"Are They Hebrews?"

2 Corinthians 11:16-33

Jeong Woo ("James") Lee

We live as if drifting on the vast ocean of life, often caught in the fierce storm of competition, tossed around by the fickle winds of fortune, in a restless, dizzying undulation—at one moment, riding high on the crests of arrogance and the next, falling deep into the troughs of envy—from the heights of euphoria to the depth of depression. So much of our happiness, our sense of well being, seems to depend on who we are and what we have in comparison to others. This doesn't mean that we have to have more than others. We just don't want to feel too deprived, too far behind when we look around. But maybe you don't want your happiness to be dependent on this game of competition. Maybe you are one of those who have chosen to submerge themselves far beneath the manic-depressant waves of ups and downs because the ups seem far too short compared to the downs and you fear the stomach-churning sense of falling straight down from the top. You have cautiously set your expectations safely low so as not to be disappointed. Maybe if you expect nothing from life, you may find happiness in little things—the happiness of low expectations.

Oh, saints, how about you? Are you drifting or are you submerged? Does the gospel matter in these things at all? My goal is not to offer you just another brand of self-help to cope with all the chaotic, pressing affairs of life. But my desire is that you gain a heavenly perspective, in which and by which Paul lived and ministered—the life Paul lived out of his union with Christ. We get a glimpse of it in Paul's interaction with the Corinthians regarding the intruders.

"Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ . . . ? I more so." Through these words of Paul, we know for certain that the false teachers at Corinth were Judaizers. Who were the Judaizers? About the Judaizers, we learn two things from our text. First, they were Jews (v. 22). Second, they also considered themselves servants of Christ (v. 23). Why, then, do we call them Judaizers and not Jewish Christians? You see, Jewish Christians would be those Christians who happened to be Jews ethnically. They would be Christians first and foremost. Their ethnicity would be of only incidental importance, if any importance at all. Their ethnicity would be without any significant bearing on their Christian faith or their standing in the church of Jesus Christ. Does it matter whether one is an African, or an Anglo, or an Asian in the new covenant community? Neither should it matter whether one is a Jew or not. Even for Jewish Christians, what is essential to their identity must be Christianity, not their ethnic background. However, to these false teachers, their Jewishness was more than ethnic identity.

We can see why. Under the old covenant, to be a Jew meant much more than ethnic identity. To be a Jew was to be a member of Judaism. Israel was a theocracy. In a theocracy, culture and religion are inseparably and indistinguishably connected with each other. A civil crime requires a religious atonement. A religious crime is subject to civil, criminal punishment. To belong to the kingdom of Israel as a full citizen was also to accept and practice Judaism.

What is more, Judaism was the religion of the old covenant, which God himself established by his decree. Israel had been the central figure in redemptive history. God chose Israel to be his special people and entered into a covenant relationship with them. As such, the Jews were given a special status among all peoples. They were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2). God gave them the law, the prophets, the temple, the sacrificial system, the land, etc. God also gave them circumcision as a sign and seal of the covenant.

We know from Paul's letter to the Galatians that Judaizers demanded that Gentile converts be circumcised according to the Mosaic covenant (Gal. 5:2ff). We also know from Paul's letter to the Colossians that they required Gentile converts to keep the Jewish dietary laws as well as the religious feasts of Israel (Col. 2:16). But at Corinth, the problem that the Judaizers caused was deeper and more subtle. They were promoting not so much certain tangible ritual practices that could be readily identified. Rather they were promoting a certain spirit and attitude—what we call triumphalism.

Triumphalism is a belief that rejects suffering and pain as incompatible with Christian faith and living. This belief is closely associated with what theologians call "realized eschatology". Realized eschatology sees the present age as the ultimate arena in which all of God's promises and blessings are being fulfilled. Therefore blessings are defined in earthly terms. As you can see, this is quite different from "semi-realized eschatology", which we believe to be true. What semi-realized eschatology teaches is most clearly expressed in the phrase "already and not yet". According to this view, we believe that the kingdom of God has already come in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but is not yet fully consummated and will only be at the second coming of Christ. When Christ returns, this present evil age will be completely displaced and replaced by the age to come—the first creation will be completely replaced by the new creation. According to realized eschatology, however, there is no future displacement and replacement of this present age. This present age, this present world is where all of God's promises and blessings will be realized and harvested. This view does not deny that a new age has come in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this new age, to them, is simply and purely a chronological, horizontal phenomenon; there is no vertical, heavenly dimension in it. For them, the new age brings the perfection of earthly blessings.

Triumphalism shares the exact same quality with realized eschatology. It is called triumphalism because its theology characterizes Christian living in terms of triumph. Orthodox Christianity, too, would characterize the Christian life as victorious. Paul declared in Romans 8:37 that we are more than conquerors. But our victory in Christ in this day and age is spiritual, not physical. While we reign with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6; cf. 1:20), we suffer tribulation and persecution in this world (Rom. 8:18; Phil. 1:29, etc.). Jesus himself talked of this duality of our spiritual victory and physical suffering in this world in John 16:33: "In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world." Christians now live in that semi-eschatological tension between spiritual victory and physical suffering. This tension will be resolved only at the second coming of Christ.

But triumphalists can't wait that long. They must have their victory—both spiritual and physical—now! According to their theology, there is a direct proportional correlation between their spiritual maturity and physical blessings. The greater faith they have, the greater the material blessings. The reward for their faith is not just their spiritual wellbeing but also material abundance, financial security, power and influence over the world and success in whatever they do. They won't allow the world to persecute them or even look down on them. What they want from the world is its admiration and envy. They want to have more of all that the world wants, provided that they are not evil, immoral things. Their evangelism slogan is, "Do you see all that I have in this world? If you want what I have, believe in Jesus Christ!"

The Judaizers at Corinth were triumphalists. This should not surprise us. For there was something in Judaism that fostered such an attitude. We do not have to look any further than the last portion of the Sinaic covenant, renewed in the Book of Deuteronomy. Of particular interest to us is the sanctions portion of the covenant, recorded in Deuteronomy 28. The Lord says in v. 2, "And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the LORD your God." The catalogue of God's blessings follows:

"Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground and the offspring of your beasts, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out" (vv. 3-6).

You get the idea. What strikes us is the ubiquity of God's blessing on faithful Israel: God's blessings are everywhere—on everything and everyone. Not only the Israelites but also their offspring; but not only their offspring but also the offspring of their herds and flocks; and not only the offspring of their herds and flocks, but also the produce of their ground will be blessed. The Israelite, if they were faithful, would not be able to escape God's blessings. God's blessing would be ubiquitous—that is, God's blessing would be apparent in every arena.

But another fate awaits the Israelites if they disobey:

"But it shall come about, if you will not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out" (vv. 15-19).

The list goes on and on through the end of the chapter. What strikes us, again, is the ubiquity of God's curses on Israel: God's curses are everywhere—on everything and everyone. Not only the Israelites but also their offspring; but not only their offspring but also the offspring of their herds and flocks; and not only the offspring of their herds and flocks, but also the produce of their ground will be cursed. The Israelites, if they were disobedient, would not be able to escape God's curse. God's curse would be ubiquitous through the land of Israel. God's curse would manifest itself in every arena of Israel's life.

As you can see, the blessings and curses of the covenant—the rewards for obedience and the punishments for disobedience—are promised in terms of earthly, material categories. More precisely put, the blessings and curses are related to the nature of the old covenant environment. What was the environment in which the old covenant was nestled? The environment for the old covenant, the environment for the covenant community of Israel, was the Promised Land in Palestine. In so far as Israel was an earthly, physical representation of the kingdom of God, the blessings and curses of the covenant also took an earthly, physical form. Israel's national inheritance was an earthly real estate called the Promised Land and all that it contained—the land and its produce, the animals that grazed and pastured on the land, and the quality of life on the land, such as having children and family, having a plot of land to one's own name, having houses and storage, and having security from the enemies.

Steeped in the Mosaic covenant, the Judaizers still expected the blessings and curses of the old covenant for their spiritual conduct. That is why they boasted of their Jewish pedigree, oratorical skills, social connections and trouble-free life. That is why they viewed Paul with suspicion. The suffering and affliction that characterized Paul's ministry made them seriously doubt the legitimacy of his apostleship. Why would he suffer so much if he did things right? Why would God allow his servant to go through so much affliction if he served God faithfully?

But Paul declares to the Corinthians that a new age has arrived—that the old covenant has been displaced and replaced by the new covenant—that the people of God have been brought into a new environment! This he declares through his resume of sufferings. For what we have in Paul's resume is a complete reversal of the old covenant administration!

Please pay attention to the language of ubiquity in Paul's resume, particularly in verses 26-27: "I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure." Paul's sufferings are ubiquitous. Paul experiences hardships everywhere and from everyone.

This language of ubiquity, which Paul uses to describe his sufferings, is strongly reminiscent of the language of Deuteronomy 28, isn't it? Particularly, in Deuteronomy 28:16, we read, "Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country . . . ." Don't you find a definite, undeniable similarity between these words in Deuteronomy 28:16 and Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 11:26, which say, "dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness . . ."? How remarkable is this phenomenon when viewed in its redemptive historical progression? Can this great redemptive historical reversal be any clearer? It is as if Paul were saying, "Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep—but, oh, how blessed I am to be considered worthy to suffer for his sake! Blessed am I when I am on frequent journeys! Blessed am I when I face dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers! Blessed am I when I face dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles! Blessed am I when I face dangers in the city; blessed am I when I face dangers in the wilderness and blessed am I when I face dangers on the sea! Blessed am I when I face dangers among false brethren! Blessed am I when I am in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure!" The covenant curses of the Mosaic Law are now listed in Paul's resume as his beatitudes—as a proof of his apostolic calling!

This reversal does not imply contradiction between the old covenant and the new covenant. This reversal is designed to unmistakably mark the arrival of what was foreshadowed from the beginning. The reversal signaled that the time of shadows was past and now the time of the true substance had finally arrived. For even under the husk of the old covenant, we can still find the kernel of the new covenant—hidden yet present. You see, even the old covenant did not present the earthly blessings and curses as the ultimate goal of the covenant. The blessings in the land were but incentives; the curses in the land were but preventative measures. And these incentives and preventative measures could not be the ultimate goal; they were there to help achieve the goal. Parents might promise certain gifts to their children if they do well in school. But the parents certainly don't want their children to think of the gifts as the ultimate goal; the ultimate goal is to do well in school. In the same way, the ultimate goal of Israel's covenant with God was not the blessings in the land; rather it was Israel's covenant union with YHWH itself. That is why, even under the old covenant administration, the Levites were not given the inheritance in the land. Regarding their inheritance, the Lord said to the Levites, "You shall have no inheritance in their land, nor own any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel" (Num. 18:20). Do you see? The Lord withholds from the Levites the blessings of the Promised Land in order to accentuate the fact that he is their true inheritance! That is why Habakkuk, too, was able to say,

"Though the fig tree should not blossom, And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail, And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold, And there be no cattle in the stalls, Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, And he has made my feet like hinds' feet, And makes me walk on my high places" ( 3:17-19).

He is deprived of all the blessings of the land. Yet, he is able to rejoice because the Lord is his salvation, his true inheritance forever. Indeed, the deprivation of the earthly blessings helped Habakkuk to see this blessed truth! Yes, the Israelites were promised many blessings in the land if they obeyed the Lord. But the true blessing was found in their faithful and joyful obedience to the Lord itself. For that joyful obedience was a direct, clear sign of the union of hearts and wills between God and his people. That their union with God was without conflict and hostility was a blessing in and of itself. And the opposite was true. To rebel against almighty God in disobedience, to cut off their fellowship with the God of infinite love, was a curse, the worst kind of curse, in and of itself.

In Paul's life and ministry of suffering, this principle was demonstrated clearly and radically. What do you think was going through Paul's mind when he found himself often in unthinkable suffering and pain? Can you imagine what could have been going through his mind when he spent those long, lonely hours in prison cells—dark, damp, cold and filthy? What about each time the whip whizzed through the air and cracked on his chest and back, bursting his skin open, his body cringing under the shock of the unbearable pain? What about when he was being flogged by rods, when the sharp pain dug into his bones and sinews? I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be actually stoned. The adrenaline rush must have averted some pain but how horrible must have been the impact of the jagged stones mercilessly landing on his skull, on his face, on his arms and hands that covered his head, on his ribs, on his back and even on his shin bones! What about when he was shipwrecked and had to spend a night and a day in the sea? It is one thing to sail through a storm on a rocking ship; it is quite another to be thrown overboard and into the heaving and crashing waves of the raging sea; to paw the air just to stay afloat—and to do that through the utter blackness of the stormy night and through the lightless day!

How long the lashing must have seemed to Paul! I wonder what kind of thoughts went through his mind between one whipping and the next! Was he too overwhelmed by the excruciating pain of the moment? Or did he have just enough sanity to vow never to preach the gospel again? Or could it be that, even in the midst of lashing and whipping, flogging and stoning, his eyes were directed to heaven?

Strangely, the pain did not drive him away from his devotion and allegiance to Christ. Instead, it drew him even closer to his Master and Lord. Each time he was struck with a rod, each time he was lashed, he remembered his Lord Jesus, who suffered on his behalf. While his skin was being gashed open, his union with Christ was being bonded even more tightly and inseparably. Paul was not a sick masochist, who was irresistibly drawn to pain itself. He could not have enjoyed the pain. Truly unbearable was the pain that all those lashing and whipping inflicted on him. But something greater, something far greater than all that pain gripped him even while that pain was being inflicted on him!

He once saw Stephen, the first martyr (whom Paul himself condemned to be stoned); did he not see Stephen calling upon the Lord, saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!"? Did he not see Stephen being stoned and falling on his knees, yet crying out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them"? What he witnessed with his own eyes and yet could not believe now became a reality in his tribulation. He once regarded Stephen as a man cursed by God. But now, he considered him blessed! Now, Paul considered himself blessed to share in the sufferings of Christ as Stephen did! The reality of the new covenant in Jesus Christ, the reality of the kingdom of heaven outshone the pain of physical suffering and emotional humiliation. It was this spiritual reality that enabled him to endure all manner of suffering and pain that were all too real and all too frequent! But more importantly, it was this spiritual reality that gave him an unshakable assurance.

Friends, do you see? To Paul, this theological truth was not something that just sounded good. It mattered to him—it meant everything to him—in his daily struggle for the gospel of Jesus Christ—at those very moments when his body was put through the most excruciating torture and pain. Anyone steeped in the Mosaic covenant would have looked at his catalogue of sufferings and said, "Cursed! This man, subjected to such horrible hardships, is certainly cursed by God!" As a former Pharisee, Paul knew that better than anyone. But Paul, now an apostle of Jesus Christ, knew something greater had arrived to change all that! Indeed, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ enabled Paul to exclaim triumphantly, "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting" (1 Cor. 15:54-55)? If death, which is the ultimate punishment of our sin, the ultimate curse of the law, has lost its sting by the death and resurrection of Christ, how much more our miseries and sufferings in this world? Christ, in his death and resurrection, has removed the curse of the law forever from his people. The curse of the law has lost its sting. It has been forever swallowed up in victory! Paul's resume of sufferings brings this reality to a dramatic expression.

Friends, are you still living under the Mosaic covenant? Do you live as Judaizers did? Do you still depend on what things of the earth you have for your happiness—the things that are temporary and perishable? Are you arrogantly complacent because things seem to go well with you—to the point that you have no longing for intimate fellowship with God—to the point that you look down on the less fortunate?

Or, when troubles come at you, when your life seems to be a mountain of obstacles one after another, the next one always seeming worse than the last, do you feel abandoned and cursed? But I declare to you—I declare to you on God's eternal faithfulness, "That is not true! There is nothing in both heaven and earth that can separate you from the love of Jesus Christ!" The world might think that you are cursed by God because of all your troubles. Sometimes you yourself might agree with that! But when the stones of affliction and doubt are thrown at you, when the world strikes you with rods and whips of suffering and pain, when you feel all alone, ready to drown in the vast ocean of life, lift your eyes to heaven and see your Lord of glory in heaven! There, in him, is your reward! There, in him, are all your blessings and treasure! Then you will be able to say with Paul,

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword
. . . ? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:35, 38-39)!

You can be sure that you shall never be separated from the love of Jesus Christ! For Jesus Christ, your Savior, was condemned, cursed and abandoned by God on the cross so that you may never be separated from your God! Oh, may you testify to this powerful reality especially at the very moment of your suffering and pain! And with patience, let us look forward to that time when our faith shall be sight, when God himself will wipe our tears, when suffering will be replaced with the endless bliss of heaven!

New Life Mission Church of La Jolla (PCA)
La Jolla, California