I repeat, let no one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. What I am saying in regard to this boastful confidence, I am saying not with the Lord’s authority, but as a fool; since many boast according to human standards, I will also boast. For you gladly put up with fools, being wise yourselves! For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!
But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he for ever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas set a guard on the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall,[h] and escaped from his hands.
By this stage of the letter Paul is deeply involved in defending himself. His legitimacy is questioned. Legitimacy matters, especially if someone is representing a wider cause. Paul has brought the Gospel. Now he has to defend his right and worthiness and calling to have done so.
Can Paul truly defend his position as a follower of Jesus worthy of respect and attention? It seems that Paul’s opponents are questioning his Hebrew credentials. Scattered across a wide area, many of Paul’s contemporary Jews may well have spoken Greek and been far less adept with Hebrew in its Aramaic form. Perhaps Paul’s origins are equally diluted? No, he counters. Again, accusations of being neither an Israelite nor a descendant of Abraham seem to have been made. Both, again, might tend to demote Paul in the eyes of some and challenge his status as one from the heart and home of the people of God. Again, Paul claims his true status as Israelite and Abraham’s descendant. His status is as secure as any other apostle’s. His teaching, therefore, deserves equal attention.
But there is more. Another mark of the truth of Paul’s position is the strength and ferocity of the attacks he has endured for the sake of the Gospel. It is quite a list: five times he has received the Jewish punishment of being flogged 39 times (see Deuteronomy 25: 1-3); three times he has been beaten with rods, a Roman punishment; once he was stoned; three times shipwrecked. The writing becomes a cascade of “danger”; a crescendo of risks endured. Hanging over it all is Paul’s unspoken challenge: If I am not truly a faithful apostle, why would I face all of this?
What of us? Few of us are likely to have many of Paul’s credentials ticked. We live in different times. We face different challenges. But this passage is worth lingering over. What are my credentials as a follower of Jesus Christ? How does my life carry evidence of my discipleship? What proof could I offer of my devotion? What does faith cost me?
God, you who called Paul and took his life into strange and dangerous turns, who encouraged and sustained him in the hardest and harshest of times, work your way with us. Take our lives today. Encourage and sustain us in the good and the dangerous moments. In our broken world and hurting communities, make us missionaries of good news and gospel grace. In the name of he whom Paul served, only Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
The Rev’d Neil Thorogood, Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge