In 2 Corinthians 10:3–4, Paul touches on spiritual warfare: “Though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds” (NKJV). The word carnal here refers to physical weapons that are fleshly or human in nature.
The apostle Paul, having concluded his discussion on the duty of charitable giving in 2 Corinthians 9, now presents a defense of himself against the accusations leveled by his opponents. His primary objective is to defend his apostolic authority and demonstrate that, like the other apostles, he has a rightful claim to the apostolic office (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3–11 and Galatians 2:7–10).
This defense spans 2 Corinthians 10—12. In chapter 10, however, the focal point of Paul’s argument is that he did not rely on external factors to endorse himself: no “carnal” weapons (verse 4), no superficial façade, and no human wisdom or oratorical excellence (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1–5).
There were false teachers within the Corinthian church who rejected Paul’s apostolic authority. These teachers boasted about their natural talents and achievements—the weapons of their warfare were carnal. The precise nature of their accusations against Paul is uncertain but can be inferred from the epistle itself.
In 2 Corinthians 10:1, it appears that the false teachers’ primary contention revolved around Paul’s perceived inconsistency. They claimed that Paul was bold when writing to them, but he lacked the courage to follow through on his threats of disciplinary action. In other words, he was all bark and no bite. In response to this, Paul offers the following rebuttal:
First, he appeals to the meekness and gentleness of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:1–2; cf. Philippians 2:5–11). In doing so, Paul skillfully defends his own gentleness against their criticisms. He implores them, however, to refrain from giving him a reason to demonstrate the boldness that he had purposed. Paul had no desire to exhibit boldness and severity when administering discipline, as stated in 2 Corinthians 10:1–2.
Second, Paul assures the church that the “weapons of [his] warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (verse 4, KJV). In other words, the weapons that Paul used were spiritual, not fleshly. Carnal weapons, such as manipulation and deceit, will not succeed against spiritual enemies. For this reason, Paul appeals to the strength of God, which demolishes strongholds and anything that stands in opposition to the truth of God’s Word (cf. Ephesians 6:10).
A stronghold is anything on which one relies. The false teachers in Corinth relied on human reasoning and argumentation to attack Paul and fortify their position against him. Paul would have none of this. Instead of relying on similar tactics, Paul took up the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10–17).
The false teachers’ reliance on carnal weapons caused them to manipulate and deceive, but Paul equipped himself with the belt of truth. They fought with sinfulness of heart and mind, but Paul put on the breastplate of righteousness. They fought with eloquent words, but Paul walked in the shoes of the gospel. They fought with human strength and wisdom, but Paul defended himself with the shield of faith. They fought with human authority, but Paul had the helmet of salvation. They fought with demonic schemes and strategies, but Paul wielded the sword of the Spirit.
Christ relied on spiritual, not carnal, weapons when He fought against His enemies (Philippians 2:6–8). After Peter “struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear,” Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:51–53). The false teachers at Corinth, who were carnal-minded, would have viewed Jesus as weak and feeble. However, Jesus demonstrated that the best way to fight against our enemies is to humble ourselves and allow the power of God to work in and through us.