Serving the Church in the Power of God
Text and Exposition
28“Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? 30 If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, 33 and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.”
28 χωρὶς τῶν παρεκτὸς ἡ ἐπίστασίς μοι ἡ καθʼ ἡμέραν, ἡ μέριμνα πασῶν τῶν ἐκκλησιῶν. 29 τίς ἀσθενεῖ καὶ οὐκ ἀσθενῶ; τίς σκανδαλίζεται καὶ οὐκ ἐγὼ πυροῦμαι; 30 Εἰ καυχᾶσθαι δεῖ, τὰ τῆς ἀσθενείας μου καυχήσομαι. 31 ὁ θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ οἶδεν, ὁ ὢν εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας, ὅτι οὐ ψεύδομαι. 32 ἐν Δαμασκῷ ὁ ἐθνάρχης Ἁρέτα τοῦ βασιλέως ἐφρούρει τὴν πόλιν Δαμασκηνῶν πιάσαι με, 33 καὶ διὰ θυρίδος ἐν σαργάνῃ ἐχαλάσθην διὰ τοῦ τείχους καὶ ἐξέφυγον τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῦ.
“Paul’s boast moves inward to those things which created in his heart concern for the churches purity and safety. Paul’s ecclesiastical concerns were comprehensive not compressed to one local church. Every church represented an occasion for Paul’s attention and concern; especially churches which he had established like the Corinthian congregation. Paul’s concern however did not remain solely on the corporate level; he cared for every member in every church he was connected with. Whether weakened through illness or stumbled by sin, Paul felt the impact of each person’s physical or spiritual decline. Along these lines, Paul proves to the Corinthians and the false teachers that his pride was rooted in weakness and even humiliation not external displays of success. He cared more for the safety and security of the church than his own personal protection. Thus, the list of Paul’s dangers persists here with one final example of the constant peril that marked his ministry from the very beginning. Hunted down by a civil leader in Damascus, Paul is forced to flee like an escape artist. These are hardly the type of qualities one would look for in a popular leader but for Paul it was through such providences that the power of God was potently on display.”
Chapter 12 verses 7-10 wraps up Paul’s section on boasting in his weakness; here Paul’s boasting pertains to his serving and sacrifice on behalf of the church. Paul’s sacrifice for the church can be seen it the selfless exchange of the church’s security for Paul’s suffering, their life for his death:
2 Corinthians 13:9 9 “For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete.”
2 Corinthians 1:6 6 “But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation…”
2 Corinthians 4:11–12 11 “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you.”
That was always Paul’s motto— putting the church first. Paul’s love for the church was rooted in what Paul saw the church to be, namely the final disclosure of God’s redemption in Christ. The church is the touchstone of His redemptive work (Mt. 16.18). Unlike Israel in the old covenant, the new covenant people of God consist solely of true believers who existed only in remnant form in the old covenant and Old Testament (Is. 28.5; Jer. 23.3; 50.20; 1 Kings 19.18). The Church is the culmination of his redemptive acts among his people, they exist as God’s newly constituted Israel (Lk. 22.20), His true Israel (Rom. 9.5), His true Jews (Rom. 2.29), His chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation (1 Pet. 2.9), and kingdom of priests (Rev. 5.10). This is why Paul cares so much for God’s church, its not simply church attendance because participation is helpful and encourages moral; attending church speaks of God’s redemptive faithfulness and redemptive culmination in history. Paul speaks to this very thing in Ephesians:
Ephesians 3:8–11 8 “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; 10 so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (see, also Col. 1.15-20).
Paul’s service for the church is seen by the intensity of his concern and the extent of his risk taking precisely because he knows what the church is.
1.) PAUL’S INTENSE CONCERN FOR THE PEACE AND PURITY OF THE CHURCH.
28“Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?”
When Paul said, “apart from such external things” (χωρὶς τῶν παρεκτὸς) he was telling us that his physical sufferings only showed us half the man— there is existential side also.
1.1, Paul’s concern for security and safety
While not as much concerned for the safety of his own life; Paul was constantly concerned for the spiritual security and safety of the church. Paul’s concern was not limited to the Corinthians but for “all the churches” (πασῶν τῶν ἐκκλησιῶν) in his care and under his influence and tutelage (cf. Rom. 16.4, 16; 1 Cor. 1.17; 14.33; 2 Cor. 8.18; 2 Thess. 1.4). Paul’s concern was constant, “daily” (ἡ καθʼ ἡμέραν). This concern was a daily point of anxiety, ‘how are the Galatians dealing with the Judaizers, how are the Colossians dealing with asceticism and legalism in the church, how are the Romans dealing with their Jew/Gentile conflict, how are the Thessalonians holding up under persecution’ etc. These matters were a constant “pressure” that weighed on Paul’s heart. Louw-Nida define the word “pressure” (ἐπίστασις) as dealing with “a state of prolonged concern and anxiety.” Such anxiety no doubt became the cause of some of Paul’s sleepless nights (11.27).
Paul’s general concern was for the success of the church, the safety (2 Tim. 14-15), unity (Phil. 2.1-5) and security of the church (Gal. 2.4-5). Perhaps nowhere is Paul’s concern seen with greater emotion and force than in Ephesus where Paul bares his heart and concern for the spiritual safety of the church:
Acts 20:28–31 28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.”
1.2, Paul’s concern for suffering and sin
Just as Paul was concern for “all the churches” in general, he was also aware of individual believers that were either suffering or sinning. Paul’s concern for a person’s weakness can have two possible meanings. It either refers to physical suffering like sickness or spiritual weakness such as lack of assurance, discouragement or weak in faith. Both concerns are taught in Scripture. Paul’s concern for Epaphras is a perfect example of his concern for the physical well being of individual believers:
Philippians 2:25–27 25 “But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need; 26 because he was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. 27 For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow.”
Probably the more appropriate view is that which deals with spiritual weakness. In this sense it refers to believers who are in need of growth. Paul strongly encourages the church to care for brethren who were in a weakened state due to sin (Gal. 6.1-2), due to sickness (2 Tim. 4.20), doubt (Rom. 14.1), persecution (2 Tim. 1.16), and lowly status (Rom. 15.1; cf. Jam. 1.27). Paul sums up this type of concern in his letter to the Thessalonians:
1 Thessalonians 5:14 14 “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”
As a general principle therefore, Paul was never so consumed with his own situation that he was no longer mindful of the trials of others. Paul seems to have been concerned about “weakness” (ἀσθένεια) in believers in all sorts of different forms, whether weakness of social status or weakness of conscience (Rom. 14), Paul’s motto was simple, “to the weak I became weak so that I might win the weak” (1 Cor. 9.22). The most precious type of weakness and the most concerning to Paul was the weakness of a person’s spiritual condition. For Paul this demanded total selflessness and focusing on the growth of others:
Romans 15:1 1 “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.”
Paul’s concern for individuals in the church was not just limited to the growth of believers but also of the pitfalls of besetting sin in a person’s life, “Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” (τίς σκανδαλίζεται καὶ οὐκ ἐγὼ πυροῦμαι;). The language that Paul uses here is critically important and must be defined rightly. First, to be “led into sin” (σκανδαλίζω) speaks of being stumbled and influenced in such a way that the opportunity for sin is presented and a person is brought to a downfall in their faith (cf. BDAG). The second word that is important and vivid in this text is the word translated “intense concern” (πυρόω). This word has the basic idea of being “set on fire” or “ablaze” with some strong emotion. Paul uses it to describe burning with sexual desire (cf. 1 Cor. 7.9). Here it means that Paul became intensely concerned and even angry over the sins of professing believers. Paul loved the church enough to hate their sin! MacArthur put the point well:
“Love is not the enemy of moral indignation but its partner. Holy indignation toward those who lead believers into sin is an expression of the purest kind of love.” (John MacArthur, 2 Corinthians; p.392).
Here, MacArthur has in mind the words of the Lord Jesus when He said, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt. 18.6). This why Paul had always urged the churches never to become a stumbling block to fellow believers in anything whether in Christian liberty (1 Cor. 8.7-13), in the use of the tongue (Eph. 4.29-5.5), in provoking one another (Eph. 6.4; Col. 3.21), in the way we can bite and devour one another and so provoke each other to consume one another (Gal. 5.15).
Whether sin or suffering, whether a person needed encouragement or rebuke, correction or kindness; Paul taught that the spiritual sanctification of believers worked organically, no one stood alone and apart from the body and independent from the body i.e. the church (1 Cor. 12.21ff.). Paul’s body metaphor makes it clear that we cannot exist apart from one another and that we are as inextricable from one another as we are from Christ. Our spiritual health works in tandem with the other members of the church; sanctification without the church is an illusion:
1 Corinthians 12:26-27 26 “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.”
2.) PAUL’S RISK TAKING FOR THE SAFETY OF THE CHURCH
30“If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, 33 and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.”
Not only was Paul’s service for the church seen through the intensity of his concern but also by the extent of his risk taking. Paul risked physical peril so that the church would remain spiritually safe. Paul stops to remind us that what he is doing is boasting in his weakness, “If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness” (Εἰ καυχᾶσθαι δεῖ, τὰ τῆς ἀσθενείας μου καυχήσομαι). Indeed, for Paul is not boasting in who he knows in Judaism, how many converts and churches he has planted or how theologically advanced he is or in the fact that Jesus chose to appear to him from all the people in the world; Paul was boasting in his utter weakness so that the power of God would be displayed in his ministry.
Not only does Paul qualify that this will be the focus of his boasting; he has another caveat— transparency and integrity in recounting his sacrificial service to Christ, “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying” (11.31). Another serious claim and another solemn oath mingled with doxology. Literarily this solemn testimony is a stroke of genius in Paul. Not only is Paul telling the truth in his descent down a wall in a basket (11.33), but also in his ascent into the third heaven (12.2). In all things, whether earthly escapes or heavenly escapades; Paul’s testimony was true. That is what set him apart from the self-centered, man-centered boasting and claims of the false teachers of which Paul issues this revealing warning to his young protégé Timothy:
1 Timothy 4:1–2 1 “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron,”
The man-centered claims and the cunning ways of the false teachers brought shame to the name of God (4.2). Paul’s boasting on the other hand glorified God because it demonstrated God’s power working in his weakness. It also glorified God by Paul’s dependence on the grace of God.
Paul’s doxology is parenthetic and yet powerful nonetheless. For Paul it was important that his readers understand that his oath is made to the God whom he worships, “who is blessed forever” (ὁ ὢν εὐλογητὸς), and of whom he has a proper theology, “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus” (ὁ θεὸς καὶ πατὴρ τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ), and furthermore whom Paul understands to be full of omniscience, “God… knows” (θεὸς... οἶδεν), and that His knowledge was the final bar of examining his motives, his ministry, and his mouth, “[God] knows that I am not lying” (οἶδεν... ὅτι οὐ ψεύδομαι). It should not surprises us that Paul is repeating the idea of God’s knowledge of his truthfulness since Paul was dominated with the reality of the final judgment:
2 Corinthians 5:9–10 9 “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
On his way to boasting in his weakness and before presenting us with his heavenly vision of unlawful description, Paul recalls one extraordinary incident that particularly serves to highlight his weakness and indeed his humiliation in the service of Christ. This is only one example of countless times when God intervened to deliver Paul so that His glory would be demonstrated in his weakness. The “ethnarch” (ἐθνάρχης) who was “under Aretas the king” (Ἁρέτα τοῦ βασιλέως) is a reference to some authority figure serving under the Nabatean king (Aretas) in the regions of Arabia (cf. Gal. 1.17) which is were “Damascus” (Δαμασκῷ) is found. The term “ethnarch” is also defined in various ways but judging from his job of “guarding the city of the Damascenes” (ἐφρούρει τὴν πόλιν Δαμασκηνῶν) he probably occupied the role of Governor or Prefect of some sort (cf. Harris; 2 Corinthians; p.822-824 esp. 823).
The parallel passage in Acts 9 shows that the effort to “seize” (πιάζω) Paul was actually orchestrated by the Jews; the “ethnarch” probably provided the security forces needed to search and arrest Paul. Luke makes it clear that it was a result of preaching the gospel that led to Paul’s persecution (Acts 9.19b-22):
Acts 9:23–25 23 “When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.”
Paul went deep into his past as he reflects on the faithfulness of God. He had not forgotten God’s preserving power to sustain him during his initial preaching ministry in Arabia mentioned in Paul’s autobiographical portrait in Gal. 1.17. The reason Paul risked his neck in Damascus was so that he could reach the lost and strengthen the disciples there for Luke is careful to note, “Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 9.22). Paul’s power to preach produced in the church there the strength to refute Jewish arguments and opposition to the faith.
It should be a point of encouragement and exhortation for us to see Paul looking back years gone by and still reflecting on the intervening power of God in his life. We should not miss God’s extraordinary power working through seemingly ordinary means for it is the use of such means that Paul interprets as God’s power working through his weakness. How easily do we forget God’s faithfulness to bring us through many dangers, through countless trials and unsettling possibilities. All such acts of divine strength only proves Paul’s constant message in 2 Corinthians that God’s power if perfected in weakness (11.30; 12.9) and that His treasure is contained in fragile vessels that easily break:
2 Corinthians 4:7–12 7 “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; 8 we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you.”
Go, then, earthly fame and treasure,
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure,
With Thy favor, loss is gain
-(Jesus, I my cross have taken)