Notes on 2 Corinthians 11:16-21

2 Corinthians 11:16‑21  •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Having turned aside to warn of pseudo-apostles, their high pretensions, and their tow realities, the apostle comes back again, reluctantly as we see, to speak of himself, his “folly” as he calls it. In truth no task could be to him more repulsive, for he loved to speak only of Christ and the wondrous grace of God in Him. But what he so much disliked was a necessity; and at length the duty is faced of confronting their pretensions with his own reality. If in the previous chapter he shrank from pressing on the rich care for the poor saints, still more did he shrink now from self-vindication. But the Lord's glory was concerned and the saints were endangered; and so he again takes up the disagreeable task.
“Again I say, let not one think me to be a fool; but if otherwise, even as a fool receive me, that I also may boast some little. What I speak, I speak not according to the Lord but as in folly, in this confidence of boasting. Since many boast according to flesh, I also will boast, For ye bear fools pleasantly, being wise. For ye bear if one bring you into bondage, if one devour you, if one receive, if one exalt himself, if one beat you on the face. As to dishonor I speak, as though we had been weak; but wherein any one is bold (I speak in folly) I also am bold.” (Vers. 16-21.)
It was impossible to treat the assailed ministry of Christ without speaking of himself and his service; and of these how could he speak to unfriendly ears without apparent boasting? So we have effort and apology and circuitous approach, all characteristic of the man, but the work done thoroughly and the word of God dealing with their consciences. Boasting was certainly not the way of the Lord; boasting in the Lord is what becomes every believer; and the apostle shrank perhaps more sensitively than any other man from boasting in aught else. But the false apostles were dishonoring the Lord and damaging the saints by putting forward their fleshly advantages; such as a fine personal presence, power of mind, play of fancy, readiness of speech, rhetorical artifices, independent fortune, family connection, social position, and the like. Therefore does he feel it necessary to put forward what God had wrought according to the ability He bestowed; and this not merely in positive spiritual power, but in every kind of labor and suffering for the Lord's sake. It is humbling yet instructive to contrast the apostle's pain at having thus to speak, and the too evident pleasure with which many a servant of Christ goes off into personal narratives, which seem to have no aim but to prove his own cleverness at the expense of poor Mr. This or Mr. That, the great sacrifices he has made for the truth, or the Surpassing excellence of his line of things in the testimony of Christ. Indeed it is well in these days of fleshly pretension, which claims high and exclusive spirituality, if our ears escape the deliberate effort to lower such as are resolved by grace to exalt Christ only and to love all that are His, abominating therefore all party-work, whether in leaders or in followers.
Still, he is instinctively averse to everything which might look like self-exaltation, and which necessarily involved speaking of himself or of his work. He deprecates their thinking him a fool, but if they would not concede this to him, “Receive me even as a fool, that I too may boast some little.” They, being deceitful workers, sought their own glory; the apostle, only to deliver the saints from that which undermined the Lord and puffed up the flesh. Nevertheless it was not Christ; and not to be wholly occupied with Him was distasteful. “That which I speak, I speak not after the Lord, but as in folly, in this confidence of boasting.” He had ample matter and real substance; still it was not directly the Lord, and this tried him, however necessary it might be. This seems to be the true meaning; not at all that he was writing as an uninspired man, but that, by inspiration, he was writing what was painful to a heart wholly devoted to the Lord's glory, but indignant at the trickery of these spurious ministers, and at the ready ear given to their insinuations by many of the saints. And certainly the Corinthians who permitted and enjoyed the lofty talk of those who detracted from Paul had no right to complain of the rapid glance at his work and sufferings, as well as office.
“Since many boast according to flesh, I also will boast, for ye bear with fools pleasantly, being wise.” The false teachers without scruple flattered the saints, as they flattered themselves. The irony of the apostle is the most cutting reproof of self-complacency. Where the folly really lay was neither doubtful, nor far to seek. He who has Christ for his wisdom can afford to be counted, and to count himself, a fool; it is really the truest wisdom, which they wholly miss, who exalt a favorite teacher into the place of Christ, and claim the character of obedience for such abject and perilous folly. Among the Jews, to say “there is no God” was to be a fool, in the worst sense of the word; among Christians, to set the servant practically above the Master, to give the servant the homage due only to Him, is real folly, and commonly as at Corinth it is the acceptance of Satan's ministers to the disparagement of those who are truly serving Christ.
Nor can any sight be more remarkable than the way in which flesh displays itself in these circumstances. The same saints, who were restive under the authority of a true apostle, were all submission to those who were false. “For ye bear if one bring you into bondage, if one devour you, if one receive, if one exalt himself, if one beat you on the face.” Such was the degradation into which many at Corinth had fallen, hugging the chains which they saw not; for flesh is blind as well as foolish, and loves its own things, not those of Jesus Christ. It likes a director of faith and duty-not conscience in God's presence, subject to the word. It submits to bondage to man, if it be allowed sometimes license. It never really knows and enjoys liberty in the Spirit. It ignores and endures wrongs, through indulgence to its favorites, to the last degree of injury and insult, as if all this were a high degree of religious merit, instead of the lack of faith and power which must bow down to a human priest or pontiff. The history of Christendom is but the filling up of the sketch the apostle has drawn of what Satan had wrought to a certain extent at Corinth.
Now at length the apostle comes once again, however slowly, to himself and his ministry. “As to dishonor I speak as though we had been weak, but, wherein any one is bold (I speak in folly), I also am bold.” It was the apostle's glory to be weak that the power of Christ might rest upon him. This his adversaries turned to his reproach, and he bowed to it; he was far from affecting that high spirit which imposes on the vulgar used to it in the world, and is ever of price to the fleshly mind. But he apologizes for speaking folly, and he adds, “wherein any one is bold, I also am bold.” He was pained and ashamed to allude to his own things, however true and blessed; whilst they blazoned with the utmost vanity their advantages, however petty or really despicable in comparison.