After retiring from the Air Force, I went to work managing a couple of production lines for a local manufacturing company. I was the new guy brought in to help the company get to the next level. It was one of the toughest job’s I ever had. It wasn’t the work as much as it was just a couple of people who were in a leadership position like me.
So, one day I ended up sharing with them some of my thoughts about what I’d like to change. I wasn’t griping, just making some observations. And then at the end of that day, I was called up to the GM’s office and began to get ripped into.
My words had been used and twisted against me by these individuals to undermine my leadership! I was completely taken by surprise. I felt betrayed. I had never had anyone ever actively try and undermine me before.
I’m not going to go into all the details; it really doesn’t matter. My point in telling you this is to get you thinking about how toxic and disruptive one or two agitators can be when you’re trying to lead and set a course.
It was a very frustrating time in my life. The more I put my head down and tried to just bulldog my way through, the more frustrated I became.
So, as we’ve been working through 1st and 2nd Corinthians and seeing Paul continually deal with a small group of agitators, I’ve been reminded about my own experience dealing with agitators.
Oh, mine was not on the same level as Paul’s,
but nonetheless it was still trying.
2 Cor. 10
Today as we begin working through chapter 10, you’re going to notice an abrupt shift in the tone and topic of Paul’s letter. Even though Paul was filled with joy to hear that most of the Corinthians had heeded his advice, there was still a small minority of agitators hanging on, stirring the pot, and causing trouble.
They were intentionally promoting themselves, badmouthing Paul as a weak unsuccessful leader, and undermining Paul’s authority. And it’s in this context that we find Paul making a passionate defense of his apostleship.
So, what gives? Why the shift in his letter now?
We’ve gone from seeing Paul as being grateful and encouraging,
to firm and direct, even aggressive.
Well, for me the best answer for the change in tone is to remember that many times, there is no easy way to transition to difficult subjects.
They are notoriously awkward.
We don’t usually move seamlessly from light conversation into addressing difficult issues easily. Often, people just put it off to the end of a conversation. Sometimes there is no easy way to do that. You just have to get straight to the point.
That’s what Paul does here in chapters 10 thru 13. He doesn’t mince words with these agitators; there’s too much at stake.
The agitators—the ones we’ll see Paul sarcastically call “Super Apostles”— needed to be challenged openly, and the Corinthians’ affections needed to be won over to a singular devotion to Christ and His apostle, Paul.
As we work through chapter 10 this morning, I want us to pay attention to two things.
First, I want you to see how Paul responds to his critics by choosing to operate by Kingdom Values rather than worldly values.
secondly, I want us to think about how we might emulate Paul as we strive to live for God’s glory.
Paul begins his defense by writing…
10 By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you— I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! 2 I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world.
It’s important to remember that Paul was a real person just like you and me. As passionate as he was, I’m pretty sure he would get frustrated—angry—at times. And we get a little glimpse at this in these opening verses.
Paul knew what those agitators had been saying about him, and how they were slandering him as being inconsistent. They were saying Paul was two faced, he was bold when away, but week when face to face.
Put yourself in Paul’s shoes for a moment. How would you respond to having your leadership challenged? Think about that.
Maybe it’s already happened to you. And when it happened,
maybe your flesh really got riled up inside you, and your mind filled with a few choice words.
I’ve got to believe Paul had thoughts like these come to mind as he was challenged, especially with those trying to undermine his authority.
But thankfully, we don’t find Paul operating out of his flesh.
But instead, we see him acting out of kingdom values.
Now, this doesn’t mean he wasn’t having strong emotions and feelings in his flesh. He obviously did, but he was determined to overcome those emotions by seeking to emulate Christ, who dealt gently and compassionately with the lost and yet boldly with those who would actively hinder the Gospel.
Remember when Jesus called out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and he drove the money changers out of the Temple? Yes. Boldness and gentleness can be entirely consistent when pursued in the likeness of Christ.
Paul’s opponents were confusing his Christlike character with human weakness.
In fact, they were sitting around and telling people that Paul was “All bark and no bite!” He’s kind of like that dog that runs at the fence fiercely barking, but when you sternly turn towards it and say, “Stop it!” he runs away with his tail between his legs.
They were trying to put Paul into a lose/lose situation.
If Paul was bold, they’d simply say, “See, he always overreacts, he comes in way too hot all the time.” And if he didn’t say anything, then they’d say, “See, I told you Paul wasn’t much of a leader…he’s a pushover…He’s weak.”
They were judging Paul by the standards of the world. They were using Paul’s “unimpressive stature” to manipulate the church into seeing Paul as a weak leader.
Paul sees what they’re doing, and he tells them, “Fella’s I know what you’re saying about me, and you’re wrong. I’m making a choice here.
I am appealing to you in the same gentle and loving spirit of Jesus.
And you can mark my word; I’ll be the same in person as I am when I’m away.”
He’s appealing to them to change their conduct before it’s too late. Paul would prefer to come in “the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” But the ball is in their court, their choice would dictate how Paul came.
3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 6 And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.
Paul clearly sees what is going on for what it is—it’s a battle—a spiritual battle. Spiritual battles are part of the new life we live in the “already not yet kingdom of God.”
As a follower of Jesus, Paul knows he had full access to God’s divine weaponry. In God’s Kingdom, Paul doesn’t have to wage war the way the world does. He’s making it clear to his readers that if they are going to win the fight, they need to engage the battle from a heavenly perspective.
He’s refusing to answer his critics according to the flesh;
that’s how they waged war, but not Paul.
The worldly weapons were tools of the trade these agitators relished in; human ingenuity, rhetoric, showmanship, a certain splashiness in spirituality, charm, and powerful charisma. Their strategy was to overpower, dominate and manipulate. Paul would have nothing to do with this.
In fact, these are the very things Paul said he had discounted; he considered them loss, to be rubbish, when compared to the righteousness found in Christ. (see Philippians 3:4-8)
Rather than respond in the flesh, Paul makes a choice to continue operating by kingdom values. He would choose to fight with divine weapons—spiritual weapons!
He knew what was at stake; his battle was not only for souls,
but also for his apostolic ministry.
So, what were these divine weapons? It’s the power found in the righteousness and truth of the Gospel!
We access them through the power of the Holy Spirit and prayer.
In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us how we can ready ourselves for these spiritual battle by putting on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and by taking up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. This is what Paul used to engage the battle. Remember, he had already told the Corinthians that his speech and his preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power so that their faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.
Paul wasn’t going to change his tactics just because there were still some small pockets of resistance hanging on. He knew the power of his divine weaponry; it could tear down and demolish strongholds, arguments, and any thought that set itself up against God.
Strongholds were these fortified buildings built within a walled city. Back in ancient days, people would fortify a city by building a wall around the entire city, and within the city they would build these tall towers as a stronghold for the inhabitants to flee to if the walls should be breached.
So, even if the walls were breached by an enemy, the residents could retreat to the stronghold for protection.
In this context, Paul uses the word “strongholds” to describe what Satan wants to do within us: he wants to set up strongholds in our lives. His goal is to destroy us. He’ll do anything he can to undermine our faith and hinder our walk with Christ by appealing to our fleshly desires.
But we resist his attacks and schemes by trusting God and arming ourselves with God’s protection by making choices in line with God’s will and choosing to obey Him in every area of life. We take captive every thought that wants to lead us away from God and bring it into conformity to His will.
This is how we tear down strongholds that the enemy intends to build in our lives. It’s the only way we can do it.
7 You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. 8 So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. 9 I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. 10 For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” 11 Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.
Paul’s opponents didn’t think Paul was much to look at. He wasn’t very impressive. They felt he boasted too much and that he was a pushover, that he was two-faced.
You know it’s said that Paul was a short man with a bald head and bandy legs, a hooked nose, and a unibrow; a poor speaker who suffered from fevers and an illness. Compared with the “new-style apostles,”
Paul is a poor advertisement for “new life in Christ!”
What a crazy thing to say about Paul, the man God would use to write 13 letters of the New Testament!
A man who would go down as one of the most influential men in all of history. They were ready to write Paul off because he didn’t look the part; he didn’t have a commanding presence.
What a good reminder for us today to not judge by outward appearances. This is a shallow way to look at people.
Our goal should be to see people as God sees them.
I love how Paul responds to their criticism.
He was a well-differentiated leader.
He’s not going to just roll over and fade away.
He says, “Yeah fellas, I’ve never claimed to be anything other than a servant of Christ. In fact, I’ll boast even more in my weaknesses because through them, God’s glory is revealed.
I’m just a ‘jar of clay,’ a plain container for the treasure of Christ within me. What I am on the outside means nothing.
All the things you’re impressed by (good looks, prestige, power, fame, influence, elegance) are all fleeting; they’ll pass away.
They’re empty and powerless.
You’re boasting and putting your confidence in the wrong things.
And yes, I know you think I boast too much, but my boasting is in the Lord and the authority He’s given me to build up the church, not to tear it down. My boast is in Christ, not in my own strength!”
Paul’s authority was from Christ.
He wasn’t some barking dog, he’s not been inconsistent.
And he makes clear to them that what he says in his writing, he would say when face to face.
“Okay fellas, you want consistency. Wait till I’m among you, and I’ll show you tough!”
Yes, Paul was no pushover. What mattered to him was the Gospel and that he be found faithful with the authority God gave him.
12 We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.
Paul’s being a bit sarcastic here. He wants to be clear with these agitators—he’s not going to have anything to do with the ways they were commending themselves. They were thinking too highly of themselves.
They were making themselves the measuring stick for other people.
This is a low bar that measures by a human scale that focuses on outward appearances and it’s wrong.
But even though this is such a wrong way to measure,
many people still do it.
In fact, I think we’ve all done this before, when we start comparing ourselves with others. People do it on social media all the time. We can look at others and either think to highly or lowly of ourselves.
“Oh, look at them, so dumb, can you believe that!” We can also do just the opposite…”Man, they’ve got it so together, just look at them, they’re so spiritual, so intelligent…lucky…have a great job…a perfect spouse…a perfect family…I’m such a looser.”
Oh, friends, this is such a wrong way of thinking because it only looks at the outside and judges superficially. This is doomed to fail.
We can’t effectively compare our hearts to others.
That’s way above our pay grade. Making judgments like these is just not wise, it isn’t smart, it isn’t of God, so just don’t do it.
13 We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. 14 We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. 15 Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, 16 so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory.
For Paul, the proper standard of measurement was the Gospel. He refused to fall into the trap of self-promotion. Instead, he would confine his boasting to what God had established as true for him—the apostolic ministry God had given him.
There was nothing wrong with Paul honestly acknowledging what God had done in his life. Paul was operating in the sphere of authority God had given to him, and the Corinthians’ embrace of the Gospel was proof of his obedience to God’s call.
Paul’s hope was that as he would faithfully operate within his sphere of authority, that he would be given the opportunity to preach the Gospel further west and take it into Spain.
He wasn’t going to do like his opponents and worm-in on someone else’s work and then take credit for it. That’s wrong. No, Paul wasn’t going to play their game.
All this worldly boasting, one-upmanship, and tearing people down to make themselves look better is wrong.
Paul’s saying, “Just stop it—knock it off!”
In verses 17-18, he tells us what really matters; and that’s the Lord’s commendation.
17 But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” b 18 For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.
Paul cuts to the chase and brings his argument down to the brass tacks.
He summarizes what he’s been saying by quoting from Jeremiah 9.
23 This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, 24 but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.
This passage tells us what is truly valuable and worthwhile—what’s worth boasting about.
It is not human wisdom, or strength, or earthly riches, or any of the things these agitators took pride in.
The only thing worth boasting about is one’s knowledge of the Lord.
Paul’s boast—and ours too—is what God has done for us in the cross of Jesus and in what God has done through us! That’s it.
If we boast, we boast in the Lord—which means that we give Him the praise rightly due Him. Boasting about talent, wealth, power, wisdom, eloquence, and the like have no place among believers.
If we forget this, we are essentially surrendering to a form of idolatry.
It’s true…we’re putting other things above God.
What matters most in God’s universe is what God thinks of us.
The root of the division between Paul and these agitators can be summed up in this question: “Whose approval do we seek?”
When properly considered against the Scriptures, the question cuts right through many moral dilemmas we face and it can reorient us back to pleasing God.
I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we’d say that we find ourselves operating out of our own strength more than we’d like to admit.
I know that’s true for me at times.
Oh, I’ve gotten better at engaging the spiritual battles in my own life and employing those divine weapons, but there’s still room for improvement.
I thank God for His grace and mercy in my life.
For not giving up on me when I fail and fall short.
I’m grateful that I can continually go back and ask Him to build in me a heart that’s satisfied just with glorying in Him.
And I know I won’t do it perfectly, but by His grace and mercy, I will continue to grow in my pursuit of Christlikeness.
My prayer is this would be true for you as well.
My conclusion for what we’re to believe, value, and do, from chapter 10 is this: Our choices matter! We can easily get off track. Living for anything other than the glory of God is to miss the mark.
The Gospel needs to be at the very core of our being.
In it is found all the power we need to live for God’s glory.
So, our goal should be to make the Gospel the bedrock of all that we do.
We do this by choosing to value and put into action the things God loves.
So the question for us today is: Will you choose to operate by kingdom values and make it your goal to take on the character of Christ?
That’s really the question before us today.
Will you decide right now, right here, in this place, to put the power of the Gospel into action. Like Paul, choose to take on the character of Christ, to walk in humility and gentleness.
Listen, this won’t be easy; there will be things that happen to you that will make you want to respond in the flesh, but don’t do it.
Choose to walk in the Spirit, engage the battle, take those carnal thoughts captive, and tear them down. To do this, you’ll have to make a conscious decision to suit up daily in the full armor of God and rest securely in Christ.
Choose today to put away the foolishness of boasting in yourself.
Emulate Paul, as he emulated Christ, and keep boasting in the Lord.