WHO ARE THE PEOPLE IN 2 CORINTHIANS 11:22—THE 12 APOSTLES, OR OTHERS?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Scripture says in 2 Corinthians 11:21-23: “ I speak as concerning reproach, as though we had been weak. Howbeit whereinsoever any is bold, (I speak foolishly,) I am bold also.  Are they Hebrews? so am I. Are they Israelites? so am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I.  Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.” Some Bible students argue that the “they” is Peter and the 11 Apostles. They base this on the fact that the Apostle Paul is clearly talking about Jews (see verse 22). Indeed, the 12 Apostles were Jews and Paul refers to Jews here. Still, does that automatically demand that the 12 Apostles be the Jews in the verses?
When one examines the context, it is clear that the 12 Apostles are nowhere to be found. However, we do find a reference to false apostles, those working with the Devil! Look at verses 13-15: “ For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.  And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.  Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.” Are we going to say this is talking about the 12 Apostles too? Then, my friend, I think it wise that we had better be careful before applying other verses in the context to Peter and the 11!
In relation to this topic, notice these helpful verses that Paul wrote in Galatians chapter 2: “ Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also.  And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.  But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised:  And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage….”
These “false brethren” were legalistic (observers of the Mosaic Law). Furthermore, they were trying to force Paul’s converts saved under grace to follow the Mosaic Law. You should make special note of the adjective “false” in “false brethren” (verse 4). The 12 Apostles did not commission these false teachers and the Messianic Church at Jerusalem did not send them. Reading Acts 15:24: “[James says,] Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment….” (Acts chapter 15 and Galatians chapter 2 are the same event.)
Rather than being controlled by the Holy Spirit, these false brethren were operating independently of Father God’s will for Paul’s converts. These false brethren simply wanted to promote their religion, “good works”—namely, physical circumcision (cf. Acts 15:1,5; Galatians 5:1-3,11-12; Galatians 6:12-16). Do you know anyone today who is fixated on “good works?” We do not hear about physical circumcision much today, but there is plenty of other “religiosity” repeated ad nauseum—confession of sins, water baptism, Sabbath-Day keeping, walking aisles, saying the “sinner’s prayer,” commandment keeping, joining the church, confirmation, and so on.
In Galatians chapter 2, Paul said that he took a backseat to no one—including James, Peter, and John—concerning apostolic authority: “ But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person: ) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me:…  And when James, Cephas [Peter], and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.” Read also 2 Corinthians 11:5: “For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles.” And, chapter 12, verse 11: “I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing.”
If Paul said he did not feel inferior to the 12 legitimate Apostles, how much more did he not feel inferior to false apostles? Second Corinthians 11:23 again: “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more….” These so-called “ministers of Christ” here would be people who professed to be servants of Christ but were not! They were the “false apostles” previously mentioned in the context. We read verses 13-15 again: “ For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.  And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.  Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”
At the beginning of Second Corinthians chapter 11, Paul voiced his concern that the Corinthians would accept and listen to someone who preached “another Jesus,” who preached “another spirit,” and who preached “another Gospel.” Verses 1-4 say: “ Would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly: and indeed bear with me.  For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.  But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.  For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.” These warnings are denouncing the ministries of the false apostles mentioned in verses 13-15.
We read Galatians 2:6-9 again: “ But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man’s person: ) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me:  But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter;  (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles: )  And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.”
When Paul and Barnabas met with James and Peter and John in Jerusalem, the latter three agreed to restrict their ministries to the “circumcision” (believing Israel, the Little Flock) and they endorsed Paul and Barnabas going to “heathen” (all people outside of the Little Flock). Again, the 12 Apostles—led by James, Peter, and John—agreed that they would not deal with anyone but Israel’s believing remnant. They turned everyone else—unsaved Jews and unsaved non-Jews—over to the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. This apostolic meeting at Jerusalem occurred several years before Paul visited Corinth in Acts chapter 18. Surely, it was not Peter, James, John, or any of the other 12 Apostles preaching to the Corinthians. These Apostles were led by the Holy Spirit and were men of their word. We have no reason to doubt them. They did not minister to Gentiles, especially Paul’s converts in Corinth.
Therefore, Paul is not referring to the 12 Apostles in 2 Corinthians 11:22. However, the people he is condemning are most definitely Hebrews, Israelites, of the seed of Abraham. They are “Judaizers,” Israeli religious leaders who were neither part of the Little Flock nor the Body of Christ. They were not believers in either program, but opponents of God’s purpose. These false apostles would use the Law to deliberately challenge Paul’s apostleship and ministry (just as in Galatia). They would boast of their alleged “apostleship,” when they were actually frauds; moreover, they would demean and deny the true apostle, Paul. Paul would talk about how his Gentile converts were under grace, and these false apostles would come back and say that those Gentiles were under law. (Does that not sound familiar today? Do you know of any religionists or denominationalists who demean Paul’s apostleship and epistles just so they can keep their legalistic traditions?!)
We continue reading in 2 Corinthians chapter 11: “ Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also.  For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.  For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.” Paul actually called these false apostles “fools” because they were misleading the Corinthian saints (verse 19). The Corinthians were believing these charlatans. Surely, Paul would not call the 12 Apostles “fools.” The men dominating the Corinthians were evil—they were exploiting and abusing the Corinthians. Again, this would not be descriptive of Holy-Spirit-filled men (the 12 Apostles). It would be the “false apostles” of verses 13-15, unsaved yet religious people claiming to be sent by Jesus Christ.