Posts Tagged ‘Corinthian Church’

Wisdom of This World and the Wisdom of God

September 8, 2014

1. Problems in the Corinthian church:
– Groupism (1.11-12): These groups are formed around influential figures such as Peter, Apollos, Paul. The members are boasting about their leaders (3.21). They are“puffed up in favour of one against another” (I Cor. 4.6). They are involved in comparing their leader with other leaders.
– There was also quarrelling and jealousy in the church (I Cor. 3.3).

2. Root cause for this situation

I Cor 1.17 “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”

In this verse Paul mentions “wisdom” for the first time. The words “wisdom” and “wise” occur over twenty five times in the first three chapters. Paul calls the wisdom mentioned in 1.17 as “wisdom of word (eloquent wisdom)” (1.17), “wisdom of the world” (1.20), “human wisdom” (1.25, 2.13), “wisdom of this age” (2.6), and “wisdom of the rulers of this age” (2.6).

This is the wisdom which Corinthians claim to be possessing: in 3.18 Paul says “If you think that you are wise in this age…For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

What is this “wisdom”?

“Wisdom” refers to rhetorical wisdom, which is characterised by eloquence and logic – logical and clever arguments, rhetorical skills or oratorical skills. Wealthy people and people of high status learned rhetorical wisdom. In the Greco-Roman society rhetorical wisdom indicates high socio-economic status. This is a highly valued feature for recognition and reputation.

That means human wisdom had connotations of importance or worth or valuable in the Greco-Roman society. In other words, there is a social value and power associated with this kind of wisdom (I Cor. 2.5 cf. 1.17). Thus, it constituted a social definition of power rooted in the values cultivated by those in the society, who had wealth, status and honour.

The Corinthian church has made “human wisdom” its value. That means, wealth, status and nobility acquired significance in the church. Thus, the church allowed the value system of the outside society to control its life. The influence of the Greek rhetorical wisdom made them to value wealth, power and status. That means, the root cause for factionalism in the Corinthian church is the influence of the value system of the outside society. The result is “quarrelling and jealousy” within the church (3.3) and “boasting about human leaders” (3.21) or “puffing up in favour of one against the other” (4.6).
What do their present behaviour and value system signify?

I Cor. 3.1-4

Paul charges that “jealousy and quarrelling” among them express that they are “of flesh” and “behaving according to human inclinations” (3.3). The literal translation is “walking according to man”. Their sloganeering conveys that they are “merely human” (3.4). In Paul’s letters “walking” usually refers to one’s way of living or lifestyle (cf. 7.17). Their behaviour confirms that they are “people of the flesh” (3.1).

“Flesh” refers to “this worldly existence” or living with the perspective and value system of this world. That is why human wisdom has become valuable in the church.

“Wisdom” is in contrast with God’s wisdom

Paul says that human wisdom is in contrast with God’s wisdom. In I Cor. 1.17 Paul contrasts the “wisdom of word” with the cross of Christ. Paul explains this contrast from 1.18 onwards. That is why v. 18 starts with “For”. In 1.18-2.16 Paul elaborates on this contrast by making a series of arguments.

Paul wants to make them realise that their present perspective and value system associated with the human wisdom are in contradiction to God’s perspective and value system: I Cor. 1.18-2.5

1. Paul first turns their attention to the content of the gospel, which is the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ is “foolishness” and “weakness” for the human wisdom, whereas it is “wisdom of God” and “power of God” (1.18, 23-25).

2. Then he turns their attention to Corinthians themselves whom God has called (1.26-28). Paul is asking them, “Consider your own call”. Although this refers to their call to salvation, Paul is concerned more about their status at the time of their call. I Cor. 1.26 “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” “Human standards” qualifies all three – wise, powerful and noble birth.

God chose what was considered “foolish” “weak”, and “low” by human standards (1.27-28). That means, when God called them he did not show any regard to their present value system – human wisdom, wealth, status and nobility. That means, God’s perspective and value system are different from their present perspective and value system.

3. Paul turns their attention to the basis of their faith when they first heard the gospel (2.1-5).

Paul gives the existence of Corinthians as Christians as an evidence for the power of the gospel of the crucified Christ. He says, it was not his rhetorical skills that persuaded them (2.4). He further says, “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (2.3). However, his proclamation was “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2.5). Here “Spirit” and “power” are not two separate words. Paul uses these two words interchangeably. To speak of spirit means to speak of power. So here, it is not “spirit and power” but “spirit, that is, power”. The evidence for the power of the Spirit in the gospel of the crucified Christ lies in the very conversion of the Corinthians.

Paul tries to make Corinthians to see that their own existence as Christians stands in total contradiction to their present perspective, value system and conduct.

So, what is evident in the Corinthian church?

In I Cor 2.1-2 Paul says, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

In I Cor 2.2 Paul uses the word “Know” (oida). The same word is used in II Cor. 5.16: “From now on, therefore, we know no one from a human point view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”

What Paul is talking about, here, is two mutually exclusive bases of knowledge. Our perspective and value system come from the basis of knowledge. One of the bases is “flesh”. Before conversion Paul had “flesh” as the basis of his knowledge. Paul viewed Jesus Christ from this perspective. He saw crucified Christ as one cursed by God. That was why he rejected Jesus Christ as God’s messiah and so persecuted the church. However, his conversion changed the basis of his knowledge. Now the basis of his knowledge is “the cross of Jesus Christ”. His perspective and value system are based on the cross of Christ. That is why for Paul, the crucified Christ is the wisdom and power of God.

So what is the problem of Corinthians? I call this epistemological crisis. Even though the message of the crucified Christ has led them to faith, their basis of knowledge is not the cross of Christ, but flesh.

That means, there is an existential tension in the Corinthian church as a result of trying to live in two diametrically opposite worlds (I Cor. 3.1).


The Centrality of the Cross in the Apostleship of Paul

November 3, 2009

One of the issues that Paul addresses in his two letters to the Church at Corinth, a Roman colony, is the character of leadership in the Church. Paul presents his view of leadership/apostleship in response to the Corinthians’ criticism of his apostleship basing on their perception of leadership. In his arguments characterizing his apostleship, he refers to the turn of the ages realized through the cross of Christ.[1] Therefore, the focus of this article is how the cross or the death of Christ is intrinsically associated with the existence of Paul and his ministry in I and II Corinthians.

The Cross of Christ: An Epistemological Turning Point

A fundamental theme that coheres I&II Corinthians is the character of Paul’s apostleship. Paul explicates this in response to the Corinthians’ perception of apostleship and their criticism against his ministry characterized by sufferings or “weakness”. Paul’s lack of “words of wisdom” and his “weakness” were contrary to their perception of apostleship (I Cor. 2.2-4; 4.10; II Cor. 10.10; 11.30; 12.9-10).  In II Corinthians it is evident that the criticism against Paul’s apostolic ministry is instigated by the “super apostles” because it did not conform to their criteria for what constituted apostolic ministry (II Cor. 2.14-6.10). The “super-apostles” had considerable influence in the Corinthian church, with their ecstatic visions, miracle-working powers, and oratorical skills (II Cor. 10.10; 11.6;12.12). Their perception of a true apostle is based on the “face” or outward appearance (II Cor. 5.12). On the basis of this criterion, the “face” of Paul is weak and inferior, not glorious like their “faces”. They boast en prosōpō, which Paul terms as boasting kata sarka (II Cor. 11.18).[2] Thus, their criticism of Paul based on the standards kata sarka is directed mainly at the character of Paul’s apostolic ministry, namely “weakness” or suffering (II Cor. 4.7-12; 6.3-10; 10.10; 11.5-6; 11. 23-30; 12.5-10; 13. 3-4) and lack of perceptible ecstatic manifestations of the Spirit (II Cor. 5.12-13; 12.12).[3] What the Corinthians questioning Paul about is the apparent incompatibility of the gospel of power and his “weakness” or sufferings. So Paul wants to explain to Corinthians “why his apostleship took the form it did”.[4] In view of this Paul directs their attention to the eschatological significance of the death of Christ.

In II Corinthians Paul, for the first time, mentions the death of Christ in the context of the “unglorious” character of his ministry: persecuted, afflicted, perplexed, and struck down (II Cor. 4.8-12 cf. I Cor. 4.9-13). He again refers to the death of Christ in order to give ground for the Corinthians to answer “those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart” and to be proud of his ministry (II Cor. 5.12-15). As mentioned above, the perception of the opponents, as well as that of the Corinthians, is that the visible ecstasy is a sign of apostleship. By contrasting those who boast en prosōpō with those who boast en kardia, Paul indicates the inappropriateness of the perception and the criteria of the former group. This is more obvious in II Cor. 12.1-12 where Paul says that even though he too could claim “signs of a true apostle” such as “signs, wonders and mighty works,” and boast about the “visions and revelations of the Lord”, instead he boasts in his “weaknesses”. He validates the character of his ministry by appealing to the death of Christ: “he died for all” (II Cor.5.15). For Paul, the love of Christ manifested in Christ dying “for all” controls him. This love expressed by the cross of Christ is defined as existence for others (II Cor. 5.15; cf. Gal. 2.20; Rom. 14-15).[5]   

Paul points out that  the death of Christ has brought a change in his (and his associates’) perception: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view, even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way” (II Cor. 5.16). Some of the scholars like Alfred Plummer and Rudolf Bultmann take  kata sarka[6] adjectivally, thus modifying christen. This interpretation implies that in II Cor. 5.16 Paul is referring to “fleshly Christ”. On the other hand, scholars like C.K. Barrett and J. Louis Martyn, support adverbial meaning of kata sarka. Furnish points out that “whenever Paul does construe kata sarka with a noun or pronoun (Rom. 1.3; 4.1; 9.3, 5; I Cor. 1.26; 10.18), the phrase follows the noun, whereas here kata sarka precedes the proper noun, Christ.”[7] Moreover, Paul in II Cor. 2.14-6.10, is mainly concerned with the turn of ages that the death of Christ has brought and the perception associated with the old age and that of the age initiated by the Christ event.[8] Therefore, Paul, in II Cor. 5.16, is not concerned with Christology, but rather with epistemology. He wants to point out to the Corinthians that the death of Christ has brought an epistemological crisis. This is not a private event relating to Paul and his associates, but, as II Cor. 5.16-17 shows, it is an event of cosmic proportions.[9] Kainē ktisis taken in the context of II Cor. 2.14-6.10 as well as the background of the expression in Judaism (I En. 72.1; Jub. 4.26; IQS iv. 25; IQH xi 10-14) has mainly the eschatological meaning. So “now” in II Cor. 5.16 refers to the “eschatological now”. Paul is saying that there are two ways of knowing and it is the eschatological event of the cross of Christ that separates these two ways of knowing: one is, “knowing kata sarka”, and the other “knowing kata stauron”. Kata sarka is associated with the old age and Paul, in the past, knew Christ in that way. Paul says that this way of knowing is past for the one who is in Christ. But Paul’s opponents are boasting kata sarka (II Cor. 11.18 cf. 5.12).

It is often understood that the opposite of kata sarka is kata pneuma. However, Martyn persuasively argues that Paul does not actually use this expression nor does the one he has employed in I Cor. 2.14, “to discern spiritually” (anakrinein pneumatikōs). Martyn suggests that this could be due to the misinterpretation by the Corinthians of his reference to such a remark in his first letter. So the other way of knowing is, what Martyn calls, “the way of knowing which is granted at the juncture (or turn) of the ages”, i.e. “knowing kata stauron.”[10] The eschatological event of the death of Christ determines the believers’ perception of reality, which is contrary to the perception kata sarka. Martyn explains that “those who recognize their life to be God’s gift at the juncture of ages recognize also that until they are completely and exclusively in the new age, their knowing by the Spirit can occur only in the form of knowing by the power of the cross.”[11] This is confirmed by the “eschatological now” (‘now’ in II Cor. 5.16) of the believers’ existence and the wider context in which Paul has been discussing the character of apostleship, where he has characterized his apostleship as a “carrying in the body the death of Jesus” and “being given up to death for Jesus” (II Cor. 4.10-11). As Christ is regarded now only as a crucified one, so from now on those who are in Christ are to be judged not kata sarka but only kata stauron.[12] In other words, it is the cross which determines the character of the new creation. The presence of a new creation means that the old-age standards, such as wisdom, power, nobility according to the standards of the old age, are not valid (I Cor. 1.26-29). Paul’s reference to the ‘new creation’ in II Cor. 5.17 is polemical and with it he confronts those in the Corinthian community who are following the old age norms, particularly to judge the leaders (II Cor. 10.1-11). In the new creation, contends Paul, no one is judged kata sarka.[13]

Therefore, the problem of the Corinthians is their epistemology, where they failed to perceive in the cross of Christ the epistemological turning point. They also failed to understand that in the new creation the standards and the conduct that characterize the old age are inappropriate. The fundamental eschatological reality is that Christians stand at the juncture (or turn) of the ages. Paul maintains that the understanding of this eschatological reality determines one’s perception of Christ and inferentially of Paul’s apostolic existence and ministry. For a believer there is a new way of perceiving the reality, that is, the way of “knowing kata stauron” and a new value system and so the perception and the value system kata sarka are inappropriate.

The Cross of Christ: Its Intrinsic Association with Paul’s Apostleship

Paul has perceived his vocation, received from God, as “the call to engage in the eschatological struggle at the juncture of the ages,”[14] where some are being saved and others are perishing (I Cor. 1.18; II Cor. 2.14-16). This realization of his vocation has shaped the character of Paul’s apostolic ministry. In contrast to Paul, the Corinthian believers, particularly the opponents of Paul, want to avoid that crucial juncture and its struggle by associating themselves with the accepted pattern of perception, values and behaviour in the Greco-Roman society. Thus, they live in the “old age”, as though the eschatological event in the cross of Christ has not yet taken place. Paul charges them that they are sarkikoi, i.e. “the people of the present age”[15] and are behaving kata anthrōpon, particularly regarding the leadership in the Corinthian church (I Cor. 3.3-4).

The following characteristics of the leadership in the Greco-Roman society indicate how it has influenced the perception of leadership in the Corinthian church:[16]

1. The personality-centered politics is a characteristic of the Greco-Roman society. The underlying dynamics is that of inequality of relationships: the superior (or the leaders) and the inferior (or the common people). The inferior are dependent on the superior for their survival, and so associate themselves with the latter. Plutarch succinctly indicates the benefit of associating with the one having reputation: “But the safe and leisurely way has been chosen by many famous men…For just as ivy rises by twining itself about a strong tree, so each of these men, by attaching himself while still young to an older man and while still obscure to a man of reputation, being gradually raised up under the shelter of his power and growing great with him, fixed himself firmly and rooted himself in the affairs of the state” (Plutarch, Moralia 805 E-F). The superior, thus, cultivate a large following of subordinate adherents to enhance their own status in the society.

The personality-centered politics in the Corinthian church is reflected in the slogans of the members: “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas” (I Cor. 1.12). This is reinforced by their “boasting about human leaders” (I Cor. 3.21) and being “puffed up in favor of one against another” (I Cor. 4.6). A secular understanding of the elevated position of leadership and thus the underlying distinctions in rank and status between the members in the church and the ‘apostolic’ figures like Paul, Cephas and Apollos made the members to be associated with one or the other of these figures for their own advantage. They considered it important for them to be patronized by one of the “apostolic” figures. Such an attitude of patronage towards the relationships within the church is strongly denounced by Paul (I Cor.1.11-17; 3.1-23). Paul exhorts that this perception of relationships within the church is symptomatic of “the present age”, which has resulted in eris and zylos, even though, he says, the Corinthian believers’ very identity and existence are grounded in the cross of Christ, which is the power of God that saved them from the “present age” (I Cor. 1.18). Therefore, their social value system is associated to the “present age”.  

2. The socio-cultural ethos of the Greco-Roman society involved an obsession with status. Because of the gulf between the minority of the wealthy and powerful elite, and the great mass of the poor, the Greco-Roman society was preoccupied with status.[17] The distinctive language Paul uses highlights such a situation in the Corinthian church: “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (I Cor. 1.26). The features of social status, such as wealth, power, nobility, and wisdom, are considered to be important criteria for the leadership in the society (cf. I Cor. 1.26-28).[18] Philo in his treatise That the Worse is Wont to Attack the Better, comments on the lifestyle of the ruling classes of Alexandria: “Those who take care of themselves are men of reputation, rich, leaders, men in the enjoyment of praise and honour; moreover, they are healthy, stout, and vigorous; living delicately, nursed in luxury, strangers to labour, living in the constant company of pleasure, and using all their outward senses to bring delights to the soul…” (X, 34). Thus, the qualities such as reputation, wealth, and honor are important for leadership.  

Few “wise”, “powerful” and “noble born” Corinthian Christians (I Cor.1.26) measured their value and worth and of others in terms of the accepted secular standards of high rank and status (I Cor. 4.18). Sophia logou or sophia anthrōpōn “had connotations of power in the sense of importance or worth” in the Greco-Roman society.[19] In other words, there is a social value and power associated with “words of wisdom” or “human wisdom” or “wisdom of this age and of rulers of this age” (I Cor. 2.5 cf. 1.17).[20] This is a highly valued feature for recognition and reputation: “Indicative of this wisdom is the significance placed on the social class and the importance of boasting in the establishment of personal reputation” (I Cor. 1.20-22, 29; 2.6).[21] Thus, it constituted a social definition of power rooted in the values cultivated by those in the society, who had wealth, status and honor. This led to leadership crisis, which consequently resulted in serious divisions within the Corinthian community. Instead of offering a bit of conflict management to reconcile the warring parties, Paul affirms the message of the cross as a critique of human wisdom. Human wisdom is bound to misconstrue the character of God and the way God works in the world, and a community’s behavior based on human inclinations, not surprisingly, results in jealousy and factionalism (I Cor. 3:3-4). The Corinthians must readjust their vision. They must come to a different way of viewing God and their life together. Thus Paul points to the message of the crucified Christ as the wisdom and power of God.

3. An accepted aspect of leadership in the Greco-Roman society was self-promotion.[22] On the one hand, leaders would elevate themselves, and on the other hand, their followers, with certain element of self-interest, would praise them. Self-promotion as an important tool for social status is clearly pointed out by Plutarch: “There are the feelings and language to which we are prompted not only by stratiōtai and the neoploutoi with their flaunting and ostentatious talk, but also by sophistai, philosophoi and stratēgoi who are full of their own importance and hold forth on the theme” (Plutarch, Moralia, 547 E). In the Corinthian church such “boasting” was also a part of the leadership dynamic. Boasting not only on the basis of the prevailing social norms such as wisdom, but also about human leaders was very much evident in the church (I Cor. 1.20, 29; 3.21). 

4. Enmity, in Roman politics, was a tool of self-promotion and self-preservation. It was seen as a necessary evil in self-advancement.[23] D.F. Epstein, in his book Personal Enmity in Roman Politics explores the importance of enmity for successful politics within the Roman world. Paul rebukes Corinthians for “jealousy and quarrelling” and terms it as belonging to those who are “of the flesh” (I Cor. 3.3).

Therefore, the existential tension in the Corinthian church is a result of trying to live in two diametrically opposed social worlds (I Cor. 3.1). This tension must have been more for those who were “wise”, “powerful” and of “noble birth” according to the standards of “this age” (I Cor. 1.26; 4.8, 10). For them, to pattern their perception, values and conduct kata stauron would mean shame and weakness, for the message of the cross is foolishness to the “wisdom of this age or…rulers of this age” (I Cor. 1.18, 21-23; 2.6). Hengel says that the cross was considered to be a “particularly cruel and shameful death, which as a rule was reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves and rebels against the Roman state.”[24] He goes on to say that “the word of cross” “ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people.”[25] The cross of Christ and its proclamation would have been foolishness to and was surely considered despicable in the prevailing Greco-Roman culture. So the cross and the value system associated with it are a scandal to the wider society. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine why Corinthians, particularly the elite and the powerful in the church, followed the perception of the wider community with regards to the leadership in the church.

Paul, on the other hand, finds his calling in the eschatological centrality of the cross. He finds himself standing at the juncture of ages engaging in God’s eschatological struggle to liberate and reconcile the world (II Cor. 5.18-20). He uses an image to describe his apostolic ministry in 1 Cor 4:9: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals,” to challenge the “kingly” (I Cor. 4:8) style of leadership highly valued by the Corinthians.[26] He uses a similar image in II Cor. 2.14-16: “[T]hanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”

On 1 Cor 4:8-13 Martyn comments:

The picture Paul employs is in part that of the Roman circus in which the last act (the eschatological one) is that of the gladiators who are eventually to die a public, spectacular death enjoyed by the (cosmic) onlookers. In this picture, Paul implies that the Corinthians understand themselves to be safely in the stands, already filled and already rich. By contrast, his vocation places him down on the blood-red sand where the Two Ages meet and collide in the paradoxical life-giving cross. The vocation to life which God grants is given nowhere else than in the struggle and daily suffering and victorious rejoicing at this eschatological turning point where God elects what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.[27] 

Paul exercising his apostolic role at the turn of ages proclaims the message of the cross of Christ, which is foolishness and weakness to “the wisdom of this age”, but is the expression of the power of God (I Cor. 1.18) and the wisdom of God (I Cor. 2.6-7). The inappropriateness of the wisdom of this world at the juncture of ages is evident in the action of the rulers of this age, crucifying “the Lord of glory” (I Cor. 2.8) and also in God choosing “what is weak in the world…what is low and despised in the world, things that are not” (I Cor. 1.27-28). Paul, thus, asserts that God has turned the value system of this world or this age on its head, i.e. God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world” (I Cor. 1.20), because wisdom and power have been redefined by the cross of Christ (I Cor. 1. 23-24). F.F. Bruce rightly comments that “nothing could be more subversive of these canons in the first century Greco-Roman world than the proclamation of a crucified man …as Lord (of glory).”[28]

Paul draws the attention of the Corinthian believers to the mode of his apostolic existence. He reminds them of his own “weakness”, “fear”, “trembling” and lack of eloquence, which signified an inferior status in the Greco-Roman society: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” and “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2.2-4).[29] Paul identifies astheneia as a mark of his apostolic mode of being (I Cor. 2.3; 4.10; II Cor. 10.10; 11.30; 12.5, 9-10). In II Corinthians he lists in a unique series the “weaknesses” that characterize his apostolic existence (II Cor. 4.8ff; 6.4ff; 11.23ff; 12.10). Paul presents his hardships in his apostolic task in I Cor. 4.8-13 to remind the Corinthians of his “ways in Christ Jesus”, in comparison to the privileged social position of those whose conduct is characterized as arrogant and boastful: “you have all you want; already you have become rich…you have become kings” (I Cor. 4.8). He contends that the apostles have “become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals” (I Cor.4.9). From the world’s point of view they are “the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things” and Paul emphasizes that this position of theirs continues “to this very day” (I Cor. 4.13). In this way the mode of his apostolic existence is very much rooted in the cross of Christ,[30] for in II Cor. 13.4, Paul characterizes the crucified Christ as astheneia: “he was crucified out of weakness, but he lives by the power of God.”

Paul strongly argues that his “weakness” is not an evidence of his powerlessness nor does it discredit his apostolic ministry. Rather paradoxically, God’s power is manifested in his weakness (II Cor. 12.9-10; I Cor. 2.3-5). Furnish maintains that the series of antitheses in Paul’s list of hardships is to show that the weakness actually discloses the power of God (II Cor. 4.8-9; 6.4-10).[31] Paul boasts in his “weakness” because of this paradox of power in weakness, rather than in the heavenly visions and revelations, which he could claim (II Cor 12:1-10). He further says that his apostolic credentials are evidenced not through the “signs and wonders and mighty works” (II Cor 12:12), which he could claim if he wanted to, but through the hardships which he has endured for the sake of the gospel (II Cor 11:23-33). The paradox of power in weakness stands in contrast to his opponents’ understanding of God’s power, that is, God’s power makes the individual powerful in some noticeable sense. For them power and weakness are incompatible. For Paul, weakness and power are not mutually exclusive, but are coterminous. Paul, thus, consciously subverts the conventional socio-cultural standards by depicting the character of his apostleship and his style of preaching in conformity with the “wisdom” and the “power” of God manifested in the cross of Christ.[32]

Not only is God’s power manifested in his “weakness”, Paul maintains, but his “weakness” in his apostolic ministry has an intended purpose of community building (II Cor. 10.8; 12.19; 13.10). It is observed that in II Corinthians in all the lists of “weakness” or sufferings that Paul experienced, except in II Cor. 12.10, the notion of diakonia is included (II Cor. 4.8-10; 6.4-10; 11.23-33). Paul is rejoicing not in weakness per se but because of its constitutive purpose of serving Christ and the community. That means “weakness” refers to a mode of human existence, marked by willingness to endure suffering and hardship in giving oneself in service to others.[33] Paul says this in contrast to the ‘leaders’ who made the members of the Corinthian church as their slaves and exploited them for their own self-serving goals (II Cor. 1.24; 11.20). He is arguing that even though his weakness reflects social inferiority as per the prevailing social value system, it serves the purpose of community building (II Cor. 10.8;12.19; 13.10).[34] Thus, it identifies him with the cross of Christ, which symbolizes the existence for others (II Cor. 5.14-15).

Paul further characterizes his ministry as “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” and “always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake” (II Cor. 4.10, 11). The purpose clause in these verses, hina, denotes the purpose: “the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” and “the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh”. Thus, the paradox of life in death is articulated in II Cor. 4.10,11. Paul exhorts the Corinthians, who could not reconcile his sufferings and his apostolic ministry of the “extraordinary power of God”, that the paradox of life in death is inextricably connected to his vocation at the turn of ages. Paul, in II Cor. 4.12, summarizes the benefit of his ministry of sufferings to those he ministered: “death is at work in us, but life in you”.

Thus, Paul acknowledges that the paradox of power in weakness and of life in death is fundamentally associated with his apostolic ministry. This paradox is very much evident in the cross of Christ. Therefore, the cross of Christ is intrinsically associated with the concrete existence of the apostle Paul at the juncture of ages.


Paul’s perception of his apostleship is kata stauros, not kata sarka as maintained by the members and Paul’s opponents in the Corinthian church. In contrast to the personality-centered, status-oriented, self-promoting and self-preserving leadership model of the Greco-Roman world, which the members and his opponents in the church are following, Paul characterizes his apostolic ministry as the paradox of power in weakness and of life in death. He acknowledges that the reality of suffering or “weakness” is intrinsic to his vocation, which “is the call to engage in the eschatological struggle at the juncture of ages.” He exhorts that it is in his “weakness” that God’s life-giving power is manifested. He exults in his “weakness” because of its constructive purpose of community building.  


[1] J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), p. 92.

[2] Victor Paul Furnish, II Corinthians: Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984), p. 308.

[3] Raymond Pickett, The Cross in Corinth: The Social Significance of the Death of Jesus, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), p. 127.

[4] V. Furnish, II Corinthians, p. 42.

[5] Pickett, The Cross, p.145.

[6] Kata sarka occurs nineteen times in the undisputed letters of Paul. Excluding the two occurrences in II Cor. 5.16, of the seventeen, it is used thirteen times adverbially, while four times as adjectivally.  

[7] Furnish, II Corinthians, p. 313.

[8] Martyn, Theological Issues, pp. 92-93.

[9] Martyn, Theological Issues, p. 94.

[10] Martyn, Theological Issues, pp. 107-108.

[11] Martyn, Theological Issues, p. 108.

[12] Furnish, II Corinthians, p. 332.

[13] J.R. Levison, “Creation and New Creation,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, eds. (Leicester: IVP, 1993), p. 190.

[14] J. Louis Martyn, “Focus: Theological Education or Theological Vocation?” in USQR, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3&4 (1974), p. 219.

[15] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 1987), p.122.

[16] Andrew D. Clarke, Secular and Christian Leadership in Corinth: A Socio-Historical and Exegetical Study of I Corinthians 1-6, (Leiden: EJ Brill, 1993), p. 92.


[17] Richard A. Horsley, I Corinthians, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp. 30-31.

[18] Clarke, Secular and Christian Leadership, p. 96.

[19] Pickett, The Cross, p. 65.

[20] Pickett, The Cross, p. 76.

[21] Clarke, Secular and Christian Leadership, p. 113.

[22] Clarke, Secular and Christian Leadership, p. 96.

[23] D.F. Epstein, Personal Enmity in Roman Politics, (London: 1987), p.28.

[24] Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), p. 83.

[25] Hengel, Crucifixion, p.5.

[26] A. Katherine Grieb, ““The One Who Called You….”: Vocation and Leadership in the Pauline Literature,” in Interpretation, Vol. 59, Is. 2 (April 2005), p. 159.

[27] Martyn, “Focus: Theological Education or Theological Vocation?” p. 220.

[28] F.F. Bruce, I & II Corinthians, (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1971), p. 36.

[29] By saying this “Paul is not simply subordinating the means of communication to the efficacy of the gospel. Nor is he merely using the typical rhetorical device of an orator deprecating his own ability in eloquence. …In Paul’s day, eloquent speech…was also associated with other marks of high social standing (such as those Paul mentions in I Cor.1.26-28).” Charles H. Cosgrove, The Cross and the Spirit: A  Study in the Argument and Theology of Galatians, (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1988), p. 46.

[30] Cosgrove, The Cross and the Spirit, p. 78.

[31] V. Furnish, II Corinthians, p. 280.

[32] E.A. Judge, “Cultural Conformity and Innovation in Paul: Some Clues from Contemporary Documents,” in Tyndale Bulletin 35, (1984), p. 14.

[33]Thomas Stegmann, The Chracter of Jesus: The Linchpin to Paul’s Argument in 2 Corinthians, (Roma: E.P.I.B, 2005), p. 207.

[34] Pickett, The Cross, p. 194.