The Powerful Weakness of Paul, Part 2
Text and Exposition
26“I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; 27 I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
26 ὁδοιπορίαις πολλάκις, κινδύνοις ποταμῶν, κινδύνοις λῃστῶν, κινδύνοις ἐκ γένους, κινδύνοις ἐξ ἐθνῶν, κινδύνοις ἐν πόλει, κινδύνοις ἐν ἐρημίᾳ, κινδύνοις ἐν θαλάσσῃ, κινδύνοις ἐν ψευδαδέλφοις, 27 κόπῳ καὶ μόχθῳ, ἐν ἀγρυπνίαις πολλάκις, ἐν λιμῷ καὶ δίψει, ἐν νηστείαις πολλάκις, ἐν ψύχει καὶ γυμνότητι·
“The continued litany of Paul’s labors and hardships is a constant reminder of the cost of discipleship, the cost Paul paid in particular and the depth of sacrifice involved in gospel ministry. The first section of these two verses is related to the “dangers” that Paul underwent in his labors. From perilous traveling through rivers amidst thieves to being an outcast both among Jews and Gentiles to the universal dangers posed by every geographical location Paul visited and traveled through; the congruent factor was always danger. The hazards of ministry were also to be understood by the spiritual opposition Paul faced at the hands of false brethren. The second section beginning in verse 27 is a consideration of his constant deprivation. Every part of what may appear normal to us was at some place and time stripped from Paul. From his basic necessity of food and water to the weariness of working without sleep and his apparent voluntary fasting for numerous reasons, Paul’s deprivation no doubt often left him cold, naked, and afraid. Here in lies the great power of Paul’s weakness— total resignation to the grace of God. For it would only be through the complete depletion of Paul’s resources and personal strength that God’s power would be perfected in him.”
1.) PAUL’S PERILOUS JOURNEYS
26“I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren;”
The focus of Paul’s hardships now focus on the things suffered during his “frequent journeys” (ὁδοιπορίαις πολλάκις). The key word is “dangers” (κινδύνοις). It seems from this list that not much of Paul’s ministry was safe which makes his words at the end of his life all the more meaningful:
2 Timothy 4:18 18 “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
For Paul, safety was rare, and ultimately he was often made to feel that only God could give it to him. As we look at the ever present dangers under which Paul lived, it only serves to magnify the grace of God which powerfully worked in his life to keep him alive through all those dangers. Travel in the ancient Greco-Roman world was infamous for its dangers. The “safe passages” of the Pax Romana had its limits and ancient travel was still extremely dangerous (see, Harris; p.807). Here Paul will list eight specific dangers that can be grouped together in somewhat of a significant order. Paul begins with two pairs, rivers/bobbers and Jews/Gentiles.
1.1, The danger of rivers and robbers
Just one trip, which scholars have noted would have involved both dangers, was the journey between Perga into Pisidian Antioch during Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13.14) and his journey from Pisidian Antioch to Pamphylia (14.24). He would have had to cross a dangerous mountain range called Taurus, which was known for its difficult terrain, torrential river crossings often without bridges and the thieves who hid in the mountains and regularly robbed unsuspecting travelers. This could be quite significant when you’re a missionary carrying the money a church gave you for support, the only money you have and the only thing that will keep you alive for next several weeks and months. Paul was also never heavily armed, he may have carried a sword for protection but one sword is no match for a group of heavily armed bandits who attack at night. This was pure peril!
1.2, The danger of Jews and Gentiles
The book of Acts records several places that Paul faced opposition from both Jews, “my countrymen” (ἐκ γένους) for example (Acts 9.20-23); as well as the “Gentiles” (ἐξ ἐθνῶν) for example (Acts 16.16-24; 19.23-20.1). Here we should highlight the fact that Paul was a complete outcast because he was a Christian. As a Jew he should have been able to find protection among his own countrymen. Because he was Roman citizen you would think he could use his citizenship to his advantage among the Romans as well. Nevertheless, it was on the basis of his faith in Christ that both parties alienated Paul; truly Paul was a man who had no abiding city here (cf. Heb. 13.14). In fact, Acts records that in Iconium a joint effort between both Jews and Gentiles coming together in order to kill him and Barnabas:
Acts 14:1–5 1“In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. 2But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren. 3 Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. 4 But the people of the city were divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. 5And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them,”
1.3, The danger of city, wilderness, and sea
The next group is grouped as a triplet and probably is meant to convey that just as Paul could not find any respite anywhere in society, whether with Jews or Gentiles, neither could he find safety in any geographical location; “city”, “wilderness”, and “sea” all equally presented their “dangers” (κινδύνοις). MacArthur gives a partial list of all the cities where Paul faced various “dangers”:
“He faced dangers in virtually every city he visited, including Damascus (Acts 9:20, 23), Jerusalem (Acts 9:29; 21:27–32; 23:12–22), Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14, 45), Iconium (Acts 14:1–2), Lystra (Acts 14:19), Philippi (Acts 16:16–40), Thessalonica (Acts 17:5–8), Berea (17:13), Corinth (18:1, 6, 12–16), and Ephesus (Acts 19:1, 9, 23–41; 1 Cor. 15:32).” (MacArthur, 2 Corinthians; p.390).
Rome can also be thrown into the list since it was there that Paul was imprisoned and martyred (2 Tim. 4.6-8).
If the “city” (πόλις) presents dangers from men, the “wilderness” (ἐρημία) may have presented just as many dangers from the beasts like poisonous snakes, malaria carrying insects, lions, bears, wild packs of dogs or wolves as well as the brutal exposure of the elements from snow to rain, heat to freezing temperatures. Add to this the fact that if Paul was deep in the backcountry of any given region, should he become ill or injured, help would be out of reach.
Everything Paul underwent on his missionary journeys he did because of his calling; consequently, traveling by “sea” (θάλασσα) was also necessary. This form of traveling would prove to be just as perilous for Paul. As already stated, Paul had experienced shipwrecks, which are not even recorded in Scripture. He referred to them in v.25 but Acts does not have the record of these shipwrecks but does record a shipwreck which Paul would undergo after writing 2 Corinthians, (Acts 27.39-44). It was probably in one of the shipwrecks in v.25 that Paul also had to spend a night and a day afloat at sea.
It seems that no matter where Paul went, whether by land or sea, there was trouble, and no matter who he was around by, Jew or Gentile— his life was lived as an outcast. Paul earlier reminded the church about this very thing. The church had an over realized and over triumphant view of eschatology which was not only unbiblical but was also at odds with the apostolic experience in the present age. In fact, Paul’s life testified to a different reality than an over realized eschatology; Paul’s life in the present evil age was filled with suffering, persecution and hostility— as promised (cf. John 15.18-25):
1 Corinthians 4:8–13 8 “You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and indeed, I wish that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.”
1.4, The danger of false brethren
Because of his Christian identity, it might be expected that the world would offer him no refuge, “the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me.” (Acts 20.23). Therefore, it may have been particularly vexing to have to deal with the threat “false brethren” (ψευδαδέλφοις) would have presented. It is among the brethren that Paul should have been safe, it is the brethren that Paul should be able to trust and rely on, yet, that too would prove to be perilous.
Paul’s only other use of the term, “false brethren” (ψευδαδέλφοις) in Gal. 2.4 demonstrates that the term does not only apply to false converts or those who fall away but to every and anyone who claims the name of Christ but shows him/herself not to be so. This title would then apply to “false apostles” (ψευδαπόστολοι) in Corinth. The fact that Paul found himself “among” (ἐν) such “false brethren” reveals the fact of their infiltration and thus the danger that they pose:
Galatians 2:4 4 “But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.”
Paul knew the threat of organized heretics and individual brethren who proved to be false brethren who betrayed and abandoned him for the world like Demas (2 Tim. 4.10). These were but some the dangers that Paul faced in the ministry. Anyone coming into the ministry should be aware the dangers that can be included in that calling regardless of the time, culture or context; ministry precludes hardships like godliness precludes persecution (cf. 2 Tim. 3.12).
2.) PAUL’S CONSTANT DEPRIVATION
27“I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
The next aspect of Paul’s sufferings in which he boasts is his constant deprivation. Once again his deprivation is caused by his “labor and hardship” (κόπῳ καὶ μόχθῳ) in the ministry (cf. 11.23). Labor and hardships is the sum of Paul’s works. He labors and he suffers— that was the constant pattern of his work. The fact that Paul mentions that he had exceeded his opponents in “far more labors” only reflects the fact that with exceptional and extraordinary toil comes extraordinary trials.
The following list is still part of Paul’s external afflictions while v.28 launches into a description of his internal anguish. Paul focuses on six items of which he found himself constantly deprived of; sleep, hunger, thirst, fasting, exposure to cold, and lack of clothing. Each of these presents a formidable threat to Paul’s safety and survival.
Not only was Paul committed to labor hard physically to provide for his own needs (11.7), he toiled hard in the ministry of preaching and teaching in the church (Col. 1.28-29), and in the advancement of the gospel (Phil. 2.22; 4.3). Sleep deprivation is one of the worst things anyone can go through. In Thessalonica Paul’s independence and hard work often included having to work hard and lose sleep so that he and his partners would not be a burden:
1 Thessalonians 2:9 9 “For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.”
2 Thessalonians 3:8 8 “nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you;”
2.2, Food and water
Not surprising, there were times when Paul would have had to go without the most basic of necessities for surely that is what “hunger and thirst” (ἐν λιμῷ καὶ δίψει) represent. Jonathan Edwards was known to keep himself in a state of perpetual hunger at times in order to heighten his senses to be more spiritually alert and mentally sharp for study. Who knows how many times Paul would have voluntarily gone without food so that, like Jesus, he might do the will of God instead (cf. John 4.34).
The occasions that Paul was led to “hunger and thirst” may have well been all involuntary, but this phrase suggests that Paul also voluntarily fasted (cf. Acts 14.23). As often as Paul was deprived of physical sustenance and exposed to physical hardships makes the idea of voluntary “fasting” (νηστεία) almost unreal and incomprehensible. Others have suggested that this term simply means to be “without food” (NASB, BDAG). Yet the parallel between the almost certainly voluntary “sleepless nights” (ἐν ἀγρυπνίαις πολλάκις) and the seemingly voluntary “without out food” (ἐν νηστείαις πολλάκις) may also refer to voluntary and frequent fasting (see, Harris; p.809).
Plus the idea of involuntary hunger would seem redundant having just referred to “hunger and thirst” in the previous clause. The reality is that when it came to deprivation of food and sleep, two highly valuable commodities, Paul was in the habit of having to sacrifice them both.
2.4, Cold and exposure
If things could not get any more extreme, the final set of terms leaves us with the picture of Paul left out in the dark somewhere perhaps in the wilderness, perhaps outside of Lystra stripped bare by a mob of enraged Jews, perhaps he washed up on the shore during one of his shipwrecked without clothing in the “cold”, literally, “in cold and nakedness” (ἐν ψύχει καὶ γυμνότητι), and left vulnerable and exposed to the elements. We cannot begin to describe the terrible prison conditions of the Roman dungeons and prisons where prisoners where often left in terrible conditions where they would lack both proper clothing and proper warmth often leading to sickness and even death. Under such conditions, Paul makes one of his few personal requests to Timothy during one of his imprisonments, “When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus” (2 Tim. 4.13a), and “make every effort to come before winter” (2 Tim. 4.21).
2.5, The mighty weakness of the apostle Paul
Lest we should walk away with the wrong vision of Paul in our minds; seeing all of this as a call for sympathy or pity— we must grasp the secret of Paul’s perseverance. Paul’s writings afford two crucial components for understanding the type of perspective that brought Paul through these trials with a victor’s crown— one dealing with sanctification the other with justification. The first from one of Paul’s prison epistles, the other from Paul’s own argument from 2 Corinthians:
Philippians 4:10–13 10 “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. 11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Paul’s contentment flowed from his union with Christ.
Paul’s contentment flowed from his understanding of the sanctifying power of Christ in his weakness:
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.”
We often look for the proper words to describe the apostle Paul’s life and theology; however, at times it is better to allow the commentaries to sit in silence and use Paul’s own words to exegete his life. Time and again Paul proved that he practiced what he preached for in all of these things he saw himself as more than a conqueror:
Romans 8:35–39 35 “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”