On November 1, 2022, I delivered a message to the women of my church Bible study on 2 Corinthians 10 – 12:9. Here is a written version of my message or you may watch the video.
I love all of Jane Austen’s books, particularly Pride and Prejudice. There’s a scene in which the heroine, Elizabeth, is on vacation with her aunt and uncle. Of course, she can’t receive texts, or emails. So she waits for handwritten letters from her sister at home. One day after a longer than usual delay, she receives this letter:
My dearest Lizzy, I hope your journey has been as delightful as you anticipated. We all miss you. Our father most of all, I believe. I confess I have hardly had time to write. My nieces and nephews have commandeered almost every moment. But they are such dear children. Our mother, indeed, finds their exuberance a little trying for her nerves. She spends much of the day upstairs in her room or with Mrs. Phillips. Since writing the above, dearest Lizzy, something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature; but I am afraid of alarming you—be assured that we are all well. What I have to say relates to poor Lydia. An express came at twelve last night, just as we were all gone to bed, to inform us that she had gone off to Scotland with…Wickham. Imagine our surprise! I am very, very sorry.
I immediately thought of Jane’s letter when I came to chapter 10 in 2 Corinthians. Just as it changes suddenly, so does Paul’s letter.
Remember that each church member did not get a copy of Paul’s letter in their inbox. This means that this letter would have been read out loud. This was complicated by the fact that written text (in Ancient Greek) had no separation of words, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, verses and chapter breaks. So the job of the reader, the lector, was to choose the inflection, pausing, and tone in order to interpret the letter to the listeners.
The listeners would certainly have caught the change in tone here. It’s so stark that some scholars think this is part of his “painful letter” tagged on here, but I will defer to our pastor/teacher, JoAnn who says: “Technically speaking, I believe 10–13 were written concurrently with 1–9 and are NOT the text of the “painful letter” amended to the end of 2 Corinthians.”
It feels to me like Paul was writing, got interrupted, received news about the problems in Corinth, and felt they were so dire he needed to address them immediately. So he went back to his letter to address the issue. And he does it very strongly. For you who care: This section is referred to as polemic—a strong verbal or written attack.
Paul delivers his verbal attack through the method of boasting. And so we arrive at the tension in our passage—boasting.
In the final years of his life, my father began reading my blog. One day, he commented on one of my articles. “My dear, don’t you think you talked about yourself a bit too much?” My father was from the greatest generation. He served in the army at the tail end of WWII in Japan. His generation didn’t talk about themselves. They especially didn’t boast. They tried to always presented a squeaky clean image.
I tried to explain to my father that my readers want authenticity, transparency, and to relate to my story. They want me to share my failures as well as my accomplishments so they know I personally apply what I teach. But it is a line I walk with some trepidation. As a writer I have to put myself and my work in the public eye.
I am also a missionary. I write letters to financial and prayer partners telling them what I do in order to justify their monetary gifts. As such I have to talk about myself. And it isn’t comfortable.
I also follow other authors and influencers on social media. They too have this tension of not wanting to boast, not wanting to promote themselves, and yet how would people know their credentials, how would we know if they are worth listening to or reading if they don’t say something about themselves?
And as readers and consumers, how do we evaluate if what they are saying is true or false? Are we, like the Corinthians, being duped by teachers who boast?
So our tension is: Is it okay to boast? What did Paul mean? How do I know if I or someone else is boasting? What does it mean to boast in the Lord? Or in my weakness?
First, a few clarifying things:
What does the word itself mean?
“Boasting” is used 37 times in the New Testament and more in these chapters than any other place. If I used one word this many times in one of my blog articles, I would be called a bad writer. Just saying. However, when a word is used multiple times in scripture, it’s a call to take notice.
The Greek word (kauchaomai) means “to glory in something or someone.” When we boast, we feel or show great joy or pleasure because of someone, we exalt them. It also carries with it the idea of having confidence in, or to be proud of. It is possible to have proper and improper boasting depending on the object of the boast.
What is the problem Paul is addressing?
The church at Corinth, Paul’s deeply loved children, are being deceived and led astray by false teachers and thus questioning Paul’s authority. This is more than a little disagreement over methods and styles, more than just demeaning and discrediting Paul. They are preaching a different Jesus. Paul feels the gospel is at stake. It helped me to learn that it was unclear who had authority at this time. The twelve apostles were old and the scriptures had not yet be formalized into our Bible. It was kind of like the “wild west” as to who’s in charge.
Who are these false teachers?
Paul doesn’t name them specifically, but we can infer that they were rival teachers, probably Judaizers or Sophists. The Judaizers were Jews who had come to faith in Jesus but preached that Christians needed to also follow the Mosaic Law. Theirs was a gospel mixture—grace and works, faith and circumcision, for example. The first century sophists “were wise men or professional teachers, who traveled about educating young, elite, Greek men.”1 They preached human wisdom, not the gospel at all.
What are Paul’s tactics?
While Paul uses strong (and sometimes harsh) language, he also reveals his heart and how he feels. He’s hurt that they would question him. But mostly, he loves them and wants them to return to the gospel of Jesus. And because they haven’t listened to his former appeals, he adopts their methods, since that’s what seems to catch their attention.
It’s like he’s saying: I’m your father in the Lord, and you’ve turned on me. You’re listening to false teachers rather than the one who birthed you and loves you. You think I live by the world’s standards? OK, I’ll use those standards to prove why you should listen to me and not those false teachers who have captured your thoughts. I have no option but to adopt their methods and so “boast” about myself to convince you. You think I’m not bold… let me be bold! You want boasting? I’ll give you boasting! Even though it is foolish and I can’t believe I have to do this.
So Paul proceeds to sarcastically boast, teaching us the difference between proper and improper boasting and how to make sure we aren’t listening to false teachers or putting up with fools.
Improper boasting uses worldly weapons, but proper boasting uses spiritual weapons.
10:3–6 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up agains the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
Worldly weapons include human pride, arrogance, manipulation, flattery, lording it over, and arguments. Instead Paul dealt firmly with the false teachers, not with swords, but with meekness, gentleness, forgiveness, deep love, faith, righteousness, and obedience. In other words, divine power.
So What? These verse are most often applied to battling our private thoughts. But in this context, Paul is battling the false teaching of others. Believers don’t fight “fire with fire,” we fight fire with “peace, love, grace, and forgiveness.”
Improper boasting tears others down, but proper boasting builds them up.
10:8 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. (12:19, 13:10)
11:20 You even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face.
The false teachers used their authority to criticize, divide, lead people away, belittle, call them names, and insult, but Paul uses his to build up, strengthen, unify, encourage, and empower.
So What? Remember, those who feel the need to tout their own gifts and look perfect by putting others down are usually insecure. Beware them.
Improper boasting deceives, but proper boasting tells the truth about oneself
0:10–11 For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing. 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.
The false teachers accused Paul of duplicity, phoniness, and inconsistency, but they were, in fact, the duplicitous ones:
11:3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
11:14–15 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.
Instead, Paul has personal integrity:
11:31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.
12:6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.
So What? I don’t think it’s wrong to say what is true about ourselves. For example, I have a master’s degree. I have published a book. These are my accomplishments and credentials that are true about me. But it’s not always necessary to say them. More importantly, I want my actions and speech to match my credentials. I don’t want to be given credit beyond what others can see in my life or hear in my words.
Improper boasting uses a subjective standard to measure oneself, but proper boasting uses a God-standard.
10:12 We do not dare to clarify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.
The false teachers made themselves the measure or standard of others, creating their own standard. Paul instead measures himself by God’s standard.
10:18 For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.
Paul’s standard is allegiance to gospel of Christ, growing conformity to Christ, and participation in sufferings of Christ.
So what? These false teachers remind me of folks today who come up with their own reality and declare whatever they want to about themselves and what is worthy of praise. Paul says instead that Christ is our standard and we allow him to approve of us.
Improper boasting exalts oneself, but proper boasting exalts God and others
The false teachers look on the surface (10:7) and exalt human achievements, such as speech and knowledge (11:6), financial funding (11:7–9), ancestry (11:21–23), persecution (11:23–33), and visions (12:1–4).
They questioned why was Paul not a better speaker or better financed? Why he didn’t profit from his ministry? They boasted of their lineage. They claimed to belong to Christ in some superior way, creating their own “in-group” (11:5), perhaps of those who could claim the best story of “suffering for Jesus” or the most elaborate vision. Instead Paul glorifies others (7:14, 9:2) and God.
10:17 But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” Boasting in the Lord means boasting of the Lord’s attributes, his power, what he has done and is doing in and through us and others. (Jeremiah 9:24).
Paul speaks with humility and gentleness (10:1), not wanting to frighten them (10:9) and emphasizes that he too belongs to Christ (10:7) and serves the church lovingly (11:2–3, 10–12). Most importantly, he preaches Jesus, the sole basis for their salvation.
11:4–5 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Sprit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”
Ephesians 2:8–9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
So What? Today we tend to either lift up or give credence to the one who has great financial resources or the one who gives everything away for free and doesn’t charge for his services. We glorify those that are great speakers and are really smart or those who have a great story of suffering. In some circles, those who have visions are given greater status. We too can lift up someone we feel comes from a good family—the son of a famous person perhaps.
So what do you exalt in the leaders you follow? Their style? Humor? Storytelling ability? Hermeneutical approach? Deep enough? Their fancy speaking ability, attractive appearance, professional status, media presence, whether they ask for donations (or not), their response to covid, their political position?
However, we should instead measure how they exalt Christ and if they preach Jesus only. This means that if we hear them say say that someone can’t be a Christian because of the church they attend, or the candidate they voted for, they are preaching a different Jesus. They are saying that faith in Christ’s death on the cross is no longer the only criteria.
Improper boasting assumes self-appointed authority, but proper boasting exercises God-given authority
10:13–14 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.
The false teachers have assumed a self-appointed authority in areas not their own. Paul says he’s not going to boast about stuff he’s not an authority on. He stays in the boundary God has given him. And that includes the church at Corinth.
So whose authority you are under? Your local church leaders? On-line teachers and podcasters? Outside sources? Those you know personally and can see their private lives should carry more weight than the ones you don’t know. And that’s the trouble with social media. It is virtually (!) impossible for us to see their life in a way that tells us if their “boast” is true or not.
The ones whom God has appointed to shepherd you care about you and love you. The teacher in another state doesn’t know you. He or she may say they love you but they cannot see you day to day as your local pastors can. I encourage you to talk to your local pastors, or your small group leaders first. Have conversations, dialogue, ask questions.
Improper boasting takes credit for work done by others, but proper boasting does not take credit for work done by others.
10:15–16 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, 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.
The false teachers were taking credit for Paul’s work but Paul wants to only speak about the work God has given him.
So What? This even means making sure we cite the author of what we post on Facebook and Instagram. Spinning a story that sounds like we wrote it or did the good deed is improper boasting.
Improper boasting is foolish, but proper boasting admits their weakness.
11:16–21 Tolerate me as you would a fool. I am talking as a fool…Boasting in the way the world does…You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! I am speaking as a fool…
The false teachers were afraid to show weakness, but in fact, their very boasting proves they are fools. Paul is not afraid to look foolish but instead boasts about his weakness; exalts in weakness; holds his head high despite weakness because glory comes from weakness.
11:30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things that show my weakness (12:5, 9–10)
So what does it mean to boast in our weaknesses? According to Kaitlyn Bouchillon in her book Even If Not, “You have to share when you’re scared so they can see that He is Sovereign. You’ve got to be vulnerable and open so they can know He is the One signing His name to the story. You have to be honest about the mess so they can see His message weaving all the way through. By refusing to tell my story, I thought I was keeping my heart safe but really I was only denying Him the glory.”2
In Sum: The difference between improper and proper boasting is the object of the boast. Improper boasting exalts and has confidence in one’s own achievements. Proper boasting exalts and has confidence in God. Simply put, improper boasting is self-commendation and proper boasting is God-commendation.
Take time this week to evaluate all the sources of authority in your life, all the voices you listen to and are influenced by (including me)—those on line, the authors you read most often, podcasts, blogs, people you follow on social media, secular and Christian.
Filter them—their words, lives, and actions—through the grid of improper and proper boasting. Do those I follow…
- use human weapons or spiritual weapons? (Like deception, pride, abuse or love, humility, peace)
- tear others down or build them up? (Belittle, call people names, insult, divide? Do they enslave, exploit, take advantage of, abuse their followers? Or do they encourage, strengthen, empower, and unify them?)
- deceive others or tell the truth about themselves? Do they have personal integrity? (Are they the same in person as in writing or on-line? Do they masquerade as someone they are not? Do you give them credit beyond what you can see in their life and hear in their message?)
- use a subjective or God-standard to measure themselves? Do they compare themselves with themselves? (Have they created their own standard or do they follow God’s standard?)
- exalt themselves or God and others? (Is their confidence in God or their achievements? Do they value and admire human wisdom and achievements or Jesus? Do they look to others for their approval or to God? Do they talk about what God has done? Exalt him? Do they talk about others’ good gifts and achievements, how God has worked in them? Do they preach Jesus alone or Jesus plus something else?)
- assume self-appointed authority or exercise God-given authority? (Do they speak about things or try to influence in areas they have no authority over? Do they have more authority than your local leaders do? Does their message line up with what your local church teaches?)
- take credit (or not take credit) for work that’s not their own? (Do they accept credit for things they haven’t done? Plagiarize? Steal digital work? Spin the story to favor them?)
- admit or hide their weaknesses? (Do they have to appear perfect and can never admit wrong? Do they place the blame on everyone else but themselves? Or do they share their failures openly, giving glory to God for working through them?)
If you are a leader, influencer, writer, pastor, put your own ministry and life through this same filter.
And then make the changes you need to. Unfollow some people if necessary but don’t cancel people—don’t just listen to the ones who tell you what you want to hear—we need diverse voices in order to learn, to grow, and sometimes to correct us. But be discerning, think critically, and not just drawn to the latest glitzy thing or the voices that sound like you.
Father God, we need your Holy Spirit to help us see the truth about those we listen to and follow. Remove the blinders from our eyes and ears so that we can rightly assess their boasting. Help us to determine if they are preaching a different Jesus than the Son you sent as our Savior. Give us strength to admit our weaknesses and boast only in you.
1 D.A. Carson, A Model of Christian Maturity: An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 10–13 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984), 33.
2 Kaitlyn E. Bouchillon, Even If Not: Living, Loving, and Learning in the In Between (independently published, 2016), 173.