But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you. For we are not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach you. For we were the first to come all the way to you with the gospel of Christ. We do not boast beyond limit in the labors of others. But our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged, so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another’s area of influence. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends. – 2 Corinthians 10:13-18 ESV
While Paul was willing to become all things to all people in order that he might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22), he was not willing to submit himself to the authority of men or to work for their approval. Fourteen years after his conversion, Paul traveled to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to meet with the original apostles. He had already been doing ministry among the Gentiles for well over a decade. He had not traveled to Jerusalem to get their approval for his ministry. In fact, Paul quite boldly proclaimed:
…the leaders of the church had nothing to add to what I was preaching. (By the way, their reputation as great leaders made no difference to me, for God has no favorites.) Instead, they saw that God had given me the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as he had given Peter the responsibility of preaching to the Jews. – Galatians 2:6-7 NLT
Paul would later tell Timothy, “Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 NLT). He also told him, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT). For Paul, the approval of God was paramount. He considered himself a servant of God and so his only concern was to do what his Master had commanded him to do. And yet, because he was human, Paul was sensitive to the constant criticism he faced. His ministry was always under siege, and the most vicious attacks seemed to be leveled at him personally.
It seems that, in the case of Corinth, Paul was being accused of having overstepped his bounds. Corinth was a long way from Jerusalem. Paul might argue that he was under the same commission Jesus had given to the original disciples, to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV), but his critics were saying he was out of bounds in Corinth. It was their territory. He needed to mind his own business and leave them alone. But Paul considered Corinth well within his God-assigned jurisdiction. He was the one who had brought the gospel there and had helped plant the first church. “For we were the first to come all the way to you with the gospel of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:14b ESV).
When ministry becomes a competition or a quest for fame and glory, everyone loses. Those who minister in order to gain recognition or the approval of men will always find others who minister as adversaries, not allies. Paul was not out to build his reputation, but to build up the body of Christ. He was not motivated by man’s approval, but by God’s. Paul wanted to one day hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21 ESV). The whole idea of ministerial boundaries and serving God for personal glory or gain, was foreign to Paul. He simply went where God told him to go, and he was able to say, “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:19b-20 ESV). Paul’s passion was for evangelism. He longed to take the gospel to those places where the name of Christ was unknown and the message of the good news had not yet been heard. But Paul also had a desire to see those who had come to faith in Christ grow up in their salvation (1 Corinthians 3:2; 1 Peter 2:2). So while he was anxious to continue his missionary efforts and to take the gospel to places such as Rome and Spain (Acts 19:21; Romans 15:28), he was not willing to watch newly converted Christians languish in spiritual infancy or find themselves prey to false teachers. So he continued to reach out to the Corinthians, longing to see them grow. And it was his desire that they would increase in spiritual health and maturity “so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another’s area of influence” (2 Corinthians 10:16 ESV). He wanted to move on, but was not willing to do so if it meant sacrificing the stability of the work in Corinth.
When all was said and done, Paul was only interested in one thing: the approval of God. He truly operated under the idea that he performed his duties before an audience of one: God. Yes, there would always be others watching. There would always be some who complimented his work and others who attacked it. But at the end of the day, he was looking for God’s approval. He wanted to be able to lay his head on the pillow and find rest in the fact that he had done what God had called him to do. Which is what led him to say, “‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:17-18 ESV). When we do the will of God, we will find ourselves with admirers and detractors as well. We may receive compliments and equal amounts of criticism. We will have our methods and motives questioned. We will watch others attempt to take credit for what we have done. But as long as we are doing what we do for the Lord, it will not matter. Like Paul, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we perform our duties for an audience of one. All that is truly important is what He thinks. The applause and approval of men carry no weight when compared to the commendation of God. So, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17 ESV), and “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31 NLT).