Paul spends time defending his ministry. Evidently there were eminent "super-apostles (2 Cor 12:11), who were sharp in every way. Paul was unimpressive and even contemptible in comparison. These other leaders apparently had letters of commendation (2 Cor 3) which was impressive, they apparently boasted in their success, knowledge, and accomplishments (2 Cor 10-12), they apparently were skilled (2 Cor 11:6), unlike Paul, they were paid by the people they taught (2 Cor 11:7), which is what any eminent teacher/philosopher/etc. would do. Paul could have easily used many of these same methods but chose not to (2 Cor 2). He intentionally "de-exalted" himself. Apparently his trainees did the same(2 Cor 12:18).
There is a theme of spiritual warfare that seems to run through much of what he says, but it is a war that runs upside-down and backwards to conventional thought about ministry, strength, power, and success.
2 Cor 1:5 - "For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ."
2 Cor 1:12b - "… not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God we have conducted ourselves in the world, especially toward you."
Paul rejected conventional wisdom and chose to operate in the grace of God instead. He recognized that God's grace is sufficient. He does not need anything else, and anything else may actually be detrimental.
2 Cor 3:fb - "…but our adequacy is from God."
2 Cor 3:18 - "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory (or, with ever increasing glory"), just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
The goal of his ministry was not amassing a large following like some of the "super-apostles" of the day. The goal came from his Lord - it was lives that are being transformed into the image of Christ. In other words, people lived like, thought like, and had the attitude of Christ. It was never about the greatness of the vessel, but the greatness of God.
2 Cor 3:7 - "We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;"
2 Cor 4:18 - "…we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen…"
2 Cor 5:7 - "…we walk by faith, not by sight…"
Paul and his disciples had 20/20 spiritual vision. They could see, perceive, and understand the world around them. They also understood their own inadequacy, weakness, and brokenness. This is why Paul was able to correctly say "I am a nobody (2 Cor 12:11).
2 Cor 5:16 - "…from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know (Him - this word supplied by the translators and not in the original text) in this way no longer…"
Paul does not look at anyone or anything from a fleshly point of view. He operates out of a different paradigm that is not of this world, which redefines greatness, success, and wisdom.
2 Cor 10:1-4 - "Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness of gentleness of Christ - I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses."
2 Cor 10:7-10 - "You are looking at things as they are outwardly. If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ's, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ's, so also are we…For they say, 'His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible."
Only a fraction of what a person can communicate gets across when he puts his words in print. Body language, tone of voice, and other things do not come across. Paul's words were powerful because he was speaking the will of God. However, his personal presence was unimpressive and contemptible. Yet this did not stop God from using Paul. In fact it appears that God uses Paul not in spite of his weakness, but through his weakness.
2 Cor 11:6-9 - "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. Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you without charge? I robbed other church by taking wages from them to serve you"
2 Cor 11:21 - "To my shame, I must say that we have been weak by comparison."
2 Cor 11:30 - "If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weaknesses."
2 Cor 12:10 - "Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong."
Compared to those "super-apostles," Paul has been weak. Paul never shied away from his weakness, brokenness, or his failures. In fact, he seems to embrace them so that God can use them as tools for his mission. Paul often uses his weakness to build up the church. I wonder what the effect might have been if Paul had highlighted his strengths, successes and made use of every skill he had, trying to outdo those super-apostles?
2 Cor 13:3-4 - "…since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you. For indeed He was crucified because of (out of, or in - Greek is "ek") weaknesses, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.
For Paul, modeling weakness was not just the result of being honest and mature enough, but it was also a matter of following in the footsteps of Christ who himself was crucified in weakness. Paul lived in weakness with Christ so that the power of God would work in his weakness.
The lesson for us in all of this is clear. If we are going to walk according to the Spirit and not the flesh, if we are going operate out of the grace of God rather than worldly wisdom, if we are going to walk by faith and not by sight, then it is imperative that we be honest enough with ourselves and those around us to embrace our weakness and failures so that God will work through them. If we simply do nothing, we, like the first generation of Israel, can find ourselves wandering the wilderness for a whole generation. If we become defensive, argumentative, or combative about it, we may find ourselves in the same boat as the Pharisees who were like whitewashed tombs but full of death inside. Instead, God worked people like those bumbling, rag-tag group of Galileans that didn't seem like they would ever get it. God worked through one who persecuted and killed Christians. God worked through those who persecuted and scattered everywhere. God worked through messed up people.
Yet how often do we have the tendency to see things through the eyes of conventional wisdom? I remember years ago visiting a church building that had over 1,000 in the congregation. We were impressed at the building, the counseling center, the foyer with looked like a mall, and the gifted multi-staffed ministry team. Boy! This was a healthy church that was going places. Or was it? That little church in a small town in Arkansas is in a tiny, aging building, the parking lot is gravel or dirt, the carpet and pews are worn, and they only have a semi-retired farmer to "preach." Some may find this little church contemptible compared to the big, slick church. Yet those people in that little church do all kinds of meaningful ministry. They fed their hungry neighbors, were involved in World Bible School, and were always more than generous in the name of Christ whenever there was a need. They were truly godly people. In fact, percentage-wise, there was much, much less sin, scandal, gossip, dishonesty, pride, etc. at this little church without all of the ministry specialist than there was at the large church with the impressively trained staff and resources.
Seeing things according to the flesh is to look at all of the worldly indicators of success which was gained through skill, training, and the right management principles. However, seeing the unseen is to look deeper. No one needs advanced degrees, training, or impressive skill for God to work through them. In fact, it could wind up being counter-productive in so many ways. Maybe this is why Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit before they went out. They needed to go out in the power of the Spirit rather than the flesh. As a result, they never tried to downplay, "clean-up," or make more palatable the foolishness of the cross. They gloried in it not only as they means of their salvation, but also as a pattern of live. They died with Christ an live according to his model.
My flesh wants what makes me look good. I sometimes want to have a contingency plan for everything before moving forward, which tells me I may be relying on my flesh rather than on the power of the Spirit. I sometimes make ministry more complicated than it really is. I need to be filled with the Spirit and walk according to the Spirit and think according to the Spirit rather than the flesh.
It is an illusion to think that we need to have it all together before we can serve God. This illusion stems from a lack of faith, from pride, and from worldly wisdom. Whether it is something that looks a silly as a group of untrained ex-slaves marching around a walled city like Jericho, or a warrior whose military plan involves love, turning the other cheek, loving your neighbor, and ultimately being executed through a contemptible torture method like being hung on a cross, what is important is faithfulness to God. Sometimes I just need to step forward in faith and do what God wants me to regardless of how it looks from a worldly point of view. This is true wisdom.
I believe that one of the key ingredients to spiritual health, spiritual growth and transformation is a keen understanding of this.