The Basis of Biblical Boasting
Text and Exposition
12“For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding. 13 But we will not boast beyond our measure, but within the measure of the sphere which God apportioned to us as a measure, to reach even as far as you. 14 For we are not overextending ourselves, as if we did not reach to you, for we were the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ; 15 not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, 16 so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another. 17 But he who boasts is to boast in the Lord. 18 For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.”
12 Οὐ γὰρ τολμῶμεν ἐγκρῖναι ἢ συγκρῖναι ἑαυτούς τισιν τῶν ἑαυτοὺς συνιστανόντων, ἀλλὰ αὐτοὶ ἐν ἑαυτοῖς ἑαυτοὺς μετροῦντες καὶ συγκρίνοντες ἑαυτοὺς ἑαυτοῖς οὐ συνιᾶσιν. 13 ἡμεῖς δὲ οὐκ εἰς τὰ ἄμετρα καυχησόμεθα ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὸ μέτρον τοῦ κανόνος οὗ ἐμέρισεν ἡμῖν ὁ θεὸς μέτρου, ἐφικέσθαι ἄχρι καὶ ὑμῶν. 14 οὐ γὰρ ὡς μὴ ἐφικνούμενοι εἰς ὑμᾶς ὑπερεκτείνομεν ἑαυτούς, ἄχρι γὰρ καὶ ὑμῶν ἐφθάσαμεν ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ Χριστοῦ, 15 οὐκ εἰς τὰ ἄμετρα καυχώμενοι ἐν ἀλλοτρίοις κόποις, ἐλπίδα δὲ ἔχοντες αὐξανομένης τῆς πίστεως ὑμῶν ἐν ὑμῖν μεγαλυνθῆναι κατὰ τὸν κανόνα ἡμῶν εἰς περισσείαν 16 εἰς τὰ ὑπερέκεινα ὑμῶν εὐαγγελίσασθαι, οὐκ ἐν ἀλλοτρίῳ κανόνι εἰς τὰ ἕτοιμα καυχήσασθαι. 17 Ὁ δὲ καυχώμενος ἐν κυρίῳ καυχάσθω· 18 οὐ γὰρ ὁ ἑαυτὸν συνιστάνων, ἐκεῖνός ἐστιν δόκιμος, ἀλλὰ ὃν ὁ κύριος συνίστησιν.
“In Paul’s second major defense of his apostolic ministry, he moves to undermine the self-centered nature of his opponents who care only for appearance and not for the heart. Paul first exposes their man made standards of approval. By contrast Paul was not so daring as to follow in their folly. Paul allowed God to determine the parameters of his ministry. Unlike the false teachers Paul refused to boast in the accomplishments of others. Because Paul was first to arrive at Corinth with the gospel, he could boast in what God had done through him there. Paul’s aim was to go even beyond Corinth and reach other with the gospel. For Paul the only proper posture in boasting was in the Lord and in what He had done through him.”
It may seem rather odd to find in Scripture so much positive examples of God’s people boasting and boasting language in general. For most, we may think of the concept of boasting to be rather abstract, enigmatic and even superfluous. For Paul however, it was paramount to the ministry that boasting have it’s proper biblical role in the ministry. The heart of all biblical boasting is summed up wonderfully by Paul at the summit of this context with OT attestation of the proper sphere basis and goal of boasting, “he who boasts is to boast in the Lord” (Jer. 9.24).
Having argued for the character of his ministry in vv.7-11where he demonstrated that his identity and authority was in Christ, his purpose in the church was for its upbuilding, and his godliness consisted in his sincerity, integrity and consistency; he turns now to the doomed methods of his opponents to boast in themselves. By boasting in themselves Paul hopes to prove their lack of wisdom. By boasting in the labors of another man (namely Paul) Paul hopes to show the folly of their impetuous arrogance. By boasting in these ways, Paul hopes to prove that his opponents were boasting in self and not in the Lord who alone has the power to approve or disapprove of one’s ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 4.1-5).
1.) THE FOOLISHNESS OF MAN CENTERED MINISTRY
12“For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding”
Paul begins his second major defense of his apostolic ministry by separating himself from the ungodly and unwise practices of the false teachers in Corinth. Paul’s opening assertion that he was, “not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves” (Οὐ γὰρ τολμῶμεν ἐγκρῖναι ἢ συγκρῖναι ἑαυτούς τισιν τῶν ἑαυτοὺς συνιστανόντων) sets the stage for the rest of the passage. The central focus of this passage surrounds the self-centered and self-promoting nature of the false teacher’s ministry. Paul rejects this notion by saying, rather sarcastically, that he is not daring (τολμάω) enough to “class” (ἐγκρίνω) himself with self-promoting men (τισιν). This is the root of the problem. Paul’s opponents where those who, above all, sought the approval of man (cf. Jer. 45.5). This is brought out by the participial (substantival) phrase, “those who commend themselves” (τῶν ἑαυτοὺς συνιστανόντων). The problem with what the false teachers were doing was that their standards of ministerial success were all wrong. Human approval is “no certain sign of grace”, as Edwards would say.
For Paul, measuring (μετρέω) and comparing (συγκρίνω) oneself solely on the basis of the opinion of others was a sure sign of foolishness; they are “without understanding” (οὐ συνιᾶσιν). More exactly however, these men were drawing conclusions about their ministry based on baseless evaluation of men who had the same man-centered standards as they did. They had their letters of commendation (3.1), they probably touted Jerusalem support, Jewish support; they had built a whole network of self-promoting men that would “rub each other’s back.”
By contrast, Paul was acutely aware of his inadequacy were it not for the grace of God powerfully working in his life to empower him in every area of ministry:
2 Corinthians 12:11 11 “I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody.”
1 Corinthians 15:9-10 9 “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”
1 Corinthians 3:6-7 6 “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”
Ephesians 3:7-8 7 “of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. 8 To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ,”
Here, Paul is answering his critics in Corinth— these adversaries who ironically are being exposed here of falsely accusing Paul of the very thing they are actually guilty of i.e. seeking the approval of men (cf. 3.1). At the root of this sort of conduct is love for the praise of men and a disregard for the holiness of God. Paul has already hinted at this earlier in the epistle:
2 Corinthians 5:12 12 “We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart.”
The results of the false teacher’s selfish motives have rendered them “without understanding” (οὐ συνιᾶσιν). They are foolish because they are “full of themselves.” As MacArthur puts it, “The self-centered and self-satisfied are always self-deceived” (MacArthur, 2 Corinthians; p.346). Thus, it is no wonder that they seek to deceive others (cf. Mt. 15.14).
2.) THE WISDOM OF A HUMBLE MINISTRY
13“But we will not boast beyond our measure, but within the measure of the sphere which God apportioned to us as a measure, to reach even as far as you. 14 For we are not overextending ourselves, as if we did not reach to you, for we were the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ; 15 not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, 16 so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you, and not to boast in what has been accomplished in the sphere of another.”
By setting proper limitations on his ministry, Paul was letting God define the extent of his boasting. Several elements in Paul’s method of ministry magnify his humble example including resigning to the sovereignty of God for success in the ministry, refusing to boast in what others have done, and being a visionary for the cause of the gospel.
2.1, A humble ministry allows God to determine its success,
Paul’s purpose in bringing in the limits of ministry was to show the church that if anyone was entitled to boast about the ministry in Corinth it was Paul since he was, “the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ” (ἄχρι γὰρ καὶ ὑμῶν ἐφθάσαμεν ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ Χριστοῦ). Because of this, Paul did not go “beyond” lit. “into immeasurable things” (εἰς τὰ ἄμετρα) the “measure” (μέτρον) that God had “apportioned” (μερίζω) to him. It is God who sets the standards and sphere of a man’s influence and ministry; what Paul calls, “the measure of the sphere which God apportioned as a measure” (τὸ μέτρον τοῦ κανόνος οὗ ἐμέρισεν ἡμῖν ὁ θεὸς μέτρου). This is why it is foolish to form factions and cliques around a particular personality; God makes a man of God what he is:
1 Corinthians 3:1–7 1 “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? 5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”
2.2, A humble ministry refuses to take credit for the work of others
Knowing that it was God who was setting his boundaries, Paul refused to take credit for ministry he did not “labor” (κόπος) for, “not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors” (οὐκ εἰς τὰ ἄμετρα καυχώμενοι ἐν ἀλλοτρίοις κόποις). This would mean that Paul would have been “overextending” (ὑπερεκτείνω) his pastoral reach. However, as it related to his ministry in Corinth, Paul was well within his sphere of “boasting” (καυχάομαι), “For we are not overextending ourselves, as if we did not reach to you” (οὐ γὰρ ὡς μὴ ἐφικνούμενοι εἰς ὑμᾶς ὑπερεκτείνομεν ἑαυτούς). Of course, Paul did reach to them and as he already indicated, he was the “first to come” (φθάνω) i.e. to reach Corinth with the gospel before his opponents— the “false apostles” (11.13).
2.3, A humble ministry is gospel centered
The work in Corinth was not an end in itself. Paul did not look to Corinth to be the ground of boasting so that they served only that purpose. The purpose of the Corinthian church plant was to spread the gospel to those “beyond” them. This was the purpose of Paul boasting about them that they too may serve with him in the furtherance of the gospel, “boasting… with the hope that as your faith grows, we will be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you, 16 so as to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you.”
Paul is not content with making disciples in Corinth that will make much of him; he wants the Corinthian’s faith to “grow” (αὐξάνω) in such a way that they will seek to make much of Christ by spreading His name to those who lie beyond them and are in desperate need of the gospel, “to preach the gospel even to the regions beyond you” (εἰς τὰ ὑπερέκεινα ὑμῶν εὐαγγελίσασθαι). The center of a humble ministry is not self but Christ. This was Paul’s only boast and the gospel his only passion:
Galatians 6:14 14 “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
Knowing that it was God setting the limits of his ministry both in terms of success and failure, refusing to boast in the “sphere of another”, and motivated by a passion to see Christ preached and the gospel advanced, Paul saw selfish boasting as unthinkable! He could not boast in salvation (1 Cor. 1.26-31), he could not boast in his labors (Rom. 15.18), he could not boast in his strength (2 Cor. 11.30; 12.9-10), he could not boast in his evangelism (1 Cor. 3.5-7), he could not boast in his apostleship (Rom. 1.5), and he could never boast in his own righteousness (Phil. 3.7-9). Paul put it plainly, “So then let no one boast in men” (1 Cor. 3.21a).
3.) THE POWER OF A GOD-CENTERED MINISTRY
17“But he who boasts is to boast in the Lord. 18 For it is not he who commends himself that is approved, but he whom the Lord commends.”
Paul has set forth the necessary limitations of boasting in the things of the gospel as those things pertaining to the “sphere” (κανών) or formulated and designated assignment which the Lord has marked out for his ministers; he now proceeds to give us the proper manner of boasting, “he who boasts is to boast in the Lord” (Ὁ δὲ καυχώμενος ἐν κυρίῳ καυχάσθω). Paul is quoting an OT text here with reference to Christ who is probably “the Lord” (κυρίῳ) referred to here (1 Cor. 1.30-31; cf. Phil. 3.3; Rom. 15.17–18; 1 Cor. 15.31; Gal. 6.14; Phil. 1.26). Paul is citing a form of Jer. 9:
Jeremiah 9:23–24 23 “Thus says the Lord, “Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; 24 but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord.”
When a person is resolved to “boast only in the Lord”, it means that they have surrendered. They no longer look for an escape from those things which might make them weak physically and emotionally since it is no longer their own strength they seek to glorify:
2 Corinthians 12:9–10 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Verse 18 brings the entire passage to a close for, it rounds off the pericope with an inclusio, beginning and ending with the language of commendation. True approval does not come from man but from God. Only God is qualified to judge the intents of the heart (1 Cor. 4.5), only God is qualified to know the hidden secrets of the heart (Rom. 2.16), and to judge us according to a perfect standard of righteousness in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 17.31; Rom. 3.6).