had its own hardships. Indeed, Acts 18:12-17 tells us that Paul encountered external hostility and legal trouble while he was in Corinth the first time. Paul stood up under the pressure, ministered to them for their sake, and fathered the church in Corinth. Moreover, Paul’s care for the Corinthian church involved its own hardship, struggles, accusations, and wounds.  Nevertheless, he did this without burdening them financially, to which some took offense and for which sarcastically Paul asks for forgiveness.

Consequently, Paul concludes his boasting with a humble reminder that he is an authentic apostle of Jesus the Messiah and is not the least inferior to the “super-apostles.” His only fault, Paul teasingly and sarcastically admits, was that he did not become their client where they assumed the role of a patron. He did not charge them anything but preached the gospel to Corinth “free of charge” (1 Corinthians 9:18)!

Next, Paul anticipates seeing them again, and this will be the “third time.” The first was when he planted the church in Acts 18, and the second was the “painful visit” (2 Corinthians 2:1) between the letter we now call 1 Corinthians and this present letter, 2 Corinthians. Paul is hopeful that his third visit will be filled with joy, hospitality, and mutual encouragement. However, he is concerned that some problems still fester in the Corinthian community.

First, there is still the gnawing problem of the patron-client relationship which Paul refused while he labored in Corinth. This is such a significant problem that Paul addressed it at length in 1 Corinthians 9 and has commented on it repeatedly in 2 Corinthians, especially in chapters 10-13. This problem, apparently, is not going away, which reveals how deeply embedded the patron-client system is in Greco-Roman culture. It was an expectation with which Paul did not comply, and this made the Corinthians suspicious as if Paul was deceiving them.

Apparently, some thought Paul was taking advantage of them in some way because he did not follow the cultural norms of patron-client reciprocity. Perhaps the intruders acerbated this by conforming to that norm and raised questions about Paul’s lack of reciprocity.

But Paul turns the tables on them. In effect, Paul denies that his relationship with Corinth is about patronage. Instead, it is about family. Instead of living in a patron-client relationship with Corinth, Paul frames their relationship as one analogous to a parent-child relationship grounded in mutual love. Parents, Paul argues, do not burden their children but freely give to them out their love, and the response of the children is to love their parents. Parents give themselves fully to their children, and this is not a deceitful act but a loving one.

Moreover, Titus is a prime example of the sort of relationship Paul wants with Corinth. They had received Titus well and the other unnamed brother (2 Corinthians 7:6-7, 11, 13; 8:16-24). Just as Titus did not take advantage of the Corinthians, neither had Paul. Since the Corinthians joyfully received Titus, Paul hopes for the same, and all the more so since Titus and Paul practice the same ministry in the “same spirit” using the “same steps.”

However, a second problem confronts Paul. He fears that his third visit will not be all joy and happiness. He fears that the Corinthian church had not fully and finally dealt with some of its serious problems. And these are the same problems Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians as well as, we may assume, on his second “painful” visit to Corinth.

On the one hand, some in the community still engage in “quarreling, jealous, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.” This sort of divisiveness consumed much of a prior letter (1 Corinthians 1-4). Apparently, Paul is aware that such disturbances had not settled down but continued among some, and it still disrupted the community. This sort of internal strife reflects an instability and hostility among members that is unbecoming to the body of Christ. Paul expects an increasing in love and holiness (what we might call communal sanctification), and he fears that there has not been much progress on that score.

On the other hand, some in the community still engage in “impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness.” In other words, sexual sins are still practiced in the community, and some have not repented of them. This is a persistent topic in Paul’s conversations with Corinth. It was addressed in his first letter, the one previous to what we call 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:9), and it was thoroughly addressed in his second letter (1 Corinthians 5-6), and now it is addressed his fourth letter (2 Corinthians 12:21)—and we might assume was part of his “painful letter” (his third letter).

Paul’s response to Corinth has been neither defensive nor destructive, neither proud nor shrill. On the contrary, everything Paul does for the Corinthians is for their edification, to build up their body. He does not want to tear it down; the Corinthians are beloved to him. It is the reason he played the fool in boasting. It was not a defensive posture on his part but a loving one for the sake of the Corinthians. He speaks the truth in Christ before God for their sake, not his own.

Moreover, Paul mourns over those who have not repented of their sexual sin, and his fear is that God may call him to confront them when he visits again. This is not something he wants to do, or at least he does not want to have to do this. Nevertheless, he will speak the truth in Christ before God, and he will humble himself to confront sin when necessary.

Paul fears that it might be necessary since these two problems still persist, though the Corinthians have made tremendous progress in other ways (as Titus’s visit confirmed to Paul).

The third visit, Paul anticipates, might be a difficult one where both joy and confrontation are part of his reunion with the Corinthians. As he said earlier, the care of the churches is upon him daily, and his anxiety about his third visit is at the top of his concern as he is about to send this letter to Corinth with Titus and the unnamed brothers.

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