Suffering worth boasting about - 2 Corinthians 11.16-33
How do you feel about the Paul the apostle?
Is he one of your heroes,
…or would you be happier if he had just kept his mouth closed a little bit more?
Today Paul is as often as not an object of scorn and mocking.
People accuse him of being anti-women, anti-gay,
…a fundamentalist who hijacked Jesus' religion of peace,
…parts of the Bible which he wrote are written off, ignored or rejected.
But is that how we should think of Paul?
I hope to show you this morning that the opposite is true,
…we should love and honour him for what he did for us,
…we should listen to him as the man Jesus himself commissioned to take his message to the world,
…and most of all we should copy his example.
This is the third week we've been following Paul's defence of his ministry.
And it's a desperate defence because false apostles have been slandering him,
…and enticing the Christians in Corinth away from the gospel.
The false apostles, or 'super-apostles' have been boasting that they are better than Paul,
…so in 2 Corinthians 11.16-33 we're going to see Paul do a bit of boasting of his own.
First of all then we see…
1) Paul's Reluctant Boasting, v16-21a
Look at verse 16.
"I repeat: Let no-one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast."
We can feel how uncomfortable this makes Paul, can't we?
Jesus would never have done this.
But Paul feels like he has to talk like this, because the Corinthian Christians were being led astray by such boasting,
Look at v19-21..
"You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!"
Paul is willing to boast, even though he doesn't want to,
…because this is the language the Corinthians understand.
They love people who boast and brag and sound important.
And so Paul says, OK then, I can boast, v21-22…
"What anyone else dares to boast about--I am speaking as a fool-- I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I."
Paul isn't just Jewish, he's Hebrew – a native Hebrew speaker – the language of the Old Testament.
He was born into God's chosen people, a child of Abraham by birth.
If the super-apostles want to boast like this, well then so can Paul.
His credentials and his qualifications are a match for any of theirs.
But Paul knows that those things don't really matter.
In a similar passage to this in Philippians 3 he describes these things as 'rubbish'.
So in vv 23-33 he goes on to show them…
2) Suffering Worth Boasting About, v23-33
Look at verse 23
"Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again."
And then he starts telling them, in detail, what he has suffered for the sake of the gospel.
Verse 24 – five times he received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one.
This was the most severe beating the Jews were legally allowed to give.
One less lash than would kill a man.
And Paul had endured five such beatings by the time he wrote this letter!
Again and again he would arrive in a town and go to the local synagogue to preach Jesus to his fellow Jews. And again and again he was rejected and punished.
Verse 25. Three times Paul was beaten with rods.
This was a Roman punishment.
And we can read about one of the times he was beaten like this in Acts 16.
The victim was tied up in public, stripped naked and then beaten with long birch rods so as to inflict maximum pain and humiliation.
And there's more. Once he was stoned.
You can read about that in Acts 14.
In a city called Lystra Paul was grabbed by a mob,
…and dragged out of the city,
…where they threw rocks at him until they thought he was dead.
Miraculously, Paul survived,
…and even more miraculously he got up,
…and the next day went to the city of Derbe to preach Jesus there!
Everywhere Paul went he courageously preached the gospel.
And everywhere he went he faced violent opposition from powerful people who did all they could to shut him up.
And the danger wasn't just from opponents of the gospel:
By this point in his ministry already been shipped wrecked three times.
Once so seriously that he'd been left floating in the water for a day and a night before he was rescued.
As he travelled about, v26, he was in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from his own countrymen, in danger from the gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country and in danger at sea.
How exhausting Paul's life must have been!
For years and years he lived in constant danger with was no respite,
…no way he could escape from it; except of course by stopping preaching the gospel,
…but he never did, he went right on in spite of all the danger.
And to top it all at the end of verse 26 he is in danger from false brothers – people who pretend to be on his side only to betray him.
Who were the very same people that the Corinthian Christians were now welcoming in and following!
And it's not just danger that has dogged Paul, he's worn down by hard work too.
Verse 27 he has laboured and toiled.
He never wanted to be open to the charge of only preaching for profit, so he worked with his own hands to support himself and give the gospel away free of charge.
He has gone without sleep – working night and day to earn money to survive so that he can preach.
But often he has also had to go without food or water.
And of course there was no food all the times he was thrown into prison,
…and no heating, and no prison uniform,
…he knew what it was to be cold and naked.
Paul endured all this for the sake of the gospel, because he was desperate for people to hear the good news of Jesus.
Yet despite all that physical pain and endurance,
…Paul says that was not the worst of it.
No, worse than all of that was the pressure of Paul's concern for all the churches, verse 28,29.
Paul cared so deeply for the churches he planted that he would live or die for them.
After enduring all that pain and suffering to start the church,
…imagine his pain at the ways in which they keep going astray!
Throughout 1 and 2 Corinthians – he is so concerned for them,
…he's working so hard that they don't loose the gospel,
…yet for all his efforts they seem to go from one catastrophe to another.
Just as he shepherds them back onto the path from one side,
…they begin wandering off on the other,
…like sheep wandering into danger again and again.
Paul risked his life to bring them the gospel,
…laboured night and day to teach them,
…went without food and water,
…spent a night and a day in the open sea,
…submitted to beatings with whips and rods and even a cruel stoning to bring them together into the church.
How it must weigh on him to see them wandering off again,
…and how the pain is multiplied as the number of churches he is responsible for grows.
Just in case we haven't grasped it yet Paul introduces his crowning achievement. Look at verse 31:
"The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised for ever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands."
His proudest boast, or rather his lowest moment,
…was when he was lowered out of a window in a basket,
…like the kitchen scraps!
Do you see what Paul is doing?
He completely skewers the self importance of the so called super apostles,
…and also of the Corinthians who accepted it on face value.
There are no 'super-apostles'.
There is no blessing of God's spirit that makes us immune to suffering.
And, of course Paul was going further than that.
Paul's ironic boasts in suffering don't just undercut the pride of the super apostles and the Corinthians.
Paul's right to point to his sufferings because his suffering establishes that he is a genuine follower of Jesus.
We heard Jesus words from Matt 16 earlier – firstly he said that he had come to suffer and die, and then he added, Matt 16.24:
"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done."
Paul's suffering marks him out as an authentic follower of Jesus,
…and the vast extent and depth of his suffering reveals just how seriously he takes his role as Jesus' representative.
Paul bears the marks of his suffering,
…his face bashed in by stones,
…his back and chest criss-crossed in scars.
And every one of those marks proclaims his dedication to his Lord.
Every one of those scars points to a future day when Jesus will return and make good every promise.
And on that day Paul expects to receive his reward in full.
In fact, Paul looks for that day like a prisoner counting down the hours to his release.
And so Paul's life testifies that the gospel he preaches is no mere vehicle to fame and fortune.
He's not in it for the money.
No his life, his scars and his sufferings show that he lives the life of a true follower of Jesus.
He wants to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings and so somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead.
He lives now as if Jesus really is coming back and he wants to take as many people to heaven with him as he can.
So as we come to the end of our time, what do we see?
Paul is Jesus' hand-picked witness and Jesus' model disciple.
Others may mock and reject Paul, treat his letters with suspicion and turn away from them in disgust.
But that is not an option for anyone who wants to follow Jesus,
…because Jesus sent Paul to represent him.
If we reject Paul we reject Jesus.
And so Paul doesn't come with letters from eminent public officials or any other sort of credentials – he doesn't need to, his sufferings speak for themselves.
Paul followed the suffering Messiah and embodied the gospel that he taught.
So this leaves us with a few clear implications:
1) just as we must listen to Jesus, so we must listen to the man he sent to speak for him,
…we can't ignore Paul's words, or pick and chose the bits we like from them,
…he speaks for Jesus, we need to listen carefully
and submit to God's word through Paul.
2) Not just that, but we should love and revere Paul for his extraordinary efforts to preserve the gospel for us.
He is one of the great heroes of the faith.
Don't listen when people put him down,
…he's not anti-women or anti-gay, he's not prejudiced and small minded,
…he loved people he'd never met to the extent that he suffered all we've read in this chapter and much more besides.
3) Lastly, perhaps most significantly for us today,
…Paul did all these things for the gospel, because he really believed it was true.
He didn't live for the praise of men, but of God;
…he didn't fear suffering, shame, disgrace or deprivation;
…instead he rejoiced in them because they showed he was a true follower of Jesus and so pointed to the resurrection of the dead.
He didn't accumulate wealth, he didn't live in luxury or comfort,
…he did whatever it took to share the gospel with people,
…even with people who hated him for it and whipped him for doing it.
And just as his suffering for the gospel proves that his faith is genuine,
…so his suffering for the gospel calls into question our faith when we shy away from suffering in the name of Jesus.