I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 Corinthians 12:1
Undoubtedly, the false apostles were boasting about their supposed visions and revelations, and thus Paul was forced to mention his. The Bible tells us that Paul had many. There was the incredible encounter with the Living Christ when he was converted (Acts 9:3-8; 22:6-8). There was the vision of Ananias coming to lay hands on him (Acts 9:12). Then, in a vision he was sent from Jerusalem and called to minister to the Gentiles (Acts 22:17-21). He was sent to Macedonia through a vision (Acts 16:9-10). Twice, God encouraged him with visions (Acts 18:9-10; 23:11). In the great storm on his way to Rome an angel appeared to him and assured him that he and the passengers would be saved. “Paul had experienced what others would never experience in this life.” 1
Perhaps we should distinguish between visions (optasias) and revelations (apokalupseis).
Commentators generally define visions as things seen and revelations as things heard.2 Calvin goes on to define visions as “symbolical representations of spiritual and celestial things.” 3
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know— God knows” (12:2). Paul is so opposed to boasting that he will not dare to even mention his name. Barclay says, “… In the strangest way he seems to stand outside himself and look at himself.” 4 This type speaking in the third person apparently was customary among the Jewish rabbis.
We realize that this great spiritual experience happened some fourteen years earlier. As we have said in our introduction, this epistle was probably written somewhere between AD 55-57. If we count backwards from this date, we will arrive at somewhere around AD 41-43. This sacred experience could well have happened in what is called “Paul’s silent years” (AD 35-45). During this period he spent his time in Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21).5
To describe himself, the apostle uses his very familiar term of “in Christ.” This often-used expression is critical to understanding Pauline theology. George Ladd says, “…the man in Christ is also in the Spirit. If the opposite of ‘in Christ’ is to be ‘in Adam,’ the opposite of ‘in the Spirit’ is to be ‘in the flesh…’” 6 According to Ladd, this arrangement (in Christ) opens up a wonderful eschatological existence that is closely related to the coming age. Meyer adds, “We reach our full stature only when we are in him. We are but fragments of manhood until the true man is formed in us…” 7
We have an amazing fact here. Paul has experienced this wonderful visit into the heavenly realms, but has not talked about it for fourteen years. He only talks about it here because he is forced to do so by the false apostles. How different this is from some today who claim to have visits into heaven but who do not stop talking about their experiences. The Scripture advises: “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:2). Morgan says, “How often people have wanted to tell me about their visions! I am always suspicious. I want to know what they had for supper the night before! If people have visions of this sort they are silent about them.” 8
In this experience Paul was caught up into heaven. The Greek word used is harpagenta, and it is an interesting word. The apostle uses this word only on one other occasion and that is in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where the saints are caught up to meet the Lord at his coming. The word means to seize, catch up, snatch away, carry off by force.9 Paul was forcefully caught up to the heavenly realms. He could not determine whether or not he was in his body.
In the Hebrew language the word for heaven (shamayim) is often in the plural. The Jewish people generally felt that there were three levels of heaven (cf. 1 Ki. 8:27). The first is the atmosphere or the blue sky above. The second is the starry heaven and the third is the heaven beyond the stars or the place where God dwells.10 Paul was caught up to this third heaven (cf. Rev. 4:1ff.).
“And I know that this man— whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell” (12:3-4). Paul continues to speak of himself in third person. He speaks of himself as being caught up to paradise. The word paradise is of Persian origin and has the meaning of “park.” It appears in the Septuagint as the Garden of Eden, and is seen on only two other occasions in the New Testament (Lk. 23:43; Rev. 2:7).11
What Paul heard in paradise could not be expressed in human language. Comfort remarks that most accounts of revelations and visions usually focus upon the things a person has seen, while this one focuses on what Paul has heard.12 It is fruitless for us to try to determine exactly what he heard, since he heard divine secrets. It would probably be impossible for us to understand them even if we heard them. It is said that in the early days, the Dutch ambassador told the king of Siam that in his country water became hard and the people could walk on it. The king replied, “I have often suspected you of falsehood, but now I know that you lie.” 13
Although we do not know what Paul heard, it seems likely that certain great revelations later expounded in his ministry were gained in this experience. Clarke goes so far as to say, “It is probable that the apostle refers to some communication concerning the divine nature and the divine economy, of which he was only to make a general use in his preaching and writing. No doubt that what he learned at this time formed the basis of all his doctrines.” 14
“I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses” (12:5). Again, Paul makes clear that he is uncomfortable with the business of boasting. In doing so, he agrees to boast only about his weaknesses. Comfort says, “Acknowledging weakness not only draws a person closer to God, it draws the person closer to other people. Weakness is the great leveler.” 15
Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 2 Corinthians 12:6-7
Paul asks how he could be considered a fool even if he did boast, since he would be speaking nothing but the truth. Wesley also asks, “It could not justly be accounted folly to relate the naked truth.” 16
Because of his exceeding great revelations Paul was given a thorn in his flesh to keep him from becoming proud. He seems to have gotten the thorn right along with his revelations. Wiersbe says, “…Had Paul’s heart been filled with pride, those next fourteen years would have been filled with failure instead of success.” 17
Scholars have had a field day trying to figure out what this thorn actually was. The Greek word for thorn is skolops. This word can refer to anything pointed like a splinter, a thorn or even a stake.18
Early monks were sure it had to do with carnal temptations. Others have thought it could be mental or emotional problems of some sort. We need to note however, that the thorn was given in the flesh or in Paul’s body. That in itself opens up a lot of possibilities and guesses.
Some have though that Paul was suffering from epilepsy. Both Tertullian and Jerome believed this to be the problem.19 From Galatians 4:14, we must understand that it was some despicable problem that would normally cause people to reject him. Some thought it was headaches, malaria, leprosy and the list goes on and on.
This is only a guess, but several commentators have felt that Paul had a severe eye problem. We know that he was struck blind on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:9). Perhaps he never fully recovered from this experience. In Galatians 4;15, he says to the Galatians, “…I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” This verse can be coupled with 6:11 which says, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” This seems to indicate that Paul had a problem seeing. In Acts 23:5, Paul apparently could not even recognize the High Priest who was seated in the council.
It is all too common that some of the greatest servants of God were given adversaries. Israel was surrounded with the Canaanites. They were there partly to keep Israel from becoming proud and self-sufficient (cf. Num. 33:55; Judg. 2:3; Josh. 23:13; Ezek. 28:24).20 It seems that God gives adversaries to balance out our lives. Like Paul, we can pray that God will take the problem away, but in many cases that prayer will not be answered.
Perhaps it is good for us all that the thorn is not identified in Scripture. Guthrie asks, “Is there a single servant of Christ who cannot point to some ‘thorn in the flesh?’” 21 There are no doubt thousands, perhaps millions, of Christians who feel that they themselves have some thorn, and who are encouraged by Paul’s experience.
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (12:8). Commentators have noticed how this verse compares to the experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He also asked three times for the cross to be taken away, but such a prayer could not be granted (Mk. 14:32 ff.). Regarding Paul’s request, Ambrosiaster says: “It is not that he was disregarded but that he was making a plea which was against his own best interests.” 22
“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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (12:9). Wiersbe remarks: “It has well been said that God in his grace gives us what we do not deserve, and in his mercy he does not give us what we do deserve.” 23 P. T. Forsyth once said, “It is a greater thing to pray for pain’s conversion than its removal.” 24 The believer must be more focused on the spiritual than the natural.
It was Calvin who said: “The valleys are watered with rain to make them fruitful while the summits of lofty mountains remain dry. Let that man, therefore, become a valley, who is desirous to receive the heavenly rain of God’s spiritual grace.” 25
So often it is our weakness that shows up God’s great grace. Fanny Crosby, the writer of many Christian hymns of praise was blind. Homer, was one of the world’s greatest poets. He wrote the Iliad and the Odessey, but he also was blind. The same was true of Milton, one of Britain’s brightest. “Darkness shows us worlds of light we never saw by day.” 26
“That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10). It seems that despite his prayers for relief, Paul had learned to appreciate his weakness and the many other difficult things in his life. As Chrysostom says, “There is consolation in affliction and grace in consolation.” 27
I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 2 Corinthians 12:11
Paul says essentially, “I am sorry— but it is your fault!” The Corinthians, because of their pride in the false apostles, drove him to boast. Paul was their father in the faith. He had brought to them the precious gospel that had changed their lives. They should have been defending him and bragging on him rather than on the false apostles. Paul knew he was nothing. He knew he was the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9) because he had persecuted the church. Nevertheless, he knew he was far superior to the false apostles they adored. Barker and Kohlenberger state: “If any Christian community was qualified to write Paul’s testimonial, it was the Corinthian church. Yet they had remained silent, forcing Paul to speak up. His action had been excusable, but not theirs.” 28
“I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles” (12:12). Indeed, Paul’s apostolic ministry left a trail of miracles. In Acts 13:6-12, Elymas the sorcerer was struck blind; at Iconium, Paul performed many miraculous signs (Acts 14:1-3); at Lystra, a crippled man was made to walk (Acts 14:8-10); at Philippi, a familiar spirit was cast out (Acts 16:16-18); at Ephesus, he performed many miracles (Acts 19:11-12); at Troas, he brought Eutychus back to life (Acts 20:9-12); on Malta, a poisonous snake could not hurt Paul (Acts 28:2-6). Also at Malta Paul did many healings (Acts 28:7-9).
It is quite obvious that miraculous powers were at work in many other places like Galatia (Gal. 3:1); and even Corinth (1 Cor. 2:4). It is clear that miraculous powers and mighty works were displayed all along Paul’s ministry route (Rom. 15:19). Earlier Paul had declared to the Corinthians, “… For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20). It is clear that this miraculous power included such things as signs, healings, exorcisms, and even the raising of the dead. All these were confirmations of the gospel message. We realize that the gospel did not just come with signs but with the true fruits of the apostles, things like love, joy, peace, perseverance, and faith.
“How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!” (12:13). Paul continues his use of irony and sarcasm as he makes his point. The false apostles had done their best to “fleece the flock” by collecting money for their supposed services. They seemed to be experts at separating people from their money. Paul on the other hand had ministered freely, taking nothing of the Corinthians, while depositing the most precious treasure on earth, the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is amazing that people still have a difficult time believing that the gospel is free!
THE UPCOMING VISIT
Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 2 Corinthians 12:14
Paul had come to Corinth on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 18:1ff.). This was his first visit. He then made an emergency visit to Corinth while he was still at Ephesus. This was a painful visit wherein there was much conflict (2 Cor. 2:1). Now he is anticipating a third visit and he is quite concerned that it might also be a painful one. The apostle was very anxious that the Corinthians would finally express love and trust toward him this time.
…H. L. Gee somewhere tells of a tramp who came begging to a good woman’s door. She went to get something to give him and found that she had no change in the house. She went to him and said, “I have not a penny of small change. I need a loaf of bread. Here is a pound note. Go and buy the loaf and bring me back the change and I will give you something.” The man executed the commission and returned and she gave him a small coin. He took it with tears in his eyes. “It’s not the money,” he said, “it’s the way you trusted me. No one ever trusted me like that before, and I can’t thank you enough.” 29
Paul had a great desire to be loved, accepted and finally trusted by the church at Corinth. As a father desires the unqualified love of his children, Paul desired the unqualified love of the church he had founded at Corinth. Essentially, Paul asks, “Will you love me after I have spent all my life loving you?” 30 Unlike the false apostles, Paul did not want their possessions, but rather he wanted them. Like a devoted father he had worked hard and saved for their benefit.
“So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less?” (12:15). It seems that the relationship with Paul and the Corinthians had functioned almost according to the law of diminishing returns. He had loved them more and more and sacrificed himself for them, but they had loved him less and less. If only they had the benefit of seeing Paul two thousand years later and realizing what an astounding person he was; if they could have only comprehended his great work in Asia and Europe as he laid the foundations of Christianity for centuries to come; if they could have realized how out of millions of human beings, God had chosen to send Paul to them with the gospel, things would surely have turned out differently.
“Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery!” (12:16). Paul continues with his irony. The Greek word for crafty used here is panourgos, and it means to be skillful or cunning in a bad sense. The word for trickery is dolos, and it means to use a bait like one would catch a fish.31 Just imagine Paul being a tricky person! No doubt there were some who thought so. Lowery speculates concerning the Corinthians that “Some are apparently suggesting that a good portion of the contributions actually would end up in Paul’s pocket.” 32
“Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent to you? I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not walk in the same footsteps by the same Spirit?” (12:17-18). Apparently, the Corinthians had become quite fond of Titus (7:13-16), and he had accomplished a great deal while working with them. And then, there was true-hearted young Timothy, Paul’s beloved son in the faith (1 Cor. 4:17). The apostle had no one else quite like him (Phil. 2:20). It was surely unthinkable that either of these beloved workmen would have exploited them. Even the other unnamed person could not be accused of exploiting the Corinthians.
PAUL’S FEARS AND CONCERNS
Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening. 2 Corinthians 12:19
The New Living Translation reads here: “Perhaps you think we’re saying these things just to defend ourselves. No, we tell you this as Christ’s servants, and with God as our witness. Everything we do, dear friends, is to strengthen you.” All that Paul did was designed to build up the church and not to tear it down. Even Paul’s use of irony and sarcasm was designed to correct and build up the church (2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10). His aim was the edification of the church not the vindication of himself.33 Paul uses the concepts of strengthening, edification or building up of the church a lot in his teaching (e.g. Acts 20:32; Rom. 14:19; 1 Cor. 14:4-5, 12; Col. 1:11; 2:7; 1 Thess. 3:2; 5:11). In many places the church is considered as a body that needs strengthening or as a building that needs to be built up.
“For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder” (12:20). There is no hiding the fact that Paul is still quite concerned about the Corinthians. He may have problems with them and they may have problems with him. He is concerned that he may find discord (eris) or strife. Barclay says, “This is a word of battles. It denotes rivalry and competition, discord about place and prestige. It is the characteristic of the man who has forgotten that only he who humbles himself can be exalted….” 34
Paul is afraid he will find jealousy (zelos). This he will surely find, because the false apostles were jealous of Paul and had sown their jealousy throughout the church. He was afraid he would find fits of rage or angry tempers (thumoi). Barclay says of this word: “This does not denote a settled and prolonged wrath. It denotes sudden explosions of passionate anger.” 35 The author of Proverbs says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).
Also Paul is afraid he will find selfish ambition (erithelia) or disputes. Utley says, “This term …originally meant ‘to spin for hire.’ It came to be used for an aristocratic arrogance against those who had to work for a living.” He notes how this term well fits the factional rivalry found in the Corinthian church.36 Paul was also fearful of finding slander (katalaliai) and gossip (psithurismoi). Robertson says of this last word that it means, “…to whisper into one’s ear. An onomatopoetic word for the sibilant murmur of a snake charmer.” 37
There is an anonymous poem that pictures all this very well. It is titled Gossip Town:
Have you ever been to Gossip Town
On the shore of Falsehood Bay,
Where old Dame Rumor with rustling gown
Is going the livelong day?
It isn’t far to Gossip Town
For people who want to go.
The Idleness Trail will take you down
In just an hour or so.
The Thoughtless Road is a popular route,
And most folk start that way,
But it’s a steep downgrade; if you don’t look out
You’ll land in Falsehood Bay.
You guide through the valley of Vicious Folk
And into the tunnel of Hate,
Then, crossing the Add-to-Bridge, you walk
Right through the City gate.
The principal street is called They Say,
And I’ve Heard is the public well,
And the breezes that blow from Falsehood Bay
Are laden with Don’t You Tell.
In the midst of town is Tell-a-tale Park.
You’re never quite safe while there,
For its owner is Madam Suspicious Remark
Who lives on street Don’t Care.
Just back of the park is Slanderers’ Row
‘Twas there that Good Name died,
Pierced by a dart from Jealousy’s bow,
In the hands of Envious Pride.
From Gossip Town peace long since fled,
But Trouble, Grief, and Woe
And Sorrow and Fear you’ll meet instead,
If you ever chance to go.
The great preacher, Spurgeon, had some good advice for slanderers and gossips. He said, “that when people come to a pastor with gossip, he should say, ‘Well, all this is very important, and I need to give it my full attention – but my memory isn’t so good and I have a lot to think about. Can you write it all down for me?’ Spurgeon says this will take care of it, because they won’t want to write down their gossip.” 38
The next thing Paul fears to find at Corinth is arrogance (phusiōseis) or swelling up. Pride has a tendency to puff us all up like toads. This of course is no benefit to the kingdom of God. All this swelling pride was a characteristic of the Greek/Roman mindset. Glynn says, “…pride was the core virtue of the classical philosophical outlook, the ‘crown of the virtues.’…In the classical understanding, the strong, the beautiful, the intelligent, the rich were not just better off but morally better than the weak, the poor, the meek, the downtrodden.” 39.
Paul winds up his list with disturbances (akatastasiai). Barclay says “This is the word for tumults, disorders, anarchy.” 40 All these sins were ripping at the fabric of the Corinthian church. The thought of them all put a dread in Paul’s heart as he prepared to visit.
“I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged” (12:21). We should remember that Corinth was the center for the worship of the immoral goddess Aphrodite. At one time her temple had some 1,000 female prostitutes attached to its worship. For the Corinthians, fornication, adultery, and prostitution made up a way of life. Virtually all the social events were connected in some way with the pagan temple. Paul had plenty of reasons to fear that the church people of Corinth had lapsed back into this manner of living. Previously, the church had condoned a case of gross sexual immorality that took some time to correct, and perhaps their repentance was still not complete.
Like the other sins Paul has mentioned – adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, were all disastrous for human relationships and such things would make it impossible for the church to function as the holy and redeemed Body of Christ. Fortunately, we know how the book ended. Paul did make it to Corinth and spent the whole winter with the church. This in itself is proof enough that the Corinthian situation was not nearly as bad as Paul had imagined.