Bible Book List
2 Corinthians 10 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Legitimate Spheres of Boasting

Fairly strict plagiarism laws exist to keep people from passing off the ideas or words of others as their own. But what about the ministry? How do we prevent others from taking credit for our labors? Or should the Christian worker even be concerned about this? Is not the important thing that Christ is preached, so that who does the preaching is of little significance (Phil 1:18)? Yet here in 2 Corinthians 10:12-18 Paul is concerned about this very thing. Itinerant preachers have come to Corinth and are taking credit for his apostolic labors: We are not going too far (as others are doing, v. 14) and we do not boast about work already done in another's territory (v. 15).

What is at stake for Paul is something more than pride of place. Today people often strive to get ahead in the workplace by raising doubts about the viability or integrity of the competition. Paul's opponents did this by saying that he possessed inferior credentials, thereby calling into question the authenticity of his ministry at Corinth. Their superior credentials, on the other hand, gave them the right to set the Corinthians straight about Paul and to claim credit for getting the church on the right track. There is every evidence that the Corinthians were listening to them (11:19-20). What the church failed to see, however, was that to raise doubts about Paul's ministry at Corinth was in effect to raise doubts about the viability of their own existence as a congregation. Simply put, if the validity of the preacher is called into question, then the content of the preaching also becomes suspect, and any congregation founded on that preaching is questionable.

In verses 12-18 Paul cuts to the heart of the problem by showing the Corinthians what the opposition is really after. It is not, to be sure, the spiritual welfare of the Corinthians. Their real goal is, instead, to expand their sphere of influence by encroaching on the territory of others and going beyond the boundaries God himself had established.

To demonstrate this, Paul goes on the offensive at verse 12 and levels three charges against his opponents. The first charge is that they lack basic intelligence. They use themselves as the standard by which they gauge their respective ministries, and then they take great satisfaction in finding that they always measure up (they measure themselves by themselves, v. 12). In so doing they give every evidence of not being very bright (they are not wise, v. 12). We, on the other hand, do not dare to classify or compare ourselves (v. 12). There is a play on words here that is easily lost in translation. Enkrino (classify), found only here in the New Testament, means "to admit or accept into the same rank or class," while synkrino (compare) means "to compare" or "measure" against something of equal value. The New English Bible's "We do not dare class or compare ourselves with any of those who put forward their own claims" is a fair rendering of the Greek. To this extent Paul's critics are correct in calling him "timid." He is by far too shy to engage in the self-admiration maneuvers of the opposition. Actually, the term Paul uses is even stronger. He does not dare, a verb that means "to make bold" or "to presume" in a bad sense.

Breach of contract is the second charge Paul levels against the opposition. We . . . will not boast beyond proper limits, he states (v. 13). The term ametros (limits) means "to be without boundary or measure" and refers to the unmeasured boasting of the opposition. Paul, by contrast, confines his boasting to "the measure of the field God measured" to him "as a measure" (a literal translation of v. 13). The Greek is intentionally redundant. Paul worked within clearly defined boundaries; his opponents did not. Paul defines these boundaries as a kanwe ("field")--the Greek term from which we derive our English word "canon." Kanwn in Hellenistic Greek was a rod or bar employed for testing the straightness of something--somewhat like our plumb line. It came to be used figuratively of the rule or standard by which something was measured. For example, in Galatians 6:16 it refers to the "standard" by which Christian conduct is measured, while here in 2 Corinthians 10:13-16 it denotes the divine "yardstick" (JB) or "tape measure" used to establish the boundaries of a ministry field.

These boundaries were not of Paul's own making. They were boundaries that he and the "pillars" of the Jerusalem church agreed on during his second postconversion visit to Jerusalem. Paul was to preach to the Gentiles, and James, Peter and John were to go to the Jews (Gal 2:9)--a division that accords with Paul's own apostolic commissioning (Rom 1:5; 15:15-16; Gal 1:16; 1 Tim 2:7). It was an agreement based on recognition of divinely established spheres of ministry. God was seen to be at work in Paul's ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles and in Peter's ministry as an apostle to the Jews (Gal 2:7-8). So in coming to Corinth and treating this Gentile city as a legitimate sphere of ministry, the Jewish Christian missionaries were violating the evangelistic division of labor agreed on by Paul and the mother church almost eight years earlier (see the introduction).

But how did Paul know that Corinth was included in his rightful field? Were all Gentiles ipso facto considered to be his sole domain and all Jews a forbidden target group? That this was not the case is clear from the fact that his own evangelistic strategy involved an initial outreach in the synagogue (Acts 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:2, 10; 18:4; 19:8). And while his commission was to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, it was Paul's unwavering policy to preach only in unevangelized Gentile areas so as not to build on another's foundation (Rom 15:18-20). So the Corinthians became part of his field not merely because they were predominantly Gentile but because he was the first apostle to reach them with the gospel (ephthasamen; 2 Cor 10:14).

Paul has sometimes been accused of operating as a "lone ranger" evangelist who jealously guarded his turf and could not tolerate trespassers. But this was not at all the case. While he took seriously divisions of labor and allotted fields, he nonetheless viewed the task of evangelism as a cooperative effort, much like farming, where, as colaborers, one "plants" and another "waters"--but, in this case, it is "as the Lord has assigned" (1 Cor 3:5-9). Nor did Paul share the apostolic task grudgingly. He clearly welcomed others as colaborers.

The distinction lies in his understanding of authority. For while Paul can conceive of colaboring, he cannot admit the idea of coauthority. Authority, for Paul, resides in the father-child relationship that is established through the church-planting process. It is because Paul reached Corinth first with the gospel that he can address the Corinthians as "dear children" (1 Cor 4:14). It is this begetting "through the gospel" that gives him the right to ask his converts to "imitate" him (4:15-16) and explains the care Paul takes, in turn, to respect Peter's assigned field among the Jews (Gal 2:7) and James's evangelistic efforts in Jerusalem (Acts 21:20-26).

This points up Paul's third charge: boasting of work done by others (2 Cor 10:14-15). The term kopos (work), literally a "striking" or "beating," denotes labor that is physically exhausting. Paul applies the term to both his trade as a worker of goat's-hair cloth (for example, 1 Cor 4:12; 1 Thess 2:9; 2 Thess 3:8) and his missionary labors (as in 2 Cor 10:15)--although the too are connected, since he plied a trade so as not to be a financial burden on his churches (2 Thess 3:8).

It is difficult to know what exactly the Corinthian intruders were taking credit for. They certainly did not discredit the Corinthians' conversion and seek to rebuild the church from its foundation up. It is more likely from 2 Corinthians 11:22 that they claimed spiritual jurisdiction over Corinth because of their superior pedigree ("Are they Hebrews? . . . Israelites? . . . Abraham's descendants?"). In addition, they challenged Paul's right to offer authoritative spiritual direction, given what they felt to be his questionable apostolic standing ("Are they servants of Christ? . . . I am more," 11:23).

Another difficulty for Paul was that he operated in accordance with a clearly thought-out evangelistic strategy that was being compromised by the Corinthian intruders. Verses 15-16 provide us with a concise summary of this strategy: Our hope, he tells the Corinthians, is that, as your faith continues to grow, our area of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. There were too parts to Paul's strategy. Part one was to significantly expand his area of activity among his converts (v. 15). It was Paul's practice to focus his evangelistic efforts on the large urban centers with a view to enlarging his sphere of authority to outlying areas (megalynthenai kata ton kanona) through the evangelistic efforts of his converts (en hymin). This was only possible to the extent that the faith of his converts continued to grow (2 Cor 10:15). Paul could be using faith in reference to a set body of beliefs. If so, he would be saying that growth in knowledge is a necessary prerequisite to evangelistic outreach. But growth in faith more likely refers to maturity of Christian life. As the Corinthians' commitment to Christ and to the demands of the gospel matured, outreach to those around them would quite naturally follow. Paul defines the kind of outreach he envisions as "greatly expanding our area of activity." The Greek is actually "to be enlarged [megalynthenai] to a great extent [eis perisseian] in accordance with our field [kata ton kanona hemwn]." Paul hopes to greatly expand his ministry, but within the limits of the field assigned to him.

If the outreach effort of the Ephesian church is any indication, this kind of expansion occurred through the parenting of a number of churches in outlying areas (Col 1:7; 4:15-16). Paul included within his "field" churches in Asia Minor that he had not personally planted (for example, see Col 1:5-7). Given his policy of not building on another's foundation, it is reasonable to assume that he could include these churches because they had been planted by his converts. All told, three churches were established in this fashion (Laodicea, Hierapolis and Colossae). Paul now holds out the same hope for Corinth.

Part too of Paul's strategy was to preach the gospel in the regions beyond them (2 Cor 10:16). A significant time would be spent stabilizing a recently planted congregation, with the hope of using the newly formed church as a base of operation for outreach into "regions beyond." In the case of Corinth, regions beyond may have included other parts of the Balkan peninsula, like Dalmatia and Panonia to the northwest (Illyricum; Rom 15:19) and Moesia and Dacia to the north. But by the time Paul wrote Romans, he had set his sights on Spain and the western Mediterranean, for which the Roman church would serve geographically as a more appropriate base (Rom 15:24-28).

Consolidation, however, precedes advance (M. J. Harris 1976:384). Up to this point Paul has been expending all his energy in consolidating his sphere of authority in Corinth, so that he has been unable to reach beyond it in any significant way. The fact that he phrases his goal of expansion as a hope, rather than an accomplished fact, is a subtle reminder to the Corinthians that by not backing him, they are hampering the advance of the gospel.

The Corinthian intruders were quick to boast about work already done in another man's territory (v. 16). Paul, on the other hand, did not even claim credit for what occurred in his own territory, let alone the territory of others. If any boasting is to be done, it should be done in the Lord (Let him who boasts boast in the Lord, v. 17). The Old Testament quote in verse 17 is thought to come from Jerermiah 9:24 ("Let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me"; compare 1 Kingdoms 2:10). It appears as well in 1 Corinthians 1:31 as a corrective to boasting in personal achievements or pride of place (Bruce 1971:234). Here it is a corrective to taking credit for what others have accomplished.

Paul will go on in chapters 11--12 to boast about his pedigree, ministerial achievements and ecstatic experiences--but only because he feels pressured to do so. Even so, the ultimate credit goes to God, and it is God's approval--and his alone--that counts (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:104). Some Christian workers are like the woodpecker who was pecking on the trunk of a dead tree one day when lightning struck the tree and splintered it. Not realizing what had happened, the proud bird exclaimed, "Look what I did!"

Previous commentary:
A Proper Use of Authority

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.