I have become a fool in boasting. You have compelled me, for I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds (2 Cor. 12:11f).
The second letter to the Corinthians is one of the most fascinating books in the Bible. It is as clear a picture of the heart of the great apostle Paul as one can find (2 Cor. 6:11).
In that letter he is answering many concerns: “Where has he been? Why hasn’t he come back as he said he would? Does his apostleship really compare to the other apostles? He acts crazy, takes no money, has a pathetic ‘pulpit’ presence; why do we even listen to him?”
Titus, who had recently visited the church at Corinth, has his own questions for the apostle which the second letter answers: “Are you sure they are going to have their contribution ready? It sure didn’t look like it when I was there.” Corinth was forever questioning Paul’s authority (1 Cor. 9:2, 3). There were differences with him that the other apostles did not seem to share: he was not married nor did it seem he ever intended to be (1 Cor. 7:7; 9:5); he did not take a dime from Corinth to help in his ministry (2 Cor. 12:13); in fact, he worked as hard in secular labor as he did in ministry (1 Cor. 9:6); he was much more active than the rest (1 Cor. 15:10); he was much more at home with the Gentiles than the others (1 Cor. 9:21); he was the last apostle commissioned (1 Cor. 15:8), which meant no personal contact with Jesus (so far as anyone knew). And of course, his history was blotted with the innocent blood of Christians (1 Cor. 15:9).
To a congregation that prided itself in preachers and in impressing the surrounding area and community with its sophistication, Paul was, for some, the last guy they wanted to depend on for spiritual guidance (1 Cor. 1:12; 4:10). Add to that the obvious fact that some had designs on the church. They wanted to make it their hang-out, their little nest-egg. Paul’s influence threatened their machinations (1 Cor. 15:33, 34). The quicker they could dispose themselves and the church of that, the better for them.
It is to this last bunch of brethren that Paul speaks so frankly in the last four chapters of 2 Corinthians. He is confronting these fellows, who even presume to put upon themselves the designation of “apostle of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13). His love for even these false teachers is plain. The pain in his heart is obvious and saddening (2 Cor. 12:15). But he has had enough of their interference with the Corinthian brethren (2 Cor. 13:2).
The first time he came was to start the church and introduce them to the Savior (Acts 18:1-18). The second time, he was so disappointed in them, he had to leave lest he “cut loose” on them, to their destruction (2 Cor. 1:23-2:4). But now, after Titus returns to them with this letter, and they have had a chance to meditate on its contents, he will be at their doorstep (2 Cor. 13:1). And he will not leave till this whole mess is settled one way or another.
It is exactly in this context that Paul speaks to them of his apostolic credentials. These would be the validation of all Paul has done in Jesus’ name (Mark 16:20). He reminds them of what they have already seen from him, and strongly indicates that, if they want it, there is much more to come (2 Cor. 13:3).
What he designates as “signs of an apostle” are the miracles, wonders, and mighty acts of power that fill the New Testament and so fire our imaginations today. it is a demonstration of control over nature (John 2:7-11), over the hidden “nether” world (John 11:43, 44), and over future events (John 13:38). It involves what man has dreamed over for eons but what has always seemed elusive to him: the ability to corral and harness all the threatening forces that surround us daily, a power reserved, apparently, only for Deity.
It is this power that the Son of God came to us with and demonstrated so freely for our benefit. It is the same type of power that his authoritative representatives continued to demonstrate (Acts 2:43; 3:6, 7; 4:33; 5:12).
But before he goes into these sensational aspects of his ministry, Paul stresses the humble parts of his service: his deprivations, his sacrifices, the dangers he was constantly facing, his emotional turmoil – the things that no one would count as valuable or helpful, and what his antagonists in the church were struggling so hard to avoid (2 Cor. 11:1-12:11). But it was his use of these things to establish legitimacy that, to use Paul’s phrasing, “cut the ground out from under” the false teachers (2 Cor. 11:10-12). They were into comfort, privilege, prominence, monetary satisfaction, and worldly sophistication, even to the point of lasciviousness, uncleanness, and fornication (2 Cor. 11:19-21; 12:21). Paul was showing the church that, between him and them, there was no comparison.
It is intriguing to consider just what Paul might have had on his mind to discipline the members. It is also interesting that Paul is somewhat afraid of further humiliation in their eyes, as if what would discipline them would humble him (2 Cor. 12:21). But come what may, if they needed sharpness, as Paul put it, to get the point (that “rod” he referred to in the first letter – 1 Cor. 4:21), he was ready to supply it (2 Cor. 13:10).
Discipline is a principle in the Scriptures that, for our day and age, seems absolutely tasteless, if not downright mean. We can hardly stand the idea of someone speaking so directly as to hurt our feelings (2 Cor. 2:2). To contemplate actual physical discomfort as something good someone might truly deliver upon us is insulting and oppressive. And to consider that God would be happy with that outrages us and throws us into total confusion. Such things cannot be love at all, right?
But God would “beg” to differ. Since we are so given to fleshly pleasure and comfort, stress and even pain are necessary tools to discipline our thinking and therefore our behavior (Rom. 8:5-13). Paul disciplined himself as an athlete would, so he could win his “race” (1 Cor. 9:26-27). But when one cannot (or will not) exercise such effort over themselves, the church must care enough to exact enough discomfort to bring the brother back to serious attention to spiritual matters (1 Cor. 5:5). And if the church won’t, then God will (1 Cor. 11:31, 32; Heb. 12:4-11; Rev. 2:14-16).
Generally, discipline is not considered a miraculous manifestation as the Bible puts it forth. It is a social and personal concern that Christians exercise toward each other as the need reveals itself (Heb. 10:24; 2 Thess. 3:14, 15; 2 Tim. 3:1-5). Or it is a matter of providential care, God working within nature to provide us the necessary discipline for our sakes (Amos 4:7-10; Hab. 3:17-19; Rev. 2:22, 23; 9:20, 21). But in the early years of the church’s development, the miraculous powers that declared God’s presence and power were called on to not only convey the truth of God, not only bless and heal in the context of that message, but would also be used to bring discomfort on the enemies of Christ and of righteousness, to discipline the church.
So what exactly would these signs be? It would be the impressive stuff, even the deadly stuff, that apostles could do to glorify Christ (John 14:12). It brings to mind the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira at the feet of the apostle Peter, which had a marvelous salutary effect on the church at that time (Acts 5:1-11). It brings to mind Paul striking Elymas the Magician with temporary blindness, which certainly impressed Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-12). These wonders would be likened to what Paul did at Ephesus, when simple articles of clothing like handkerchiefs that Paul had touched could be brought into the presence of the demon-possessed and the demon would be forced out that instant (Acts 19:11, 12). But ultimately, as Paul implies, it would be whatever it took to get the church’s attention to either withdraw from the false teachers or to help reclaim them after their repentance (Rom. 16:17, 18; Gal. 5:12; 6:1).
To speak directly to the point, the signs of an apostle would be the miraculous works that only an apostle could do to underscore the authority of Christ, which the apostle represented (Matt. 10:8, 40). It would be of a broader sweep than the spiritual gifts obtained by the laying on of the apostles’ hands (1 Cor. 14:18). It would also mean a certain depth in the demonstration of power unique to them (2 Cor. 12:12).
It should be pointed out that, since Paul is the last apostle commissioned, and since there is no apostolic succession as far as the New Testament is concerned, it must follow that when the last apostle passed away, then the signs of an apostle died with him. On the other hand, those who would claim latter day apostolic commission from Christ must be ready to defend the claim with the same sort of signs (raising the dead comes to mind here – 1 John 4:1). Since God, like the truth, is perfectly consistent, we can expect no more apostles today. The completed New Testament serves in their place (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).
It is worth noting that the book of Romans was written by Paul immediately after this third visit (or even during), while Paul was in the same locality (Rom. 15:22-25). Most scholars are convinced that Paul wrote the book from Corinth itself. That being the case, the book of Romans strongly implies that the problems of Corinth were truly settled to Paul’s satisfaction. The secular history of the Corinthian church definitely bears that out.
If so, then we must take note that “the signs of an apostle” most certainly got their attention. Perhaps simply the referencing of them in the second letter so put the “terror of the Lord” in them, that that was all that was needed. We would hope so.
It is also worthy of note that the referencing of the signs is indeed all we do have in our day, the Lord obviously thinking that that is sufficient for us. May such a reference to the Lord’s authority be effective with us.