2 Corinthians 12
12:1-6 Paul's Visions
12:1 I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.
Continuing the defense of his ministry, Paul described his visions and revelations as further proof. The most dramatic of these was a vision of a visit to heaven. Paul speaks of a man this happened to, but most think he is referring to himself. This is his way of speaking humbly and trying to avoid seeking glory for himself.
This event happened 14 years before the writing of the letter. He does not mention it in any of his other letters, so he may have been reluctant to discuss it, only doing so here where it was necessary to establish his place and authority with the Corinthians.
In verse 2, Paul expressed that he was not sure if he was actually taken to heaven, the meaning of “in the body” or if it was a vision, the meaning of “out of the body”. The Greek word in verse 3 translated as “caught up” is the Greek word “harpazo”, the same word used for the taking of Christians to heaven at the second advent in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, and of Phillip being taken away by the Spirit in Acts 8:39.
Either way, he was taken to paradise, or heaven, and heard things he was not allowed to reveal. When he speaks of the “third heaven”, he means heaven where God is, as the first heaven is the sky and the second heaven is space where the stars are. Paul may have seen the throne of God and the worship that surrounds it, as Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1) and John (Revelation 4:1-2) did.
In verses 5 and 6, Paul again discussed boasting. He does not want to boast, except in his weaknesses, but, if he did, he would be telling the truth. It is like the West Texas saying: it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up. Today, of course, one who had such a vision would write a book about it and appear on radio talk shows.
But, this was a great vision. It probably gave Paul strong faith and perseverance. He may have even received revelation about God’s plan that he incorporated in his writings. But, there was a price to pay for the honor of receiving such a great revelation, as he tells in the next few verses.
12:7 A Thorn for Humility
7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
Paul received some type of “thorn in the flesh”. It must have been a physical pain or handicap of some kind. The purpose of this thorn was to keep him from becoming conceited for receiving the great revelations from God. It’s easy to get conceited when great things happen to you. You may even come to believe you deserve them, or you received them because you are special.
Note here that, although the thorn was given by God to keep Paul humble, it was a messenger of Satan and harassed him. Satan may be the one to bring you torment or suffering, but God still has a purpose for it that works for your good.
12:8-10 Paul’s Weakness Reveals God’s Power
8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
As most of us would, Paul prayed that the thorn would be removed from him. None of us enjoys suffering. Paul prayed 3 times for relief. He prayed earnestly. He said he “pleaded” with the Lord. He really wanted the Lord to give him relief.
God did not remove it. Does that mean God did not answer his prayer? No. God answered, but not with the answer Paul wanted. God refused to remove the thorn in the flesh. He told Paul that God’s grace is sufficient for him. God would let him have the thorn, but give him the grace to bear it. God’s power would be revealed in Paul rather than Paul’s power.
It is hard for us to see ourselves as insufficient. American teaches self sufficiency as a virtue. Yet, God’s lesson to Paul was that Paul was insufficient in himself. But, God is sufficient and will work through us, as he did with Paul, when he receives the glory as being the power.
“This sufficiency is declared without any limiting words, and therefore I understand the passage to mean that the grace of our Lord Jesus is sufficient to uphold thee, sufficient to strengthen thee, sufficient to comfort thee, sufficient to make thy trouble useful to thee, sufficient to enable thee to triumph over it, sufficient to bring thee out of it, sufficient to bring thee out of ten thousand like it, sufficient to bring thee home to heaven . . . O child of God, I wish it were possible to put into words this all-sufficiency, but it is not. Let me retract my speech: I am glad that it cannot be put into words, for if so it would be finite, but since we never can express it, glory be to God it is inexhaustible, and our demands upon it can never be too great. Here let me press upon you the pleasing duty of taking home the promise personally at this moment, for no believer here need be under any fear, since for him also, at this very instant, the grace of the Lord Jesus is sufficient.” (Spurgeon)
Paul became completely happy to have God’s sufficiency and power revealed in him. Therefore, he could say “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I do no think this is simply resignation to his fate. He has rather become content to be weak and to suffer because it allows God to be strong and to reveal himself through Paul. He could say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
This is a fact of the Christian life you need to know and incorporate. God is not interested in your personal power. He is the one to be glorified, magnified and revealed. He wants you to rely on him, to acknowledge your inability to do what he can do and to allow yourself to be used by him. When you do that, you receive great blessing in doing his will, experiencing his pleasure in you and making your life one of constant worship by allowing God to glorify himself in an through you.
You will receive his grace over and over and you will enjoy it and rejoice it in. Calvin said “The valleys are watered with rain to make them fruitful while the summits of lofty mountains remain dry. A man must become a valley if he wants to receive the heavenly rain of God’s spiritual grace.”
You know, Paul’s critics may well have been aware of the thorn. It may have been part of his lack of impressiveness in person. What they did not realize was the value of it to Paul as a gift from God. It increased his sanctification, it kept him humble and it was a constant reminder that God himself was working through Paul. This should give us pause when we see a fellow believer staggering about with a thorn in the flesh. Maybe it is an honor.
12:11-18 Paul Won’t Be A Burden
11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. 13 For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!
14 Here for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be a burden, for I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? 16 But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. 17 Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not act in the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps?
Paul is concluding his defense here and says he has made a fool of himself. This is because he has done this boasting. But, he said, the Corinthians drove him to it, or forced him to do it. If it had only been his reputation, he would not have done it, but his status as an apostle was at stake, and with it the gospel, since Paul was responsible for preaching the gospel to the Gentiles in Europe and in Asia.
Further, they drove him to it because they did not commend him as they should have, since they witnessed his apostolic ministry. In 1 Corinthians 2:4, Paul recounted that his preaching came with a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power”.
Also, Paul reminded them that he was not inferior to those who claimed to be “super apostles”. This is the same term he used in 11:5. He had done signs, wonders and miracles among them.
What are signs, wonders and miracles? They are things done that only the power of God could accomplish. Jesus did miracles in order to show that he was God. Peter, in his sermon in Acts 2, said Jesus was accredited by God to the Jews by miracles, wonders and signs (Acts 2:22).
Jesus then gave that authority to the disciples when he sent them out. In Luke 10:19, he told the 72 “I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.” In Mark 3:14, Jesus appointed the 12 to preach and to drive out demons.
So, Paul is saying, when he was among the Corinthians, he did these miraculous things that mark the ministry of an apostle. And, these were done with great perseverance, according to verse 12. That would lead us to believe Paul experienced spiritual opposition in Corinth, which you might expect, since it was a center of pagan worship.
The one thing Paul did not do was to accept financial support from the Corinthians. He said he was never a burden to the Corinthians.
I think it is interesting that he asks how they were inferior to the other churches. This indicates they had complained that they were inferior or regarded as inferior to the Macedonians and others. It may have been because Paul did not take money from them. Since Paul received financial support from other churches, it makes you wonder why he did not do it in Corinth. But, for some reason, he felt he should not. But it may have made them feel as if their own credibility as a church was threatened. Paul apologized for this wrong. I have assumed that this was a sarcastic statement, but I guess it is possible it was a real issue and Paul was really apologizing for it. However, what follows makes me think I am right about the sarcasm. That is, as he said in verse 14, he would still not take money from them when he made his next visit.
Paul put this in terms of being a burden to them. It seems as if money may have been an issue, not to Paul, but to the Corinthians, and he knew if he accepted financial support, they would feel he was a burden or question his motives. He also did not let his representatives take money from them, including Titus. Paul said, he did not want their possessions, but them. He did want their money, but he did want their love and loyalty and devotion. In contrast, Paul was willing to spend whatever he had for their benefit. That included expending himself. And he said he did it gladly.
But, Paul would like for an exchange of love. But, as he loved them more, they seemed to love him less. Why would this be? It may have again been his adversaries, these false teachers. They may have accused him of being crafty, of trickery, as he mentions in verse 16. Maybe they said he did not take financial support from them in order later to get them to participate in the offering for the Christians in Jerusalem. But, in verse 17, Paul denied that he exploited them, or that Titus or others he sent to them had exploited them. These men were his representatives and acted in the same spirit Paul had. Titus had been well received by the Corinthians, so they knew this charge was false.
This next visit would be Paul’s third visit to them. The first is the visit recorded in Acts 18. That was when he established the church. The second visit was the painful one, where his authority was challenged. He will pick up the matter of this third visit in chapter 13.
12:19-21 Who Is On Trial?
19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. 20 For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 21 I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.
In verse 19, Paul states that he has been speaking to them for their strengthening. He is afraid of what he will find when he comes. He mentions several things he fears he will see: quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. (He might have confused them with our convention.) These are traits of a divided church. We know the Corinthians had these problems. In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul spoke of lack of agreement, quarreling, and divisions in the Corinthian church. Unfortunately, this condition continued, at least off and on. Clement, writing after the death of Peter and Paul, said they were “fond of contention”. He referred to conflicts, commotions, divisions, schisms, and wars among them.
In verse 21, Paul mentioned that he was afraid he will find those whom he found in sin earlier and had not repented. He specifically mentioned the sins of impurity, sexual sin and debauchery. These were all part of the culture of Corinth, and some who claimed to be converted had not left the practices of their pagan life. Paul will be humbled by God if this is true. He, of course, would rather find them living holy lives.
They wanted for him to come with love and approval, as he wanted to do. But, they would not find him this way if they were living in sin.