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Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, once observed that "the highest proof of virtue is to possess boundless power without abusing it." We have all seen authority abused in the church. "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (John E. E. Dalberg-Acton, Lord Acton). Those in positions of authority face great temptations to take advantage of the power inherent in their positions. It is rare indeed to find pastors or other church leaders deliberately holding back in the use of their authority. Anyone who shows such restraint should be applauded.
It was not so for Paul, though. He chose not to fully exercise his authority at Corinth, yet he was criticized for it. Why was this? Paul attributes it to the Corinthians' fascination with outward appearances (v. 7). The text literally reads, "You are looking only on the surface of things." That is, they were judging Paul and other itinerant missionaries by such externals as style, speaking ability and demeanor (compare 5:12). It is not much different today—equal, if not greater, value is placed on a speaker's imposing personality and oratorical skills. But appearances can be deceiving. Looking for a successor to Saul, Samuel went to the house of Jesse, where he saw Eliab and thought, "Surely is the LORD's anointed stands here." In bearing and stature Eliab was presumably not unlike Saul, who had come from a family of some standing in the community and was a head taller than any other Israelite (that is, physically he was of kingly stature). But Eliab was not the Lord's choice. Samuel was told, "Do not consider his appearance or his height . . . [For mortals look] at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (see 1 Sam 16:6-7).
By external appearances, Paul's rivals possessed a number of laudable credentials. They boasted an impeccable heritage (11:21-22), possessed first-rate letters of reference (3:1-3), laid claim to extraordinary and visionary experiences (12:1, 12), were skillful speakers (10:10; 11:6), exhibited erudition (11:6) and exuded a take-charge aura (11:20; see the introduction). On the face of things, these are admirable credentials. But what Paul's rivals did with their credentials was hardly admirable. For they used them as measuring sticks for determining whether a person did or did not belong to Christ. The phrase is literally "to be of Christ" (Christou einai, v. 7). The genitive could be possessive—"to belong to Christ," that is, to be Christ's person in a special way. Or it could define source—"to be from Christ," that is, to serve as Christ's authorized spokesperson. The latter provides the best connection in the context, where the demand is for Paul to provide proof that Christ is speaking through him (13:3).
Paul faces a catch-22 situation at Corinth. When he downplays or makes little of his credentials, the genuineness of his apostleship is questioned (v. 7). But when he emphasizes his apostolic authority, he is accused of being overly boastful (v. 8). Hastily drawn conclusions based on externals have led some to question whether Paul is in fact Christ's representative (v. 7). Tis ("anyone") is Paul's usual way of referring to intruding missionaries, who are attempting to displace him at Corinth by raising questions about his apostolic credentials (compare 3:1; 10:2, 7, 12; 11:20). The fact that they claim to be Christ's spokespersons may indicate that they were commissioned by Jesus during his earthly ministry (or perhaps by the Twelve) and thus consider themselves to possess a superior right to such a claim. Whatever their relationship to Christ, it is a source of special pride to them (v. 7). But Paul's authority is in no way inferior to theirs. Indeed his authority equals, if not exceeds, theirs, for he was commissioned by the risen Christ himself (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:104). Moreover, while Paul himself admits that he does not cultivate an impressive bearing or polished speech, in all other respects he can match the opposition point for point (11:21—12:6).
So Paul challenges the Corinthians to look once again at the facts (logizestho, "let a person reckon"), which when considered carefully can yield no other conclusion than we belong to Christ just as much as they (v. 7). Some might say that this is just another example of Paul talking big in his letters (v. 10). To this allegation Paul responds that he does boast somewhat freely about his authority (v. 8)—or, perhaps more accurately, "a little more than I should" (perissoteron ti; Bratcher 1983:107). Yet unlike his rivals, he cannot be charged with exaggeration. For his boasts can be substantiated from the results of his ministry. The authority that the Lord gave him builds up, whereas his rivals have done nothing since coming to Corinth but pull down (v. 8). Oikodome ("upbuilding") is a favorite term that Paul uses for the church's growth toward spiritual maturity (Rom 14:19; 15:2; 1 Cor 14:3, 5, 12, 26; 2 Cor 10:8; 12:19; Eph 4:12, 16, 29). It lays emphasis on the process of construction, whether it be laying the foundation of a new church (1 Cor 3:10) or erecting the walls of a more established congregation (Eph 2:21). What Paul denies doing with his authority is pulling . . . down (katheiresis). The authority that he received from Christ was for constructive, not destructive, purposes (eis + accusative). Has Paul been accused of such a thing? Words such as "bold," weighty and forceful may well imply an abuse of authority (10:2, 10). It is more likely, however, that "pull down" is Paul's countercharge. He builds up. His opponents tear down. He establishes. They try to undermine his work (10:13-14) and subvert the faith of his converts (11:1-4).
Paul's language echoes that of Jeremiah 1:10 and 24:6. Jeremiah was appointed over nations and kingdoms to "uproot and tear down [kathelo], to destroy and overthrow, to build [anoikodomeo] and to plant." Paul's intent, however, is to build up the Corinthians and not tear them down. Nevertheless, if need be he will not hesitate to do in person what his critics claim he can attempt only at a safe distance.
Paul refrains from pursuing this point lest he appear to be trying to frighten the Corinthians with his letters (v. 9). The verb is a strong one (ek + phobeo intensifies the root). Some at Corinth think that he is aiming not merely to frighten but to terrify them into obedience. This, they claim, he does through the use of weighty and forceful letters (v. 10). If there is a difference between the too adjectives, it is that barys denotes the weightiness or heaviness of something (compare 4:17) while ischyros refers to brute strength. The Jerusalem Bible's "he writes strongly worded and powerful letters" catches the sense.
In person, however, it is alleged that Paul is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing (v. 10). The text is literally, "His presence is of bodily weakness." This is probably more than a statement about his physique. Today we would say that he lacks presence. Patristic tradition bears this out. A presbyter in the province of Asia during the second century described Paul as "a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness" (Acts of Paul and Thecla 3). That Paul was physically impaired in some way is suggested by his reference in 12:7 to a stake in his flesh which rendered him "weak" (astheneia) and led him to pray on three separate occasions for the Lord to take it away from him (12:8-9).
In the eyes of some, Paul's speaking ability was nothing to brag about either. The NIV's amounts to nothing is somewhat weak. The term Paul's opponents actually used was "contemptible" (exouthenemenos)—although the Living Bible's "You have never heard a worse preacher!" might be stretching it. Were they justified? Paul himself admits that he eschewed eloquence and rhetoric when preaching the gospel. It was not that he lacked the training. As a boy growing up in Tarsus and as a young man studying under Rabbi Gamaliel, he would have learned rhetoric as a routine part of his education. Nor did he lack the ability, as his letters eloquently attest. It was rather that he resolved to "know nothing" among the Corinthians "except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2) and "Jesus Christ as Lord" (2 Cor 4:5).
Although Paul does not write with the intent to frighten the Corinthians, he does write to secure their obedience (Bruce 1971:232). And if that is not forthcoming through forceful words, he is more than able to secure it through a forceful presence. Such a person should realize, Paul says, that what we are in our letters, . . . we will be in our actions. In short, what he is in print he will indubitably be in person. The term translated "realize" (logizomai) means "to draw a logical conclusion" from a given set of facts (Eichler 1978:822-23). Those who criticize Paul for writing one way and acting another way have not adequately considered the facts. Paul prefers to come to them in love and with a gentle spirit. But if they push him to it, he will come with a rod (1 Cor 4:21).