Look at what is before your eyes. If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. For even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed. I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters. For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding. – 2 Corinthians 10:7-12 ESV
Paul had his critics. They seemed to dog his steps and show up wherever he went. And Corinth was no exception. For whatever reason, Paul was always having to defend his apostleship. It seems that his critics used that particular topic as one of their favorites in their attempt to discredit Paul. And Paul was fully aware that his apostleship and commissioning by the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, was far from conventional. He was not one of the original disciples. Unlike John, James, Peter and the others, he had not been hand-picked and called by Jesus. He had not spent three years serving as a disciple to the Messiah. He had not been present on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. Paul realized that his calling had been radically different, but it was also no less real. He had seen the resurrected Lord. He had clearly received his call to be “a chosen instrument … to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15b ESV).
But while his apostleship and the authority that accompanied it was the primary point of objection for his critics, Paul also faced attack on a variety of other, more superficial levels. In the verses above, we see them accusing Paul of weakness. Essentially, they say that Paul hides behind his pen, writing scathing, authoritative letters full of demands and commands. But in person, he proves to be a disappointment – physically weak and verbally challenged. In other words, Paul was a less-than-dynamic physical force. His oratory skills were far from impressive. And the interesting thing is, that Paul fully disclosed the truth behind all of that. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul admitted, “When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan” (1 Corinthians 2:1 ESV). He went on to explain, “I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5 ESV). Paul would go on to confess, “I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church” (1 Corinthians 15:9 NLT). Paul referred to himself as “the least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8) and the worst of all sinners (1 Timothy 1:16).
So Paul would have heartily agreed with his critics’ assessment of his weakness. In fact, just a few chapters later in this same letter, Paul will eagerly and proudly exclaim, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV). Weakness was not a negative to Paul. He saw it as a positive, because it forced him to rely on the power of God. But his weakness did not negate his authority. He refused to allow his critics to undermine his authority simply because they were unimpressed with his presence. He was a representative of God, a Christ-ordained spokesman with a commission to build up the body of Christ.
As is almost always the case in a dispute regarding authority, there was someone in Corinth who was also claiming to be speaking for Christ. That is what led Paul to say, “If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we” (2 Corinthians 10:7 ESV). This individual was the one who was painting Paul as a weakling. His bold, in-your-face letters were a cover-up for his far-from-impressive presence. The reason Paul spent so much time away, this individual suggested, was because Paul knew his letters were more effective than his physical presence. But Paul responds, “Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present” (2 Corinthians 10:11 ESV).
Paul was not going to get into a war of words or a defense of his ministry based on outward appearances or physical attributes. In fact, he told the Corinthians, “Oh, don’t worry; we wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant!” (2 Corinthians 10:12 NLT). For Paul, the message was all that really mattered. He saw himself as nothing more than an unworthy vessel through which God poured out the blessing of the gospel upon those who were undeserving and in need of His mercy. Paul has already told the Corinthians:
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. – 2 Corinthians 4:5-7 ESV
Jars of clay. Vessels of stone. Cheap household pottery. It wasn’t the receptacle that was to impress, but the contents contained within it. Paul never intended to overwhelm people with his power, presence, or eloquence. His simply wanted to be faithful to his calling and allow the power of God to flow through him.
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:2-5 ESV