Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now I Paul myself beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, who in presence am base among you, but being absent am bold toward you:X.
(1) Now I Paul myself beseech you.—His thoughts, as has been said, have travelled back to Corinth. The stinging words which Titus had reported to him (see Note on 2Corinthians 10:10) vex his soul. He speaks in the tone of the suppressed indignation which shows itself in a keen incisive irony. The opening formula is one which he reserves as emphasising an exceptionally strong emotion (Galatians 5:2; Ephesians 3:1; Philemon 1:19).
By the meekness and gentleness of Christ.—On the precise ethical significance of the former word see Note on Matthew 5:5; on that of the second, on Acts 24:4. The temper described by the latter is that of one who does not press his rights, but acts in the spirit of equitable concession. The use of the formula of adjuration implies (1) that he felt how the opponents of whom he is about to speak were lacking in those two excellencies; (2) that he could appeal to what they knew of the personal character of Jesus as possessing them. This knowledge, it is obvious, must have rested on a general acquaintance with the facts of the Gospel history, like that implied in his treatment of the Lord’s Supper in 1Corinthians 11:23-25; and of the Resurrection in 1Corinthians 15:1-7; and in his reference to our Lord’s teaching in Acts 20:35.
Who in presence am base among you.—Literally, in person—i.e., in personal appearance. Possibly, however, the translators may have used the word “presence” in this sense. So Bacon speaks of “dignity of presence.” The fact that “outward appearance” is given in the margin as an alternative reading, suggests, however, that though they changed the word, they meant what Cranmer and the Geneva version had expressed by “when I am present with you.” For “base,” read downcast, or of low estate. We have already seen, in 2Corinthians 7:6 a reference to the offensive word.
But being absent am bold toward you.—This also was one of the taunts. “It was easy to be bold at a distance; but would he have the courage to face them? Was not his delay in coming a proof that he was shirking that encounter?”
But I beseech you, that I may not be bold when I am present with that confidence, wherewith I think to be bold against some, which think of us as if we walked according to the flesh.(2) But I beseech you . . .—There is, of course, an implied warning, almost a menace, in the entreaty. He would fain be spared the necessity for boldness when he and those of whom he speaks meet face to face; but if the necessity comes it will be the worse for them. They “reckon” him as walking “after the flesh,” with low and selfish aims and tortuous arts. (Comp. 2Corinthians 1:17; Romans 8:12-13; 1Corinthians 1:26.) He “reckons” that he has daring enough to confront those who take that estimate of him.
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh:(3) For though we walk in the flesh.—The phrase is generally used by St. Paul for the simple fact of bodily existence, with all its incidental infirmities and trials, but, commonly, without implying sin, as “after the flesh” does (Galatians 2:20; Philippians 1:22-24; 1Timothy 3:16). The thought of participating in the sin of which the body is the occasion is, however, very close to that of sharing its weakness; and the phrase appears with this sense in Romans 8:8-9.
We do not war after the flesh.—Strictly, we are not carrying on our campaign. See Note on Luke 3:14, where the same word is used. As so often in St. Paul’s style, the word—especially any word like this, connected with the soldier’s life—becomes the germ of an elaborate figurative imagery, almost of a parable.
(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)(4) For the weapons of our warfare . . .—We learn from the earlier words of 1Thessalonians 5:8, yet more from the later ones of Ephesians 6:11-16, what these were—the energies of spiritual powers given by the Eternal Spirit.
To the pulling down of strong holds.—The phrase is essentially military, used in the LXX. for the capture and destruction of fortresses (Lamentations 2:2; Proverbs 21:22); “casting down the strength” (1 Maccabees 5:65); “pulled down the fortress” (8:10). He speaks as if leading an attack on the strong defences of the powers of evil, possibly thinking of the great system of idolatry and impurity enthroned at Corinth and throughout the Empire, possibly of those of pride and obstinate rebellion in the hearts of his individual opponents. The context favours the latter interpretation. It has been suggested (Stanley, in loc.) that the Apostle’s language may have been coloured by national memories of the wars against the Cilicians carried on by Pompeius, which ended in the reduction of one hundred and twenty fortresses and the capture of more than 10,000 prisoners.
Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;(5) Casting down imaginations.—The participle is in agreement with the “we war not” of 2Corinthians 10:3. In the Greek word rendered “imaginations,” we have the noun derived from the verb rendered “think,” or reckon, in 2Corinthians 10:2. It would be better, perhaps, to carry on the continuity by rendering it thoughts, or even reckonings.
Every high thing that exalteth itself.—The noun probably belongs, like “stronghold,” to the language of military writers, and indicates one of the rock fortresses, the
“Tot congesta manu præruptis oppida saxis,”
[“Towns piled high on rocks precipitous,”]
—Virgil, Georg. i. 156.
which were so conspicuous in all ancient systems of defence.
Against the knowledge of God.—The parable and the interpretation are here obviously blended. The thoughts of men resist the knowledge of God as the stronghold of rebels resists the armies of the rightful king.
Bringing into captivity every thought.—The verb is used by St. Paul again in Romans 7:23; 2Timothy 3:6. There can be no doubt that “the obedience of Christ “means “obedience to Christ,” and it had better, therefore, be so translated.
And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.(6) And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience.—The idiom, having in a readiness, is perhaps, somewhat too archaic, and it might be better to render being ready, or holding ourselves ready. The words that follow imply the thought that those with which the verse opens were somewhat too unqualified. When he spoke of “avenging all disobedience,” he was not thinking of those to whom he writes, and whose repentance and obedience had filled him with so much joy (2Corinthians 7:6-13), but only of the rebellious remnant. He would wait till all had obeyed who were willing to obey. He does not indicate what form of vengeance he thought of taking, but we may think of some such severe discipline as that indicated by “delivering to Satan,” in 1Corinthians 5:5; 1Timothy 5:20, with a view, if it were possible, to their ultimate restoration. (Comp. 2Corinthians 13:3-10.)
Do ye look on things after the outward appearance? If any man trust to himself that he is Christ's, let him of himself think this again, that, as he is Christ's, even so are we Christ's.(7) Do ye look on things after the outward appearance?—The Greek sentence may be taken either as interrogative, imperative, or indicative. The latter “ye look on things . . .” gives the most satisfactory meaning, as pressing home the charge on which he proceeds to dwell. He has, of course, the party of resistance in his thoughts, but he writes to the whole community, as influenced—some more and some less—by the tendency to attach undue weight to the outward accidents of those who claimed their allegiance rather than to that which was of the essence of all true Apostolic ministry.
If any man trust to himself that he is Christ’s . . .—There cannot be the shadow of a doubt that the words refer to those whose watchword was “I am of Christ” (see Note on 1Corinthians 1:12), who laid claim to some special connection with Him, either as having been His personal disciples, or, at least, as having seen and known Him. In answer to that claim, with a half-ironical emphasis on “let him think,” or “let him reckon” (comp. 2Corinthians 10:2; 2Corinthians 10:5), he asserts that he is as truly His—i.e., connected with Him, chosen by Him—as they were.
For though I should boast somewhat more of our authority, which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for your destruction, I should not be ashamed:(8) For though I should boast somewhat more of our authority.—Literally, somewhat too much—perhaps as quoting a word that had been used of him. In referring to his “authority,” it scarcely admits of question that he claims—as in 1Corinthians 5:5; 1Timothy 5:20, and by implication in 2Corinthians 10:6—the power to enforce that authority by a supernatural chastisement, as, e.g., in the case of Elymas. He is anxious, however, having used the word “pulling down,” or “destruction,” to qualify his threat by the assertion that the power had been given him with a view, not “for destruction,” but “for edification,” or, to express the force of the antithesis more adequately, for building up. (Comp. 1Corinthians 14:12-26; Ephesians 4:12-16; and Notes on 2Corinthians 13:10.)
I should not be ashamed.—Better, I shall not be ashamed. He was quite sure, without any shadow of misgiving, that if he proceeded to the extreme step of delivering his opponents to Satan, the result which he contemplates will follow.
That I may not seem as if I would terrify you by letters.(9) That I may not seem as if I would terrify you by letters.—The logical sequence of thought is: “I say this” (i.e., that my sentence of delivery to Satan will not be a hollow form) “in order that I may not seem to frighten you as with a bug-bear.” This, it is clear from what follows, had been said. (Comp. the sneer in the next verse.) The use of the plural in this verse and that which follows is in favour of the hypothesis of a lost letter being referred to in 1Corinthians 5:9, but does not absolutely prove it.
For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.(10) For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful.—Allusive references to what had been said of him at Corinth have already appeared frequently. Here, for the first time, we have the very words quoted. The scorn conveyed in them had wounded the Apostle’s sensitive nature like a poisoned arrow; and we have here the nearest approach which the New Testament presents to the passionate complaints poured forth by some of the Psalmists of the Old (Psalms 69, 109). We note the common element of a burning indignation under the sense of wrong. We note also the absence from the Apostle’s feelings of the maledictory element which is so prominent in theirs. The “meekness and gentleness of Christ” had not been without their effect in tempering even the most vehement emotions.
The great majority of MSS. give the verb in the singular: “For his letters, saith he . . .” This may be taken, like the French on dit, as used impersonally, and possibly this is the meaning which the English version was intended to convey. The context, however, the definite “such a man as that” of the next verse, is obviously decisive. St. Paul has in his thoughts here, and through the rest of the chapter, one conspicuous antagonist,—the head of a clique and cabal of opponents.
His bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.—As with other antithetical epigrams, the sting was found in the tail. It would seem all but incredible that any doubt could ever have been expressed as to the fact that the words point to physical infirmities. They can, indeed, refer to nothing else. For the tradition as to the Apostle’s personal appearance, see Excursus at the end of the Acts of the Apostles. The “contemptible speech” (literally, speech of no value; counted as nought) may refer either to a weak or unmusical voice, or to the absence of the rhetorical artifices, the exordium, divisions, perorations, in which Greek audiences delighted. It may be noted that these words give a fresh significance to a remarkable passage in an Epistle written, in the judgment of many critics, within a few weeks of this. “You,” he says to the Galatians (Galatians 4:13-14), “though I came to you with that infirmity of the flesh which others sneer at, the chronic trial of my life, you did not contemn” (the self-same verb as that used here) “nor loathe me.” There is manifestly a contrast present to his thoughts between the mean insults of his rivals at Corinth and the affection which the Galatians had once manifested, and which made their subsequent alienation all the more painful to him.
Let such an one think this, that, such as we are in word by letters when we are absent, such will we be also in deed when we are present.(11) Such will we be also.—As a verb of some kind must be supplied, it would be better to give the present: Such are we. It is not so much a threat of what will happen in a particular instance as a statement of the general consistent character of his life.
For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.(12) We dare not make ourselves of the number.—The last five words give the meaning of one Greek verb (enkrînai = to insert), the sound of which seems immediately to suggest the cognate verb (synkrînai = to compare). It is, of course, hard to convey the half-playful assonance in English. In “some that commend themselves” we note a reference to the charge of self-commending, which he has already noticed four times (2Corinthians 3:1; 2Corinthians 4:2; 2Corinthians 5:12; 2Corinthians 7:11). Before he had defended himself against the charge; now he retorts it on his opponents. In “we dare” we trace a reference to the charge of cowardice, as in 2Corinthians 10:2.
Measuring themselves by themselves.—The Greek MSS. present many various readings, some of the best MSS. omitting “are not wise, but,” and some giving “not boasting” for “we will not boast;” and the Greek text, on any reading, presents a grammatical difficulty, arising from the fact that the last word may be either the third person plural of a verb in the indicative present, or a participle in the dative case, agreeing with “themselves.” It is hardly necessary to discuss here the various possible constructions rising out of the combination of these phenomena. The English version gives, it is believed, substantially the meaning of the original. In the very act of saying, with a touch of irony, that he will not compare himself with the rival teachers, the Apostle virtually does compare himself. And the point he makes is that they instituted no such comparison. They were their own standards of excellence. Each was “amator sui sine rivali.” Collectively, they formed what has been described in the language of modern literary history as a “Mutual Admiration Society.” Of all such self-admiration—one might almost say, of all such autolatry—St. Paul declares, what the experience of all ages attests, that they who practise it “are not wise.” They lose, as the Greek verb more definitely expresses it, all power of discernment.
But we will not boast of things without our measure, but according to the measure of the rule which God hath distributed to us, a measure to reach even unto you.(13) But we will not boast of things without our measure.—The words imply, of course, that his opponents were doing this. He refers in it to the concordat established between himself and Barnabas, on the one hand, and Peter, James, and John on the other, to which he refers in Galatians 2:9. He had not transgressed the terms of that concordat by thrusting himself upon a Church which had been founded by one of the Apostles of the circumcision. He had gone, step by step, seeking “fresh fields and pastures new,” till he had reached Corinth as, at present, the farthest limit of his work. In that apportionment of work, though it was a compact with human teachers, he saw the guidance of God; his opponents, on the other hand, had systematically violated it. They had come to the Church of Antioch, which had been founded by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:1); they had followed in his footsteps in Galatia (see Introduction to Epistle to the Galatians); they were now stirring up strife and disloyalty at Corinth. We note as an undesigned coincidence that a few weeks or months later, as in Romans 15:19, he had preached the gospel as far as Illyricum, but this was during the time immediately following on the despatch of this Epistle, during which, on his way to Corinth, whence he wrote to Rome, he had “gone over those parts, and given them much exhortation” (Acts 20:2).
For we stretch not ourselves beyond our measure, as though we reached not unto you: for we are come as far as to you also in preaching the gospel of Christ:(14) For we stretch not ourselves . . . as though we reached not unto you.—Some of the better MSS. omit the negative, and then the sentence must be taken as a question: “Are we over-reaching” (i.e., transgressing boundaries), “as though you were not within the limit assigned to us?”
For we are come as far as to you also.—The word for “come” (not the usual verb) is one which almost always in the New Testament, as in classical Greek, carries with it the sense of anticipation, “getting before others.” (See Note on Matthew 12:28.) And this is obviously St. Paul’s meaning. “We were the first to come,” he says, “as working within our limits; the very fact that we did so come being a proof of it.” They (his rivals) came afterwards, and were intruders. On Corinth, as the then limit of his work, see Note on the preceding verse.
Not boasting of things without our measure, that is, of other men's labours; but having hope, when your faith is increased, that we shall be enlarged by you according to our rule abundantly,(15) Not boasting of things without our measure . . .—The words are not merely defensive. He presses home the charge of intrusion. They, not he, were finding ground for their boasts in other men’s labours. The context leads, however, to the conclusion that it was a charge that had been brought against him. They had spoken of him as pushing on from point to point, as with a measureless ambition. Perhaps the fact that he had worked at Antioch, where the gospel had been preached by men of Cyprus and Cyrene (Acts 11:20), at Troas, where it had been preached by St. Luke (see Notes on 2Corinthians 2:12; Acts 16:8), to the Romans whom he found at Corinth, and who, like Aquila and Priscilla, had been already converted (see Notes on Acts 18:2), were thought to give a colour to the charge that he was boasting in other men’s labours.
Having hope, when your faith is increased.—The verb is in the present tense, and should be translated, as your faith grows. The words are spoken in the spirit of one—
“Nil actum reputans si quid superesset agendum”
[“Who thinks nought done while aught remains to do”]—
who seeks for fresh provinces to annex to the territory of his king. The growth of their faith will give him fresh courage, perhaps also fresh resources. But what does he mean by his “hope that we shall be enlarged according to” (or, perhaps, in relation to) “our rule”? The words seem to imply something more than a mere extension of labours, and suggest the probability that in his journey to Jerusalem, with the large and liberal gifts of the Gentile churches, he had an intention, here half-avowed, to endeavour to modify the terms of the concordat referred to in Galatians 2:9, and to get the sanction of the Church of Jerusalem for his mission work at Rome: though there the gospel had been preached by others, and it was, primarily, at least, one of the Churches of the Circumcision. It will be seen that this supposition explains better than any other the apologetic tone of Romans 15:20-29. It was his reluctance even to appear to build on another man’s foundation that had hitherto kept him from them. He does not intend to appear, when he comes, in the character of the founder of this Church, or even as building the superstructure, but only as a friend, seeking mutual help and counsel. Spain is his goal. He takes Rome as a parenthesis. But he is going to Jerusalem, and he hopes that the difficulty which has hitherto hindered him will be removed.
To preach the gospel in the regions beyond you, and not to boast in another man's line of things made ready to our hand.(16) To preach the gospel in the regions beyond you.—It is clear, from Romans 15:19-24, that he is thinking (1) of Western Greece, (2) of Rome, (3, and chiefly) of Spain. There, apparently, he could hope to preach the gospel without even the risk of its being said that he was building on another man’s foundation.
And not to boast in another man’s line . . .—The words, like those of 2Corinthians 10:15, are at once an answer to a charge and a tu quoque retort. “Spain! Illyricum!” he seems to say within himself. “Will you say that I am transgressing boundaries and working on another man’s lines there? Can you say that you are free from that charge in your work at Corinth?”
But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.(17) He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.—Better, He that boasteth, the English translators having again yielded to their besetting weakness for variation. On the general meaning of the phrase, which has been used before, see Note on 1Corinthians 1:31. Here it has a more special force. “To boast in the Lord” was to boast as in the sight of Christ of that of which the boaster thought as done, not by himself, but by Christ as dwelling in him.
For not he that commendeth himself is approved, but whom the Lord commendeth.(18) For not he that commendeth himself is approved.—Again, as in 2Corinthians 10:12 and five earlier passages (see reference there), we trace the impression which the stinging taunt had left on St. Paul’s mind. In the word “approved” there is possibly a reference to what had been said in 1Corinthians 11:19. He had meant something more by it than meeting with men’s approval.