Reluctantly, I am going to attempt to commend myself, following the same approach as those who oppose me when they commend themselves. I know this is foolishness, and I regret having to do it, but I hope that you will tolerate me as I engage in such foolishness. What am I saying? In some of your minds, you’ve been tolerating me and my foolishness for a very long time, haven’t you?
There is a very good reason why you should cut me a little slack and allow me to make a point here, even if foolishly. Let me remind you of the relationship I have with you, and the deep obligation I feel concerning your relationship to Christ. When I came to Corinth and preached the gospel to you, you came to trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of eternal life. I became, as it were, your spiritual father. And you became my virgin daughter, as it were. Through the gospel I proclaimed to you, I arranged your engagement to Christ, to whom you are to be married, when He returns for you. And now, as your father, it is my duty to keep you in a state of purity and innocence toward Christ, until the day of your marriage. My problem is that I have good cause to worry about your purity and devotion to Christ. The danger to which I am referring can be seen at the very outset of human history, when Satan led Eve astray. Satan (the serpent), cunning creature that he is, deceived Eve with all his smooth talk. In the same way, I fear that false apostles in Corinth will lead you astray from a simple and pure commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ with their silver-tongued oratory. Satan, our arch-enemy, is behind all this, and he will attempt to seduce you by using the very same tactics he successfully employed with Eve.
It is evident that Satan has already gained a foothold among you, indicating that my fears concerning you are well-founded. This is demonstrated by several forms of “intolerable toleration” on your part. If one comes to you preaching about a “Jesus” other than the biblical Jesus of whom we have written and spoken, you are very tolerant indeed. And when the Holy Spirit is rejected and replaced by another “spirit,” you don’t even seem to notice the change. Furthermore, the gospel that we preached is being corrupted and distorted, so that it is really another gospel, and yet you are ever so gracious to these heretics, tolerating them and their heresies without so much as a word of protest.
Now I know that you think you have good reason to question the role that I should play in your lives, and this is why I must defend myself against some of the charges leveled against me. One of them is that I should not even be ranked among the “super apostles.” The reason given is that my presentation doesn’t seem to be as smooth, as persuasive, or as forceful as the eloquent speech of others. All right, so I am not like them in style. (Some of this may be by choice, and not just a matter of ability. You should look at what I have said elsewhere, such as in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 3:1-3; 2 Corinthians 1:17; 4:1-2.) But set aside the eloquence factor for a moment, and at least acknowledge that while I may fall short of others in this regard, I am not inferior to them in terms of the truths God has given me to reveal (such as the “mysteries” I have mentioned in Ephesians 3:8-10). This is knowledge I have taught you, so you can’t be ignorant of the unique contribution I have made as an apostle, which other apostles were not chosen to reveal.
I know another reason why some have very little regard for me as an apostle. My opponents (like their pagan peers) judge the value of the speaker by the size of the fee he charges to deliver an address. By this standard, I would seem to have nothing worth saying since I often refuse to be remunerated for my teaching (as I have already pointed out in chapter 9). Sometimes I earn my own keep by working with my hands. On a few occasions I may minister to you free of charge because of the generous support I receive from other churches, like those in Macedonia. Is preaching free of charge such a great offense to you? Was I wrong to do this, and did I rob other churches when I allowed them to support my ministry to you? My actions were prompted by my desire not to be a burden to you. I would rather be like Christ, sacrificially giving of myself to bring about your good. This is something I will not cease doing, because such sacrifices (unlike my opponents, who boast in their honoraria) are the basis for my boasting. Don’t you see that this is further proof of my love for you?
There is another reason why I will not live off of your contributions. By finding my financial support elsewhere, I am able to distinguish myself from my opponents in Corinth and elsewhere, who really try to represent themselves as functioning on a par with me. They want to be regarded as having the same ministry and the same authority as I do, along with my colleagues. They want to claim an equal status with those of us who are authentic apostles, and they do so by boasting in a certain matter, which they believe makes them equal with us.
I might as well come right out and say it, because it should now be obvious. These men are not really apostles like us at all! These men are deceitful in their representation of themselves and their ministry. They are only apostles in disguise, and by deliberate intent. This should come as no surprise, for Satan himself operates in the same way. Satan does not come to us as the arch-enemy of God, the ultimate evildoer. He comes disguised as an angel of light, not as one who promotes evil. He would rather look like Mother Theresa than Charles Manson. If the arch-enemy of God operates by deceit and disguise, why should we expect his underlings to be different from their master? They, too, come to us disguised as servants of righteousness, or as Jesus said, as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15). These fellows will get what they deserve, because their final destiny will be determined in accordance with their deeds (and not the appearance of their deeds, but the reality of them, as I have just exposed them).
Our passage reminds me of my favorite scene from one of my favorite movies, “Return to Snowy River.” Jim Craig is the young man whose ranch is located in a remote spot in the mountains. His home is looked upon as a kind of “Australian Appalachia.” In a previous movie, “The Man From Snowy River,” Jim has fallen in love with Jessica Harrison, the daughter of a rich and well-born rancher. Her father disapproved of Jim, because he could not offer Jessica the (affluent) kind of life to which she had become accustomed, and so Jim went off to earn a start for them by raising horses.
Jim returns to the Harrison ranch to rekindle his relationship with Jessica. A large crowd gathers for a social event, which culminates in an equestrian exhibition of military skills on horseback. Jessica now has another suitor, Lieutenant Patton, who is much more to her father’s liking than Jim. (Of course, we can tell right off that this young man is not the kind of person Jessica should marry.) Lieutenant Patton takes advantage of the opportunity to show his military prowess on the “skill at arms course.” At the end of a well-performed exhibition, Lieutenant Patton presents Jessica with a banner—with an engagement ring attached.
When Jim arrives at the ranch, he is promptly informed by the Lieutenant that he is over his head, socially speaking, and that he should go away, permanently. Jim is ready to punch out this arrogant officer, but a wise man with a cooler head (who later becomes good friends with Jim) suggests to him that there are better ways to make his point. Jim begins to ride off, and then pauses. You can see a look in his eyes which indicates that what is about to take place will be worth watching. Jim then proceeds to run the same “skill at arms course,” but without the fancy equipment the lieutenant employed in his exhibition. Instead of a spear and a sword, Jim begins with a bull whip, and then what looks like a piece of his bridle. He finishes up, not with a sword, but with a stake, which he plucks from the ground. When all is said and done, what the young lieutenant accomplished with the finest of weapons, Jim surpasses, using basic, primitive implements. This, of course, is all carefully noted by Jessica.
In our text in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul is the Jim Craig of the story, and the false apostles are the Lieutenant Pattons. They come dressed to the hilt, smooth and sophisticated, looking down their noses at Paul, saying in effect, “Why don’t you go away to the backwoods where you belong?” Paul says with a twinkle in his eye, almost like that of Jim Craig on his horse, “No, I don’t think so.” We find Paul saying in our text, “Okay, if that’s the way you guys want it, bear with me. I will accept your challenge and compete with you on your apostle’s ‘master at arms’ course.”
This lesson covers verses 1-15 of 2 Corinthians 11. We will look first at Paul as the father of the bride, focusing on his authenticity as an apostle, in contrast to the false apostles. We will then go behind the scenes as Paul unveils the real power and forces at work within these false apostles, and exposes Satan as the master of deceit.
I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me.
Paul does not like to boast, and certainly not in anything other than in Christ. He has just said in verse 17 of chapter 10: “he who boasts, let him boast in the lord.” But now he is up against a group of men who commend themselves and compare themselves with others in an attempt to make themselves look good. In effect, Paul responds, “All right, I’ll play your game for a moment. I’m sorry I must do so, as it is foolishness, and not at all the way I like to conduct myself.”
Compared to the false apostles at Corinth, Paul seems to fall short of the mark. The problem with this is that their “mark” is the wrong one. Paul sets out here to show that his grounds for boasting are exactly the opposite of those used by his adversaries. Paul does boast as a man, but he boasts in those things he finds commendable about his ministry, as opposed to those things in which the other teachers and false apostles boast. He asks them to bear with him and allow him to be foolish for a moment. Then, almost with a twinkle in his eye, he seems to say, “I’ve been asking for you to bear with me. But then you are bearing with me, aren’t you, because otherwise you wouldn’t be reading what I am saying? What am I doing asking you to put up with my foolishness? That is what you have been doing for the entire time you have known me!” Paul is merely tolerated by some, like we “tolerate” the babbling of children or the ramblings of one who has lost their mind.
It is not just the false apostles at Corinth who look down on Paul. There also seem to be a number of “disciples” of these “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who are beginning to look down upon Paul in the same way. Not only are Paul’s words in this chapter foolishness to them, Paul himself is foolish in their eyes. From Paul’s words to the Corinthians in his first (recorded) epistle, we know that some of those Paul led to faith in Christ have begun to follow false teachers and to look down upon their spiritual father (see 1 Corinthians 4:1-13). They are so wise, so eloquent, so persuasive and convincing. Paul, on the other hand, is not physically attractive, nor is his speech winsome. His teaching is not appealing (to the flesh) either.
Paul probably feels the same way most parents do when their children become teenagers. All of a sudden, in the eyes of our children, we become the dumbest people on the face of the earth. We are so embarrassing to be with, and we certainly dare not kiss (or be kissed by) them in public. Teenagers don’t even want to be seen with us— just drop them off somewhere out of public view so that no one sees there is some connection between them and their parents. This seems to be the way the Corinthians feel about Paul. He is indeed a parent to them, and yet they are ashamed of him.
The key word here is translated bear in the New American Standard Version. I prefer the NASB here because it uses the same English word each time it translates the same Greek term. Thus we read, “Would you bear with me” (verse 1), and “you are bearing with me” (verse 1), and (verse 4) “you bear beautifully.” Then in verse 19 Paul writes, “For you, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly. For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you …” The Corinthians are better able to bear falsehood and false apostles than Paul. When you see the word “bear,” I suggest you think of it meaning “to tolerate,” for it is the same idea. When Paul says we are to “bear” with one another, he means we are to tolerate or put up with each other. There will always be things we find distasteful and exasperating about each other. We all put up with one another in different ways. We “bear” with, we tolerate, each other.
Paul and the other true apostles teach that we ought to put up with things in other people that we find irritating. But the Corinthians will simply not put up with (or tolerate) things that should be tolerated. Yet at the same time, they are more than willing to tolerate things which are biblically intolerable. In 1 Corinthians 5, they willingly tolerate a man who lives with his father’s wife, yet they aren’t willing to tolerate any differences of opinion or any loss of profit, so they take each other to court (see chapter 6). Over and over again, the Corinthians find certain things intolerable that they should tolerate, and other things tolerable, like immorality and doctrinal falsehood, which they should not tolerate. Here Paul appeals to the Corinthians for some of the same tolerance the Corinthians have shown toward others.
2 For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. 3 But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. 4 For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully. 5 For I consider myself not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles. 6 But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things. 7 Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you without charge? 8 I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to serve you; 9 and when I was present with you and was in need, I was not a burden to anyone; for when the brethren came from Macedonia, they fully supplied my need, and in everything I kept myself from being a burden to you, and will continue to do so. 10 As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be stopped in the regions of Achaia. 11 Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! 12 But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds.
In verses 2 and 3, Paul presents himself as the “Father of the Bride.” The apostle tells the Corinthians there is a very good reason why they should allow him to make a point here, even if foolishly:
Let me remind you of the relationship I have with you and the deep obligation I feel concerning your relationship to Christ. When I came to Corinth and preached the gospel to you, you came to trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and for the gift of eternal life. I became, as it were, your spiritual father, and you became my virgin daughter. Through the gospel I preached, I arranged your engagement to Christ, to whom you are to be married when He returns for you. And now, as your father, it is my duty to keep you in a state of purity and innocence toward Christ until the day of your marriage. My problem is that I have good cause to worry about your purity and devotion to Christ. The danger I speak of can be seen at the outset of human history when Eve was led astray by Satan. Satan, the serpent of old, cunning creature that he is, deceived Eve with all his smooth talk. In the same way, I fear that the false apostles, with all their silver-tongued oratory, will lead you astray from a simple and pure commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Satan, our arch-enemy, is behind all this, and he will attempt to deceive you by using the very same tactics he successfully employed with Eve (my paraphrase).
Elsewhere in the New Testament the church is referred to as the bride of Christ (see Ephesians 5). The imagery of the church as the engaged “bride” of Christ, which Paul employs here, is neither new nor novel. What is new is that Paul presents himself as the father of the bride. On other occasions Paul speaks of himself as a spiritual father, for instance, to Timothy. But he never speaks of himself as the spiritual father of a church, which is Christ’s bride, as he does here. This imagery of the proud father of a beautiful young woman wonderfully conveys Paul’s love and zeal toward the Corinthians.
As the father of five lovely young women, I can certainly identify with Paul here. On one particular occasion when one of my daughters was asked out, I required this young man to come and ask me if he could take my daughter out. He came with great fear and trembling, and rightly so. He and I sat on the front porch while he endured a fairly substantial quiz about who he was and what his intentions were. I said to him, “I am responsible for the purity of my daughter. Can I trust you, when you take my daughter out, to be committed to that same goal?” As a father, I was very concerned about protecting the purity of my daughter. So too Paul is concerned about the Corinthian church as his spiritual daughter. Some in Corinth are intent upon corrupting the church, turning the attention and affection of this “bride” toward someone other than Christ. They are, in one sense, trying to break up the engagement.
Can’t you just see Paul sitting on the front porch of the Corinthian church with his shotgun across his knees, saying, “Do you Corinthians think I am overly protective? Do you think I’m tough to deal with? You’re absolutely right! When I came to Corinth, I didn’t come to sell something like a fish monger does when he is attempting to pawn off old fish. I came to you with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and when I introduced you to Him, I really introduced you to Him in a way that arranged for your future marriage. I arranged your engagement by preaching the gospel, and you consented to that by placing your faith in Jesus Christ. The marriage ceremony is yet to come, when our Lord returns to this earth to take His bride (see Revelation 19). Until that marriage takes place, I am committed to guarding and protecting you as my ‘daughter,’ you the church at Corinth.” Paul sees himself as the father of the bride, whose task it is to protect the purity of his virgin daughter until the time of that marriage. When this father walks down the aisle and hands his bride off to her husband, he can say to himself, “I have done my job, and that job is to preserve my daughter’s purity.”
While we do not want to overwork this imagery, it does seem that although innocence and naivet are not synonymous, they are at least related. There is a sense in which innocence brings with it a kind of naivet. This is probably conveyed by the word “simple” in Proverbs. There, “simple” does not mean stupid; simple means nave, gullible. An intelligent two-year old child turned loose in front of the church may run out into the street after a toy without even looking. The child is not stupid, but nave, inexperienced, and unaware of the danger posed by passing automobiles.
By referring to the Corinthian church as a new bride who needs the protection of her father, Paul is indicating that new Christians are vulnerable to those who would deceive and corrupt them. A new Christian is pure and innocent, but he is also vulnerable. Paul has a responsibility to such folks at Corinth because he is their spiritual father. When the Corinthians ask why they should cut him any slack, with great zeal Paul responds, “Because I am your father! And because I brought about this engagement, and it is my responsibility to see that your purity is protected.”
In verse 3, Paul indicates that his fears are not merely parental paranoia. There is a “clear and present danger” here for the Corinthian saints. Both history and experience demonstrate the danger of spiritual seduction, so he is not just imagining a problem; the problem is very real. He turns first to the beginning of human history in verse 3, and then in verse 4 points to circumstances in the Corinthian church, showing that his concerns are valid, that the danger is real. “I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your mind should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.”
Paul simply looks back in history to the unfallen condition of a perfect garden and a perfect environment. Even there in the midst of all that, an innocent and naive (not in a demeaning sense) woman is led astray because of the cunning of the one who opposes her. He is afraid that Satan is repeating itself in Corinth. Essentially verse 4 says, “If you think I am whistling in the wind, let me point out some of what is already happening in your midst, which proves my point.”
4 If one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully (2 Corinthians 11:4).
Paul pleads with them to tolerate him: “Some of you are pathetically tolerant, as can be seen in these three areas: first, you are tolerant when another Jesus is preached.” Probably one of the greatest questions of our day is, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Many believe in Jesus, but the question is, “Which one?” The Jesus of the New Testament is virgin born. The Jesus of the New Testament is He who fulfills all of the Old Testament prophecies pertaining to the Messiah. The Jesus of the New Testament is truly God and truly man. The Jesus of the New Testament literally died and rose from the dead and is literally returning again to possess His kingdom and judge His enemies. That is the biblical Jesus. Now there are many Jesus’ that are not the real Jesus. We are told, for example, that there is a Jesus of love and acceptance and tolerance, who accepts all men as they are, without judging or condemning them. Many are those who believe in a “Jesus the way I like to think of Him.” But this is not the Jesus Paul preaches. It is not the Jesus of the Gospels. Paul says that if someone comes with another Jesus, the Corinthians accept that, and if someone comes with a different spirit they have not received, they accept that as well. It is little wonder that Paul is distressed.
One of the best Bible commentaries I have seen on any book of the Bible is D. A. Carson's, From Triumphalism to Maturity: An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 10-13.61 Carson does a beautiful job on these particular verses in chapters 10-13 of 2 Corinthians. It is an excellent work. I only disagree with him when he concludes that the word “spirit” here means something like disposition, a different attitude or demeanor. I believe Paul is saying, “When you were saved, you received the Holy Spirit, yet some of these hucksters have come along, and you have failed to realize that some other spirit has come with them.” The context is about Satan and his messengers, the false apostles. When we look back in the Old Testament, we are told very clearly that the Spirit of God left King Saul, and another (evil) spirit came upon him. I believe Paul is saying that those who come as ministers of Satan are spirit-filled. When men receive these messengers and believe their message, they receive this “other spirit.” Just as these false apostles do not preach the same Jesus, neither does the same spirit accompany their message. Many in Corinth are so tolerant they don’t even recognize the change in the message or the change in the spirit. Does Paul have good reason to be concerned for the purity of his daughter-bride that he wants to present to Christ? Yes! And these concerns are all evidences of his love and his care, not his pride or his hunger for power.
In verses 5 and 6, Paul turns his attention to some of the objections being raised against him by his opponents:
5 For I consider myself not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles. 6 But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things.
Some of the greatest scholars and writers are very poor public speakers. This may appear to be the case with Paul. I don’t know how eloquent Paul might have been if he really tried to be eloquent. I do know from what he has already written that Paul purposely set aside some methods because they were fleshly, rather than spiritual (see 2:17; 4:1-2). Paul is not seeking to defend himself by implying that he could be a lot better than he appears to be, if he so desired. Paul grants his opponents their premise, that he is not a powerful, persuasive speaker. Setting methodology aside, how does Paul’s content compare with that of the other true apostles? On the one hand, his content is perfectly consistent with that of his colleagues. On the other, God used Paul to reveal a number of mysteries, truths hinted at in the Old Testament, but clearly revealed by Paul and the other apostles in the New.
Is Paul inferior to the other (true) apostles? No! Indeed, it was frequently through Paul that God has revealed His mysteries. I cannot think of any other apostle who was given such a ministry in the area of mysteries. Mysteries are those things that had been sealed up and hidden in the past, such as the mystery of the way God would bring together both Jews and Gentiles into one new man (Ephesians 2:11-22). There is the “mystery of Christ,” referred to in Ephesians 3 (see verse 4). In Ephesians 5, Paul speaks of the mystery of Christ and His church, as symbolized by Christian marriage (see verse 32). In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of the transformation of the believer at the return of our Lord as a mystery (see 15:51). Paul revealed these mysteries, regardless of whether they liked the style in which he revealed them. He is not saying he is better than the other apostles, but he is insisting that he is their equal, for he has played a unique role amongst them in the revelation of God’s mysteries.62
But the real problem the Corinthians seem to have with Paul is unveiled in verses 7-11:
7 Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you without charge? 8 I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to serve you; 9 and when I was present with you and was in need, I was not a burden to anyone; for when the brethren came from Macedonia, they fully supplied my need, and in everything I kept myself from being a burden to you, and will continue to do so. 10 As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be stopped in the regions of Achaia. 11 Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!
Some measure the significance of the messenger and his message by the size of the fee he is able to collect. This does not apply to antiquity alone. Rather repeatedly I hear someone involved in a Christian ministry say they would gladly minister for free, but people do not appreciate something if they don’t have to pay for it. That sounds good, and it may contain an element of truth. But it is based upon the dubious assumption that the value of a given ministry can be judged by what people are willing to pay for it. How many people were willing to pay for our Lord’s ministry (see Luke 8:1-2)?
There has long been the tendency to equate spirituality with material prosperity. This stems, in part, from a misconception of the promises of God to the nation Israel. In the Old Testament, it is clarified in texts like Psalm 73. Jesus set His listeners on their ears when He completely overturned their thinking. He said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20b). He told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and in this story it was the rich man who went to hell, while poor Lazarus went to eternal bliss (Luke 16). Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor (Luke 18:22). There was no direct link between prosperity and piety, so Paul’s spirituality and the quality of his ministry was not to be measured in monetary terms.
Based on the faulty premise of Paul’s opponents that ministry can be measured in terms of money, Paul’s ministry must have been considered a miserable failure. Paul ministered free of charge (see 1 Corinthians 9:1-23), and now in chapter 11, Paul makes it clear that this was actually an offense to some Corinthians. Can you believe it? By this standard, the hucksters and charlatans of our time would be well regarded and received in Corinth. Paul’s practice of not being supported by the Corinthians was a matter of conviction, even though he had the right to be supported (1 Corinthians 9). He set aside this right and supported himself with his own hands, so that the gospel might be proclaimed with fewer hindrances.
Not all the churches felt Paul’s ministry was worthless. We know Paul accepted gifts from the churches in Macedonia (see Acts 18:1-5; Philippians 4:15). They were eager to support Paul’s ministry to those at Corinth. If Paul’s ministry is worthless, then he is guilty of defrauding the Macedonian churches that sacrificially supported him. Paul is no freeloader. He does not want to become a burden to those to whom he ministers. And so instead of being supported by them, he often labors to support them, to contribute to their financial needs (see Acts 20:33-35; 1 Thessalonians 2:9). Paul considers this sacrificial lifestyle a privilege, and he does not intend to give it up in order to impress some. This sacrifice on his part is grounds for boasting, not shame, and he plans to persist in his practice.63
Should Paul’s practice be interpreted to mean he does not care for the Corinthians? Not at all! He loves them greatly, and his sacrificial lifestyle is evidence of his love for them. What Paul is doing—and fully intends to keep doing—is to distinguish himself from those who are frauds, those who are simply into ministry for the money. Paul will do everything he can to set himself apart from those who want to be considered his equals, but who are really false apostles. One thing he knows for sure—they are not going to minister free of charge. This is one area in which they will not attempt to look like Paul. By his selfless, sacrificial lifestyle, Paul sets himself apart from the greedy hucksters who take advantage of others by pretending to be servants of God. Do Paul’s opponents boast? Let them boast in ministering free of charge, or let them realize they are nothing like Paul.
3 But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. … 12 But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds.
Some, no doubt, think Paul is paranoid for having the fatherly fears he expresses. Why is Paul so up tight over what is going on in Corinth? Paul has worked his way around the problem up to this point. He has raised some very disturbing questions about those who oppose him. But from now on there will be no more “Mr. Nice guy.” He is going to unmask his opponents and expose them for who they really are.
Paul’s opponents are deceivers. Paul uses several terms to convey that his opponents are deceivers. He uses the terms false (verse 13), deceitful (verse 13), disguise (verse 15), disguises (verse 14), and disguising (verse 13). Could anything be clearer than the fact that Paul portrays his opponents as deceivers? They appear to be what they are not. They appear as “angels of light,” when they serve the “prince of darkness.” These people wish to be regarded as true Christians. They represent themselves as having the same authority Paul and the true apostles possess. They claim to be able to speak for God and to reveal new truth. They expect the Corinthian Christians to submit to their authority and to follow their teachings and instructions. As Jesus said, they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15).
Paul’s opponents, the false apostles, are seeking to turn the Corinthians from their faith and devotion toward Jesus Christ (verse 3). It is true that these false apostles are attempting to turn the saints from true apostolic teaching and authority. But their final goal is to turn the Corinthians from Christ (as the apostles have taught them about Him) and from simple devotion to Him alone. Do some Corinthians regard these hucksters as super-spiritual? They are not, and they do not promote spirituality in their followers either. No matter what they say they are seeking to accomplish, their hidden agenda is to turn people from trusting and obeying Christ.
These false apostles are cunning and crafty, using the most devious, deceptive methods possible to achieve their goals. In verse 3, Paul informs the Corinthians that he knows they are gullible and vulnerable to the ultimate evil, Satan himself, as he employs his craftiness to deceive them and to turn them from Christ, without their even realizing it has happened.
Paul does not spell out just how these false apostles are seeking to deceive the Corinthians, other than to indicate that their methods are similar to those Satan employed when he deceived Eve. Let us pause for a few moments to reflect on how Satan achieved the downfall of Eve, and of her husband, Adam. To do this, let us look at the Genesis 3 account as it parallels 2 Corinthians 11:1-15.
The advertising industry is all about temptation—tempting the consumer to buy something he or she very often does not want, or need. Their task is to somehow create a sense of need in the heart and mind of the buyer. I need that car, so that I can drive in comfort and status. I need this brand of TV dinner, so that I can cut down on my time preparing the meal, yet also win the approval of my guests. I need this brand of toothpaste, because it will make my teeth look much whiter (and all the good looking girls will flock around me, like they do the actor in the toothpaste commercial).
Imagine the challenge Satan faced in trying to turn Adam and Eve from trusting and obeying God. They had no unmet needs. They lacked nothing. They lived in a perfect environment. They had no predisposition to sin (sin nature). God had provided everything they needed. They were indeed blessed. So just what could Satan possibly do to turn them from trusting in God and obeying His one prohibition (not to eat of the forbidden fruit)? What Satan did to Eve and Adam is precisely what he has been doing ever since, what he was doing in Corinth through the false apostles. Let us consider some of Satan’s strategies, focusing upon those characteristics of Satan and his deception of Eve that parallel the Corinth situation.
(1) Satan comes to Eve, not to Adam, apparently because he believes she is the most vulnerable. Paul makes a very strong point here in verse 3 and in 1 Timothy 2:14 that it was Eve who was deceived by Satan, not Adam.64 Thus, when Paul uses the first fall as an illustration of Satan’s wiles, he does so by calling our attention to the fact that Satan deceives today as he first deceived Eve. Satan preys upon the weak and the vulnerable (see 2 Timothy 3:6-7).65 The false apostles who oppose Paul and the gospel likewise are preying upon the most vulnerable members of the Corinthian congregation. It seems Paul writes to those who are stronger in Corinth, urging them to stand up to these messengers of Satan.
(2) Satan seeks to bring about the disobedience and downfall of Adam through the deception of his wife Eve. Both Adam and Eve sinned, but while Eve was deceived, Adam was not. Eve obeyed Satan (and disobeyed God) because the serpent deceived her. Adam listened to the voice of (i.e., obeying) his wife (Genesis 3:17), even though he knew it to be wrong (Genesis 3:17; 1 Timothy 2:14). Satan does not need to deceive everyone, he need only deceive those who can and will lead others to follow them in their sin. The deceivers who have come to Corinth to lead the church astray are also those who themselves are deceived: “But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). I wonder how many of the Corinthians recognized the error of the false apostles, but went along with those who were enamored with them, much as Adam went along with Eve.
(3) Satan brings about Eve’s disobedience by first gaining her trust in him, and then, on the basis of this trust, she disobeys God. Satan first gained Eve’s confidence, and then, having done so, he is able to lead her into sin. The first deception is that Satan is a friend who can be trusted. Are we surprised to find that the Corinthians have become attached to certain men who gain their devotion and allegiance? From the very first chapter of 1 Corinthians, this is evident (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17).
(4) The serpent does not reveal his true identity to Eve. Satan’s name is never mentioned in Genesis 3. He is always called the serpent. Paul says in verse 3 of chapter 11: “But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). Certain texts assure us that the serpent indeed is Satan (see, for example, Revelation 12:9; 20:2). The point here is that Satan does not come to the woman as Satan, the arch-enemy of God. Satan comes as a serpent. Satan does not care to be seen;66 he seems to find special delight in bringing about evil through instruments that appear to be good.
Satan seldom comes to us as he is. Satan even used one very close to our Lord—Peter (Matthew 16:21-23). He, of course, also used Judas (John 13:2, 21-30; 18:1-5). The one time in the Bible he does directly attack is at the temptation of our Lord (see Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12). Just how does Satan, the deceiver, deceive Him who not only knows all truth, but who is the Truth? Jesus knew who he was and what he was about. So also in Corinth, Satan comes to deceive the saints and to lead some to disobedience. He comes in the form of winsome, charming “ministers,” who deceive some into thinking they are angels of light and apostles of Christ. The Corinthians ought not expect the false apostles to identify themselves as such, for they wish to appear to be what they are not. They will have to expose them themselves, as they consider their doctrine and deeds.
(5) Satan comes to Eve as one who is winsome and wise, whose only goal is to help her. In Genesis, Satan is introduced in this way: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, ‘Indeed, has God said, “You shall not eat from any tree of the garden”?’” (Genesis 3:1). The translation “more crafty” makes Satan to be sneaky, sleazy, a charlatan. He may be all of these things, but the word employed here more often means wise or prudent.67 I believe Moses intends for his readers to look upon Satan as the most intelligent of all God’s creatures. If one were to seek knowledge from any of God’s creation, it would be from the serpent. In addition to being highly regarded as prudent, the serpent was also exceedingly beautiful. This we learn from the Book of Ezekiel:
12 “Son of man, take up a lamentation over the king of Tyre and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “You had the seal of perfection, Full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; Every precious stone was your covering: The ruby, the topaz and the diamond; The beryl, the onyx and the jasper; The lapis lazuli, the turquoise and the emerald; And the gold, the workmanship of your settings and sockets, Was in you. On the day that you were created They were prepared”’” (Ezekiel 28:12-13).
Whose deceptions would be more welcomed than those of the serpent? He was striking in his appearance and highly esteemed for his wisdom. I believe the same can be said for the “messengers of Satan” who prey upon the Corinthians. In terms of appearances, they surpass Paul by far:
9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now (1 Corinthians 4:9-13).
The trouble with the Corinthians is that they judge on the basis of external appearances, and not on character or doctrine. Because the false apostles look and sound good, some Corinthians accept their message without question. Paul simply reminds them that Satan’s strategy in Corinth is no different than his strategy in the Garden of Eden. Satan is consistent. Let the Corinthians learn from the first temptation and sin, and let us learn as well.
(6) Satan comes to Eve with an arrogant confidence and air of authority, which makes his lies more convincing. Pride and arrogance are Satan’s attributes (see Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:17; 1 Timothy 3:7). This arrogant pride is evident in the serpent’s words to Eve in Genesis 3. He does not hesitate to question God’s character or His commands. He even has the audacity to call God a liar. He assures Eve that she (and Adam, presumably) would not suffer the penalty God declared for disobedience to His one prohibition (not to eat of the forbidden fruit). The same arrogance is seen in Satan’s temptation of our Lord (see Matthew 4:1ff.; Luke 4:1ff.). It is also evident in his demand to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31).
There are those who are attracted to such arrogance and authoritarian leadership style. Some of the Corinthians are attracted to this leadership style, so evident in the false apostles:
19 For you, being so wise, tolerate the foolish gladly. 20 For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face (2 Corinthians 11:19-20).
How could someone so good-looking, so smart, and so self-confident be so wrong? It is easy. These false apostles are exactly like their master, the devil. Paul wants the Corinthians to see the similarity. How often dictatorship, accompanied by some kind of religious faade, passes for “spiritual leadership.”
(7) Satan attacks God’s character and His Word. By his questions and his statements, Satan demeans God’s character. He convinces Eve that God is not seeking her best interests, but is holding her back from her full potential. And then, having successfully (in Eve’s thinking) attacked the character of God, Satan calls God a liar, assuring Eve that she will surely not die for disobeying God. According to Satan, God is not giving us all the good He could, and He will not bring upon us all the judgment He said He would.
It is not difficult to see that the false apostles in Corinth are attacking the character of the Apostle Paul, as well as his authority and his message. They belittle Paul and arrogantly assert themselves. Personal attacks upon Paul are the first step in undermining his authority and his teaching in Corinth. Once again, Satan’s servants are like their master.
(8) Satan makes good look evil, and evil look good. The Bible says, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20; see also verses 20-21). By using his tactics, Satan is able to undermine Eve’s belief in the goodness of God. She began to look upon God with suspicion. Now, in the midst of a perfect creation, Eve has become discontent with all that she has. “There must be more,” she thinks, prompted by Satan’s questions and innuendoes. The “evil” of partaking of the forbidden fruit now appears as the “good” God has unfairly withheld from her.
(9) Satan deceives Eve by persuading her to look to him rather than to Adam, her spiritual head. God apparently told Adam not to eat of the forbidden fruit before Eve was created (Genesis 2:16-17). Eve was aware of this command, although her understanding of the command was somewhat distorted (3:3). Whether this was due to Adam’s failure to communicate clearly, her failure to listen carefully, or Satan’s ability to distort the truth, we do not know. We do know that Eve acted independently of her husband. While she should have listened to Adam rather than the serpent, Adam is rebuked by God for listening to Eve (3:17). Satan has successfully rearranged the chain of command. Satan disregards any authority other than his own, and he incites others to rebel against authority also. (Ironically, it is by this means that he enslaves his victims to his authority.)
As I think about 2 Corinthians and the false apostles, the question is: “Who will the Corinthians heed?” Here are two different messengers and two different messages: Paul and the authentic apostles and the false apostles. To whom will the Corinthians listen, the authentic apostles or the false apostles? Paul tells the Corinthians he fears they will be deceived just as Eve was. How was she deceived? She was deceived by thinking Satan was the authoritative source of revelation. She was deceived because she believed his words as truth as opposed to God’s truth conveyed to her through Adam.
(10) Satan deceived Eve by mixing error with truth. As we look at the account of the fall of man in Genesis 3, we see that most of what the serpent said was right. At first it was just in seemingly “little things” that Satan departed, but eventually this was followed by the big lie: “You surely shall not die.” That is his conclusion. But what is his premise? His premise is: “Because your eyes will be open and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” Is that a lie? It certainly is not because that is what God says at the end of chapter 3:
22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken (Genesis 3:22-23).
What the serpent told Eve was true, not in the same way they hoped it would be true, but it was true in a certain sense. Satan quoted Scripture when he tempted our Lord (see Matthew 4:4, 6). The Scriptures he quoted were true, but Satan misapplied them, employing them in a way that made disobedience to God seem justified. The most cunning and dangerous false teachers are those who seem to embrace the Word of God, but subtly undermine it.
(11) Satan deceived Eve by changing her perception of reality. In verse 6, we are told the woman “saw” that “the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise …” This is an interesting statement because this is a conclusion Eve reached before her eyes are opened (3:7). Eve “saw” in the sense that she perceived that the tree was good. The strange thing about this is that we already know this: “Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9).
God did not forbid Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit of this one tree because it was poison. It was a test of their obedience. The tree produced the very fruit its name indicates. There was no reason not to eat of that tree other than that God did not want them to have such knowledge. Yet Eve now perceives this tree to be good, even though God had forbidden them to eat from it, even though God had pronounced the death penalty on anyone who did eat from it. Satan whetted Eve’s appetite for this forbidden fruit, and so it is that when he seems to offer her a way to eat of it without penalty, she jumps at the chance to do so.
(12) Satan succeeded at focusing Eve’s attention and desire on the one thing God had forbidden rather than on the abundance of things He had provided. Is it not interesting that in the time Adam and Eve were in the garden they never once ate from the tree of life? Here was a tree that would have given them eternal life, a tree whose fruit they were encouraged to eat. Yet they never touched it, and perhaps no other tree, either. The only tree they ate from was the one tree that was forbidden. Satan has a way of fixing our attention on what we don’t have, rather than on what we do have.
Is this not what Satan is doing in Corinth in the area of spiritual gifts? Certain gifts are falsely appraised as having much more value than others. Those who have them flaunt them. Those who do not have them seek to get them. And when they do not get them, they feel they have nothing to offer, despising the gift(s) God has given (see 1 Corinthians 12). Is it not true that the Corinthians are deceived into focusing on the “knowledge” God has not revealed through the apostles, rather than on the “true knowledge” that has been revealed by them? The “knowledge” Paul conveys is a simple message of Christ crucified; the false apostles have other “knowledge,” which goes beyond Christ and His cross. Once again, Satan succeeds in causing those who have all that is necessary for life and godliness (see 2 Peter 1:1-4) to look elsewhere for more knowledge.
(13) Satan deceived Eve so that she concluded her most important need was for the knowledge God had chosen not to give her and her husband. The serpent had convinced Eve that what she needed more than anything else was the “knowledge” which would make her “like God.” She wanted to be more than she was, more than God had made her to be. That is what Satan wanted, too. He wanted more than God had given to him. It was not enough for him to be in second place, God’s highest appointed angel. He wanted to be “like God” (see Isaiah 14:13-14). Is this not exactly what was happening in Corinth too? These false apostles came with their apparent wisdom, offering more knowledge than Paul provided, a higher knowledge. This “knowledge” would make those who possessed it better, more spiritual than the others. It is this pursuit of illicit (and false) knowledge that the false apostles promote. Paul’s message is too simple. They can offer something better, something “deeper,” or so they claim.
(14) Satan caused Eve to be dissatisfied with her status, even though this was the way God created her. Satan led Eve to be discontent with her humanity and to desire the higher spirituality and status of deity. It is true that we will someday be like God: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). It was neither God’s time, nor God’s way, for Eve to become God-like by disobeying His command and eating of the forbidden fruit.
The Corinthians are guilty of a similar desire—to be now what God had purposed and provided for them to be then in heaven. They want to be more “spiritual” and virtually set their humanity behind (including things like “weaknesses” and “suffering”). The false apostles are quick to offer them this higher level of existence, an offer they cannot fulfill.
As we conclude this lesson, we can see several ways in which this text speaks to us, as well as to the Corinthians of old.
(1) Satan has not really changed over the course of human history. He sought to deceive the church at Corinth in much the same way he first sought to deceive Eve. The Bible gives us ample evidence of Satan’s methodology: “But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:10-11). Satan’s goals, as well as his methods, are well documented in the Word of God. We should read the Scriptures carefully and prayerfully, knowing that to be forewarned to his schemes is to be forearmed.
(2) We should not expect Satan to attack directly, but indirectly, often through those who appear to be spiritual leaders. Satan uses people to undermine the faith and obedience of others. He used Eve to get to Adam. He used Peter in an attempt to get to our Lord (see Matthew 16:21ff.), and later on, to get to some of the believers, including Barnabas (see Galatians 2:11-13). Paul warned that Satan would employ some of the leaders of the church at Ephesus to lead others astray (Acts 20:28-32; 1 Timothy 4:1-5; 2 Timothy 3:1–4:8). The apostle John also has some very appropriate words for us concerning this matter: “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).
These false teachers come along and give the false impression that they alone have the key to the doorway of the truth. They have knowledge others apparently cannot get for themselves that is somehow mediated through them (as it is with the apostles’ teaching—1 Corinthians 2). They claim to possess what I have come to call “expert power.” They let it be known to the masses that some truths are “too high” for them, and that only experts (like themselves) are able to ferret them out. I too sometimes fall into the trap of saying, “The Hebrew text says …, or the Greek text says …,” and I usually feel guilty when I do. It is not that this is necessarily wrong, or that the insight is not helpful. But doing so conveys the impression that I know something you don’t know, something you can’t know. It suggests to you that you are dependent upon me (or some other apparent “expert”) for understanding the Bible.
If I imply that I have some special access to the truth you do not have, then the message I am conveying is: “If you really want the truth, you’ll have to get it from me.” This is what the cultists and false teachers do. Unfortunately, it is what true teachers also do. The tragedy is that Christians lose hope in their own ability to study God’s Word and find the answers to daily Christian living. The truth is not so secret that some select, elite group needs to tell it to you. God says it is right there in black and white. The truth is simple. The problem is when some scholars come along, especially false ones, who say, “Oh, it is really much more complicated than that.” Paul says his fear is that the Corinthians will turn from the “simplicity of following Christ.” The gospel is simple; it is the false teachers who want to go beyond it. “Deep teaching” is the motto of the false apostle: “‘But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them—I place no other burden on you’” (Revelation 2:24).
The apostle John has some very interesting (and encouraging) words of instruction for us:
26 These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you. 27 As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him. 28 Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming. 29 If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him (1 John 2:26-29).
John is telling us that those who try to deceive us are those who want to be our teachers, those who will lead us to believe that we must understand God through them. John is telling us here that God has given us (not just the experts among us) the means to study, interpret, and apply the Word of God. We need teachers who will enhance our study of the Bible, but we do not need teachers who will do our study and our thinking for us. Is this not where Eve was deceived? She let the serpent do her thinking for her. She listened to what he said about God rather than what God Himself had said to Adam. Beware of those who supposedly have some inside track to the truth. The truth is found in God’s Word, and God has given us His Spirit to make that truth known. Let us not let others do our thinking and our studying for us.
(3) Our text has something to say to us about present day apostles and prophets. There is a movement within evangelicalism today which holds that there are present day apostles and prophets. Generally, those within the conservative side of this movement hasten to assure us that present day apostles and prophets are not bringing any new revelation in addition to the Bible. That sounds good, but I must ask you, from what the Bible says about apostles and prophets, what should we expect them to do? Teachers instruct you what has been written in the Bible. Apostles and prophets have a higher authority, and a part of their function in the New Testament was to speak directly and infallibly for God. Their words have the authority of Scripture. I must conclude one of two things when I hear evangelicals teach that apostles and prophets exist today: (1) Such offices must be understood as the Bible has defined them; or, (2) These offices have been redefined, in a way that the Bible does not define them. I am very uneasy about the claim that such offices exist today, and especially when I am told that these are not the same thing as apostles and prophets in the Bible. Let us beware of those who come to us with apostolic authority, of those who claim to speak for God. And let us beware of those so-called apostles and prophets who tell us that they speak for God as apostles and prophets, but not with the divine authority of biblical apostles and prophets.
What is our protection from false apostles? We have several, and one of them comes from Ephesians 4:10-15:
10 (He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) 11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ (Ephesians 4:10-15).
Our first defense against error, Paul says, is growth and maturity. This is not just individual growth, but corporate growth as a church—growing up as a church into maturity. How does that happen? It happens as the church stands together in unity. And what is Corinth like? Disunity is everywhere. Does that have the fingerprints of Satan all over it? I think so. Divide and conquer. And God says that each member of the body needs to be dependent upon the other members of the body for the strength they provide. In Corinth, one member of the body says, “I’m so great, I don’t need any of you.” Another says, “I’m so puny, I don’t even belong in the body.” This is exactly what Satan desires, rather than a body of believers growing together in unity unto maturity.
Our second defense is what we might call “practiced theology.” Listen to what the writer to the Hebrews has to say on this point:
11 Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).
This is an absolutely incredible text when viewed from the context of the fall in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve had been commanded not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Is it possible that God wanted them to learn to discern good and evil, but not by the quick and easy method of taking a piece of fruit. From the Book of Proverbs, we learn that wisdom is to be obtained by searching, by hard work:
1 My son, if you will receive my words And treasure my commandments within you, 2 Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding; 3 For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; 4 If you seek her as silver And search for her as for hidden treasures; 5 Then you will discern the fear of the LORD And discover the knowledge of God. 6 For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding. 7 He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; He is a shield to those who walk in integrity, 8 Guarding the paths of justice, And He preserves the way of His godly ones. 9 Then you will discern righteousness and justice And equity and every good course. 10 For wisdom will enter your heart And knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; 11 Discretion will guard you, Understanding will watch over you, 12 To deliver you from the way of evil, From the man who speaks perverse things; 13 From those who leave the paths of uprightness To walk in the ways of darkness; 14 Who delight in doing evil And rejoice in the perversity of evil; 15 Whose paths are crooked, And who are devious in their ways (Proverbs 2:1-15).
Wisdom is attained by giving heed to God’s words, by treasuring His commandments (verse 1). Satan had an easier and quicker way—disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit. Heeding God’s commands would have kept Adam and Eve on the right path and guarded them against Satan. Heeding Satan led to disobedience.
Now back to Hebrews 5. The writer to the Hebrews rebukes these immature saints for their lack of understanding. How are they to gain such wisdom and knowledge? By heeding false apostles, by following self-proclaimed wise men? No! They learn to discern between good and evil (the very thing Satan promised the easy way) by growing in maturity, and this they are to do by putting into practice the things they learn from the “word of righteousness.” Obedience leads to maturity and to the discernment of good and evil. Satan deceived Eve so that she acted on the premise that such knowledge of good and evil came as the result of disobeying God, rather than treasuring His commandment. Obeying the truth that we know is the key to obtaining wisdom and knowledge. Here is the kind of practical theology we all need, theology that is put into practice, as we keep His commands.68
Our third defense against the deceptions of the devil is a biblical knowledge of Satan and his schemes. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul says, “For we are not ignorant of his devices.” When Paul says in chapter 11, “as Satan deceived Eve,” he is saying that we all know from the words of Moses in Genesis 3 (and from similar instances of Satan’s deceptions elsewhere) how Satan works to deceive us. We should be aware of Satan’s method of operation.
Our text teaches us that it is time for Christians to become intolerant about the things God does not tolerate. Paul talks a great deal about tolerance. In our current fetish for political correctness, intolerance is intolerable. Intolerance is the one thing the world will not accept. Paul says there is a point at which Christians need to get intolerant—intolerant to false doctrine, intolerant to false apostles, intolerant to a false spirit and a false gospel. We Christians need desperately to become more tolerant to sincere believers, who are preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ but who just don’t fit into our mold. This is the tension I wish to bring before you—the desperate need for tolerance and the desperate need for intolerance. We must be intolerant about those things contrary to the gospel. But we must be tolerant toward those things that are just individual differences, preferences, or convictions. Earnestly seek to learn the difference, for the sake of the gospel.
My prayer is that God will help us to continue to contemplate this text to get a feel for the Apostle Paul and his commitment to this church, a commitment such that he will not walk away or forget those whom he has led to Christ in initial faith, those he will present to the Father, he hopes, as a pure bride. May God help us in our evangelistic zeal and efforts to do better at sharing our faith and leading others to Christ, and help us, like Paul, to understand that this is not the end of it all, but the beginning. May God help us with those who have come to faith in Christ to recognize their vulnerability, their naivet, and to see our role in presenting others to the Father as pure and faithful brides. Our prayer should be that God will help us realize how susceptible we are to Satan’s deceptions, as he brings those within the church who seem so spiritual, who are eager to pass their secrets of success along to us, and in the process, who come with a different message, another Jesus and a different spirit and a different gospel. God help us to recognize that this still happens today, and that He will enable us to be on guard against it and respond as Paul did when we see it.
60 The translation above is a paraphrase I have done to give you my sense of Paul’s argument. I can just see my seminary professor, Dr. Bruce Waltke as he looks at the New American Standard and says, “That is the most accurate translation.” Then he looks at the New International Version and says, “That’s the most readable translation.” Then Dr. Waltke looks at my translation and says, “What in the world is this?” My translation is sort of a paraphrase, but it gives you my sense of the argument of Paul as he works his way through these first 15 verses.
63 I hasten to point out that when Paul speaks of his future plans to preach beyond Corinth and says to the Corinthians, “that you may send me on my way wherever I may go” (1 Corinthians 16:6), he hopes the church at Corinth will do for him somewhere else what the Macedonians have done for him in Corinth. But they must not equate the value of his ministry to them with his paycheck. This is the thing he is trying to correct.
65 What I am saying here is that Satan perceived Eve to be the weaker link, due in part perhaps, to the fact that she may not have heard God’s command, except second-hand, through Adam. I am not saying that women are less intelligent or more vulnerable than men.
67 The word occurs eleven times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Eight times it is rendered “prudent” by the King James Version, twice “crafty,” and once “subtle.” Seven of the eight times in which the word is rendered “prudent,” all are found in the Book of Proverbs (12:16, 23; 13:16; 14:8, 15, 18; 27:12).