Passing the Examination

2nd Corinthians

I. Paul proposes three tests of his apostleship (Chapter 10).

A. He had bold confidence in treating challenges both in thought and in conduct (Verses 1-6).

  1. Paul’s apostolic zeal for the truth of his revealed gospel led false teaches to accuse him of being overbearing in his letters. He was weak and even despicable in person, so they claimed, but sought to masquerade as an authority figure in his letters.
  2. With Paul none of this was a matter of fleshly activity. Instead, on the one hand, he followed the example of the meekness of Christ, and, on the other, he knew that any alteration of his message was fatal to souls. He was not fleshly—operating on the basis of personal logic and philosophical opinion—but bore a message revealed by God in which the person and work of Christ are absolute. Every other thought and action must be brought captive to the gospel revealed to Paul.

B. The strength of his confidence in his knowledge of Christ and his will arose from an authority Christ gave him. Paul’s apparent assertiveness in his letters could also be manifest in person if the Corinthians so desired such a display of authority. His authority, however, was not given to cower them under his personal aggressiveness. He had been given the message of eternal salvation in Christ by revelation (see 1 Corinthians 2:1-16).

C. Because of his commission from Christ, Paul constantly pressed to evangelize unreached centers of influence (13-18). He was the first to bring the gospel to Corinth and would even go beyond them to others. He did this, not because of any personal authority, but on the basis of the authority of Christ and the Lord’s commendation of him.


II. Paul contrasts his apostolic ministry with that of the false apostles (Chapter 11; 12:11-13).

A. His message differs in content from theirs. He had betrothed them to Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of the Father. The Son was sent by the Father to bear the sins of his people in a redemptive sacrifice and then to rise from the dead for the wages of sin had been paid. Now these false teachers are seeking to move them to a different Jesus, are inciting in them a different spirit toward truth and each other, and, in fact, hold forth a different gospel.These things are serious errors and bear the magnitude of Eve’s being deceived by Satan.

B. His manner of dealing with the churches differs from theirs. Paul did not make demands of them but received help from other churches fully committed to Paul’s calling as a true apostle of Christ. These other churches had experienced the salvation he preached and were fully convinced in mind and heart of this vital truth.

C. Since both Paul and these other teachers cannot both be presenting the same message, the others are false and deceitful (12-33). Would Paul suffer as he had suffered if he were operating on the basis of mere opinion? These false apostles come and act as if they should be followed claiming their Jewish pedigree and seeking to alter Paul’s message. Paul too was a Jew, understood all the Old Testament teachings, and knew their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. For the sake of this gospel he had been in a constant state of danger, opposition, suffering, and worldly humiliation.


III. God’s actions of grace toward Paul (12:1-10).

A. The Grace of revelation and exaltation (12:1-6). Paul not only had received the revelation of truth by which he preached the gospel—the mystery of Christ (Ephesians 3:1-10), but he also had seen and heard revealed truth that was impossible to communicate in this world in human language. The effect of these revelations given to Paul were at least two-fold: one, they gave him greater clarity on the importance of those things that he was called to preach and put in words. The words that he had been given formed the path to a place of “joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Two, he would experience great sufferings and he must know that this “light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

B. Sustaining grace in constitutional weakness. (12:7-10).

  1. The great benefits Paul received from the Lord’s revelation would tend to puff him up, as they would any person who received such transcendent advantages, if left to himself. Unmitigated by the reality of personal weakness and empirical evidence of dependence, Paul could claim a superiority over others due to some personal quality. God would not allow this.
  2. For Paul’s benefit, and for the glory of the gospel message itself, God arranged for a constant reminder that Paul survived in this life and had promise of the next only by divine power and sovereign grace. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” seems to have been a constitutional weakness that made his personal appearance, and perhaps his speech patterns, unimpressive and even comic. His knowledge far exceeded any immediate impression he gave; this “messenger of Satan,” this constant reminder of physical deficiencies could have made him shrink from any attempt at public discourse on account of the possible ridicule. He did not bear any of the external credentials of an influential speaker and opinion-maker.
  3. Paul asked three times for the Lord to remove this “thorn.” Satan took advantage of it to seek to discourage Paul in a ministry that called for a constant schedule of appearing in public to speak and teach. His enemies, looking at him only as he appeared “in the flesh,” said that “his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible” (10:10). The request in Paul’s prayer seemed reasonable in light of the requirements of his ministry.
  4. God did not grant his request but pointed him to the source of his salvation, his knowledge, his determination to persevere—“My grace is sufficient for you.” Paul’s only power was that of truth and the convincing power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:4). He reveled, therefore, in his weakness so that, presently, spiritual power endorsed his message and future glory appeared all the sweeter. Paul found, therefore, that his personal weaknesses, the consistent opposition he faced, and the many difficulties of travel only strengthened him, for he leaned ever the more consciously on God’s grace.
  5. Paul felt the embarrassment of having to give such an extended defense of the legitimacy of his ministry and his motivation. The Corinthians themselves should have been the ones to put aside the false apostles and the false teaching, for Paul’s heaven-sent qualifications and credibility had been manifest among them. “The signs of a true apostle” (12) were exhibited consistently among them in verification of his office. That his teaching came by divine revelation and not by personal opinion or philosophical speculation should have been obvious from the combination of the weakness of his personal presence and the power of his word and actions.


IV. As he defended his authority and his qualifications, Paul had no intention of seeking any material gain from them or the exertion of any personal power over them. He did not take advantage of them himself (though he was accused of deceitfulness and craftiness), nor did he use his friends to gain any leverage over them for himself. His driving concern was for their edification and holiness (19, 21). He dreaded having to come with the possibility of setting off a scene of hostility, anger, misrepresentation, and disputing (20; also see 13:10). In their current state, however, of listening to the false apostles and not pursuing his instructions concerning sexual purity, his coming certainly would incite some deep conflict.


V. The Corinthians themselves must pass an examination (Chapter 13).

A. Paul’s consistent observation of their conduct and his admonitions to them constituted, in his mind, the qualification for demonstrating their culpability in the matters about which he is writing. He himself fulfilled the directions of Deuteronomy 17:6 in the number of witnesses required to establish a fact. “This is the third time I am coming to you.”

B. This meant, that instead of coming in joy as a minister for their commendation and increase of peace, he would have to come in the power of his apostolic authority for discipline.

  1. From the case of Ananias and Sapphira, we know that this could be frightening and severe (Acts 5:4-10). The Corinthians themselves had experienced judgment from unruly conduct (1 Corinthians 11:29-32).
  2. As an apostle, Paul could manifest the might of the resurrected Christ in the discipline of his church. If that should be the case, they would again, with even greater force and more severe consequences, see the power of Christ manifest in him. He would not spare anyone.
  3. As an apostle of Christ, Paul knew that he must share in the apparent weakness of Christ and emulate his sufferings as he was led to crucifixion (See Colossians 1:24; Philippians 3:10, 11). But even as the resurrection showed what was really at work in Christ’s death as he voluntarily laid down his life as a ransom for many, so Paul would have to rise above the emulation of weakness and demonstrate the reality of resurrection power (verses 3, 4).

C. Paul asked for a comprehensive testing of the Corinthians. They were to apply this to themselves.

  1. First they were to examine themselves as to whether they were “in the faith.” That meant, “Whose teaching do you follow?” Do you believe and follow the “super-apostles” who are really false apostles and accept their gospel which is no gospel (11:4, 13)? Do you receive a Jesus other than the one that I preached? Jesus, the eternal Son of God, was born in due time of the virgin Mary, lived a truly human life in a truly human nature and died a real death on the cross and then really rose bodily from the dead. In his dying, he served as a ransom as he bought redemption for sinners in dying the just for the unjust. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin in our stead that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (5:21). This is the message of reconciliation in Christ preached by Paul and no other set of propositions concerning Christ and the gospel is true.
  2. If they fail that test, Christ is not in them. The presence of the power of the gospel in a person’s life begins with belief of the truth as set forth in the gospel of the apostles (Colossians 1:5, 6; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10; 2:9-15; 2 Timothy 2:15-18).
  3. Paul’s concern is not that he be approved as a matter of personal pride, but that the Corinthians may believe and do what is right, that mind and heart will reflect the truth of the gospel as well as its purifying power. Even though he might feel pressure to overlook both strange teaching and inconsistent living, Paul was not his own and could “do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth.”
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts