2 Corinthians 12:11-21
11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. 13 For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!
14 Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? 16 But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. 17 Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?
19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. 20 For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 21 I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced. 
The high point of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is what scholars have called the “Fool’s Speech.” The high point of the speech itself is a direct statement from Jesus to the Apostle Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9a). It is a statement directly from the Man in Heaven – another personal revelation given to Paul that the apostle has carried privately for 14 years.
Last week, we read Paul’s story of his personal revelations in heaven that were greater than anything the self-styled hyper-apostles of Corinth could possibly claim. The heavenly revelations Paul received were so uplifting that God gave Paul a “thorn in the flesh” to keep the apostle from being hyper-uplifted. He was caught up into the highest heaven but then firmly staked to the ground by his unnamed affliction. This is the grand paradox of real new covenant ministry: strength in weakness.
The upside-down logic of Christ’s words to Paul sank so deeply into the apostle’s heart that weakness became his greatest boast: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9b). Paul understood his limitations as an occasion for rejoicing because Christ pitched his tent with the apostle in his human weakness. So, Paul expanded his boast: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10). In his human weakness, Paul possesses the awesome strength of Christ. This is the capstone of what he is already written twice: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (10:17; 1 Cor. 1:31; Jer. 9:23-24).
If you have been with us through this series, then you understand that Paul hates human bragging. But there were those in the congregation of Corinth who were swayed by the human bragging of the hyper-apostles, forcing Paul to boast in his Hebrew pedigree, his sufferings, and his rapture to paradise. But he gladly boasted in all his human weaknesses – multiple glad boasts (NOT complaints).
The apostle Paul’s happy boasting of his own weakness and Christ’s power is the practical and theological peak of his letter. Paul’s words were as astonishing then as they are now. They were countercultural, counter intuitive, and were considered effeminate to Greco-Roman culture. To the world around him, Paul’s life (much like the gospel message of crucifixion and resurrection) was more of a Greek tragedy than an epic hero’s tale. He understood that, yet he boasted on because he had been called to do so by the resurrected, ascended, and glorified Lamb of God (and Lion of Judah!).
Though his boasting was true and right under the circumstances, his discomfort rises to the surface again as he writes, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you” (v. 11a). Verses 11 through 13 or the conclusion of the “Fool’s Speech.” They also function as a transition from his so-called foolishness back to a pointed final argument for his apostolic authority and authenticity. He desperately wants to see his enemies accept his Apostolic authority before he shows up for his third visit, both for his sake and, above all, for the sake of their eternal souls.
APOSTOLIC SIGNS (11-12)
Paul rebukes his readers in verse 11b: “You forced me to it, for I ought to have been Commended by you”. This is ironic when we recall what he wrote in 3:2, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.” The Corinthians changed lives demonstrated Paul’s ministry was genuine. They were proof positive of his love for them. They were the center of his being, permanently written on his heart.
More than that, the Holy Spirit had written directly on the Corinthians hearts to make them letters from Christ delivered by Paul. Their failure to defend Paul was an inexcusable sin of silence. They should have been commending and defending, not complaining, and dissing him. They should have recognized the superiority of his ministry.
He writes in 11b-12, “For I was not at all inferior to these hyper-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” The apostle uses a verb tense that points to definite single actions with lasting effects, all pointing to Paul’s historic ministry in Corinth. “Paul is focusing the attention of the Corinthians on the fact and manner of the founding of the church in that place.” His use of the phrase “I am nothing” implies that, despite the signs and wonders he performed, the hyper-apostles were less than nothing. Paul is nothing because the powerful signs and wonders were from Christ, not Paul.
The phrase “signs and wonders” is an Old Testament term of art used in reference to God’s acts during the exodus to bring about the deliverance and salvation of His people. The phrase “mighty works” is a New Testament term of art for miracles. Used together, these phrases refer to the great spiritual exodus brought about by the perfectly-lived life, blood shedding atoning death, and resurrection of the ascended and glorified Messiah Jesus applied to the Corinthians by Paul’s preaching and received by them through the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ provided the fullness of the exodus from sin’s slavery to death.
Also important, Paul performed the apostolic signs “with utmost patience” (lit. “with all endurance”), that is, he did it despite all his afflictions. This also was the mark of true apostleship. As R. Kent Hughes writes:
It was not just the signs that proved his apostleship; it was that he did them under great stress with magnificent patience and perseverance. Astonishing apostolic fortitude!
The Corinthians had no excuse for their failure to stand with Paul. They were his letters written by the Holy Spirit and delivered by the power of Christ. His performance of the Apostolic signs and wonders and mighty works were delivered with the highest amount of endurance. But their silence reduced him to the humiliation of boasting. The very least they could have done was to affirm his Apostolic authority and conform themselves two Christ’s self-revelations rather than being swayed by worldly human observations.
APOSTOLIC SACRIFICE (13-18)
Verses 13-18 are deeply interpersonal and, indeed, animated (1) with references to “I … you” in every verse, (2) the emphatic “I” appearing in vv. 15–16, and (3) no less than five rhetorical questions (vv. 15, 17, 18 [twice], 19).
The apostle amps up the irony as he transitions to another proof of his authenticity. He refers to his sacrifice for them: “13 For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!” You can sense Paul’s frustration and hurt as he asks them to forgive him for working to support himself so as not to be a financial burden upon them. He asks their forgiveness for attempting to do good for them. Please forgive my selfless sacrifice. You can sense that Paul’s emotions are getting even more raw as he closes out this letter.
Paul’s admonishment bubbles up out of his aching heart as he watches some of his spiritual children wandering off into the weeds. In verses 14 and 15, he switched from irony to tenderness again:
14 Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.
These words set the standard for all true pastoral ministry. These are moving statements of his pastoral intent for his people. The words, “I seek not what is yours but you” are written with a dour glance at the hyper-apostles who leeched off the congregation (11:20). Paul wanted the anchored souls of the Corinthians, not their money. He longed to present all of them to Christ as a bride (11:2). The apostle identified with his Master, Messiah Jesus, who will present His bride the Church to the Father at the consummation of all things (Eph. 5:27).
As their spiritual father, Paul was driven by selfless, others-focused sacrifice. He wanted the congregation to trust Christ’s ordinary means of grace and not be distracted by the glitter and glamor of the hyper-apostles’ false teachings. As he further writes, “15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.” Again, that is the exact work of Christ as Paul described it in 8:9: “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he become poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Genuine new covenant ministry is selfless, seeking the spiritual welfare of others and gladly spending oneself for the benefit of others. This is true whenever you serve and whether you are serving believers or unbelievers. It is true whatever your vocation. Each and every believer is called to selflessness and others-focus regardless of what they do to pay the bills, regardless of being in church or out of church. It is the great requirement for authentic ministry. We are to joyously seek the best for others and gladly spend ourselves.
Paul willingly spent everything for the Corinthians. He spent all his energy and all his material resources. The price he paid was poverty, poor health, premature old age, and, ultimately, a martyr’s death. When the Lord Jesus Christ appeared in his heavenly glory to Saul Paulus of Tarsus, Paul knew that Jesus was God and that God had lived the perfect life Paul could never live and died the death Paul richly deserved. In light of that revelation no sacrifice was too great for Paul to make.
Paul authenticated his new covenant ministry by happily expending himself for others, even more than parents would for their own children. So, he asked the Corinthians, “15 …If I love you more, am I to be loved less?” How could the rebellious Corinthians not love Paul as a parent when his love for them exceeded parental bonds? Certainly, his love for them had not been fully returned.
The hyper-apostles and their followers had to concede Paul had not asked the congregation for financial support. Instead, they argued his self-employment was a scheme: “16 But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit.” They alleged that Paul only appeared to be a man of integrity and that his Jerusalem Relief Project was a ploy to line his own pockets. The false teachers didn’t want the Corinthians giving away money that could have gone to line their pockets. They imputed to Paul the very things they were doing to the gospel community. This was one of the reasons Paul called them servants of Satan (11:13-15).
So, Paul, the former temple prosecutor, undertakes some cross-examination: “17 Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?” It appears that Paul was being charged with receiving money indirectly when Titus and a respected brother from Macedonia arrived to collect for the great Jerusalem Relief Project. That makes it very likely these two men also took no personal support money from the Corinthians.
Paul’s apostolic ministry to the Corinthians was one of hard working, others-focused sacrifice from start to finish. He wanted nothing but their spiritual well-being. He spent himself in every possible way for their souls. He ministered like Christ, for Christ. Rejecting him was rejecting Christ himself.
APOSTOLIC FEARS (19-21)
Paul argued for the authentic nature of his ministry by his performance of signs and wonders, and by his sacrifices (personal, physical, and economic). Now he will add that his fears are also authenticating. He wants to cut off the accusation that this letter was a defensive, self-serving attempt to manipulate the congregation. So, he asks: “19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved.”
Obviously, Paul has been defending his Apostolic ministry, but not as a self-serving rant. He knows that when he speaks, he speaks literally “before God in Christ.” When Paul speaks or ministers or rights, he speaks not merely as Christ’s chosen representative but as one who serves before the throne of God who sees all and hears all. Everything Paul says he says under divine oath to build up his beloved congregation.
Because he so longs for their upbuilding he is fearful for them:
20 For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 21 I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.
Paul’s fears are completely pastoral. Being a true minister to people requires accepting both new happiness and new distress. To be others-focused means never being wholly sad or wholly happy. The cup of ministry is mixed with joy and sorrow. Paul was the spiritual physician present at the birth of this church. He endured numerous discomforts and dangers and sacrifices on their behalf. He loved them even beyond the love of a father for his children. So, he took joy in those who had repented and had sorrow over the prospect of coming to Corinth to exercise discipline on the unrepentant. Paul was inextricably joined to the highs and lows of his people.
During his second visit to Corinth, Paul encountered what he described in verse 20: “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.” He has a fear of finding the same things going on when he returns for his third visit. Even more, he fears what his course of action will have to be if he were to return to the same disorder. The Corinthians would not like the stern disciplinarian Paul would have to become. Since Paul has poured himself out for these people, he can think of nothing worse than having to cut some off from Christ’s Kingdom. His entire life was about bringing people to Jesus not about cutting people off from Jesus.
He expresses another genuine ministerial fear. “I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you….” The act of having to discipline members of the Corinthian congregation by publicly excluding them from the church would humiliate Paul even though it would authenticate his Apostolic power. Church discipline, rightly exercised, is never done for the sake of exerting power, but for the repentance and restoration of the rebellious. It is a sad occasion for those called to the care of souls. And it is humbling to realize that, but for the work of the Holy Spirit in you, you would be wandering off into the weeds of spiritual destruction yourself.
Such fears authenticated Paul’s ministry. They proved his genuine love and concern for this church he spent so much of his time and energy to plant. Such fears are others-focused, not self-focused. That’s what made Paul such an oddity to the hyper-apostles. What you see in this last section of the letter is a man firmly tethered to the ground by a thorn in the flesh that kept him humble, weak, and utterly Jesus-dependent – a man who acts and thinks contrary to his culture and to ours today.
But those are the markers of one who desires to follow Messiah Jesus. So, Paul writes to the little church at Philippi:
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 12:11–21.
 Barnett, 577.
 Hughes, R. Kent. 2 Corinthians. Crossway. Kindle Edition.
 Barnett, 583.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Php 3:7–11.