The “super-apostles” were false teachers who appeared to be superior to Paul in their manner and authority. Paul calls them “super” in a facetious manner.
As Paul went throughout the Roman Empire preaching the gospel, others would come behind him and try to steal away the new converts. Often they would claim that the gospel that Paul preached was inadequate in some way and needed to be supplemented. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul warns against those who sought to add circumcision to the gospel and, in that context, he issues the following anathema: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6–9).
In Corinth, it seems that the people who came after Paul were attacking his person as a way to cast doubt upon his teaching. We do not have any texts from these mudslingers firsthand, but from the defense that Paul gives we can discern the types of things they were saying about him. The reason Paul chose to defend himself was not to retain his personal honor but so that nothing would detract from the gospel that he preached.
First Corinthians is a forceful letter with some strong rebukes for the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 16:5–9, Paul tells the Corinthians that he plans to visit them in person. Apparently, he was delayed. He explains that he delayed coming because he did not want to have a confrontation with them, presumably giving them more time to correct the issues he addressed in 1 Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 1:23; 2:1–11; and 7:5–9). Even though Paul was an apostle, he did not want to have to deal with them in an authoritarian way (2 Corinthians 1:24). Some of the opposing “super-apostles” were apparently saying that Paul was weak and unreliable, and that was the reason he delayed his visit.
In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul explains why his ministry does not seem very successful. First, there is a spiritual war, and unbelievers simply cannot understand the gospel that he preaches on their own (verses 1–6). Also, Paul lacks all signs of outward success and blessing. He is afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (verses 8–9). But he explains that this is only his outward condition. Spiritually he is not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed. In fact, a state of weakness is common for gospel ministry, so that the glory will go to God, not to the human worker—Paul is simply an “earthen vessel” containing an incredibly valuable treasure (verse 7). Paul does not lose heart because he knows that, when this life is over, something incredibly greater awaits him (verses 16–18). The “super-apostles” seem to see glory for themselves and enjoy popularity.
In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul says that he does not boast in his own ministry or accomplishments. He boasts in the response of the Corinthians and in their repentance that came about as a result of his first letter. In chapters 8–9, he also says he has boasts about their generosity and hopes that his boasts will not have been empty. He encourages the church to give generously to an offering for impoverished believers in other areas. He attempts to persuade them to give without demanding that they give. Again, Paul chooses not to act in an authoritarian way. In contrast, the “super-apostles” have no problem exercising authoritarian control.
In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul addresses those who say he is so meek and humble in person, while his letters are bold and fiery (verse 10). That is, some were saying that Paul’s bark is worse than his bite. Paul defends his practice of being meek and humble in person. If anyone boasts, he should boast in the Lord (verse 17). If one boasts of himself, it means nothing. The real issue is what the Lord thinks of a person (verse 18). The implication is that, in contrast to Paul, the “super-apostles” were bold and boastful.
So, much of 2 Corinthians highlights Paul’s humility and lack of what many in the world might think of as success. In chapter 9, he contrasts this approach with that of the “super-apostles.” In verse 6, Paul indicates that he is not a skilled orator. In the rest of the chapter he highlights some of his sufferings and even admits to having to sneak out of a city by night to avoid capture. He also notes in verse 7 that he preached the gospel to them free of charge. Paul took no money from the Corinthians for his own support or enrichment. But the “super-apostles” exerted authority and took money for their support.
Based on Paul’s defense of his ministry, it seems that the “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11) are false teachers claiming to be superior to Paul. Paul names them “super-apostles” in facetious irony. Compared to them, Paul looks like a very meager apostle. It is as if Paul is saying, “If I am an apostle, then they must be ‘super-apostles’—look at how much more powerful and successful they are than I am!” Paul is humble, timid, physically persecuted, self-supporting, unskilled, and physically ailing. The super-apostles were just the opposite—bold, talented, respected, healthy—and more than willing to take money from the Corinthians. They were not afraid to deal with the Corinthians in an authoritarian manner: “You bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face” (2 Corinthians 11:21). Paul calls the other teachers “super-apostles” because, from all outward appearances, they are the successful ones, while he is the failure.
But Paul goes on to explain. He may not be a skilled speaker, but he preaches the gospel of Christ. He may be unsuccessful by all outward/worldly measurements, but he did perform the signs of a true apostle among them (2 Corinthians 12:12). It is not because he is weak that he does not abuse them or take their money; it is because he loves them (verse 14). He is motivated by love for them and love for the Lord.
Paul’s meekness is similar to the example of Jesus and the way He instructed His followers: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:25–27). A self-serving, boastful dictator may appear to be a “super-leader.” We have seen these types gain places of leadership in the world. However, they are only “super” based on worldly, outward appearances. To be truly great, they must serve the way Jesus did. To be true “super–apostles,” they would need to follow the example of Paul, who was following the example of Jesus.
Even today, it is tempting to judge ministers as successful (or not) based on prosperity, popularity, oratory, and their ability to command respect and a following. This may make them “super-ministers” by the standards of the world but not necessarily by God’s standards.