2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Paul had enemies in Corinth, and he wrote in his defense. In the passage immediately preceding this one, he outlined his credentials:
“Are they Hebrews? So am I.
Are they Israelites? So am I.
Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.
Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as one beside himself) I am more so;
in labors more abundantly,
in prisons more abundantly,
in stripes above measure,
in deaths often.
“Five times from the Jews I received forty stripes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods.
Once I was stoned.
Three times I suffered shipwreck.
I have been a night and a day in the deep.
I have been in travels often, perils of rivers, perils of robbers,
perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles,
perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea,
perils among false brothers;
in labor and travail, in watchings often,
in hunger and thirst,
in fastings often,
and in cold and nakedness.
“Besides those things that are outside,
there is that which presses on me daily,
anxiety for all the churches” (11:22-28).
In 12:1, Paul says, “Boasting is necessary,” by which he apparently means that he must respond to the false accusations of his opponents, the false apostles (11:13). But then he shows his distaste for boasting, saying, “It is not profitable.” He then moves on to his real agenda, “but I will move on to visions and revelations of the Lord.”
In 12:2ff., Paul tells of an ascent into heaven in the third person, but most scholars believe that he is really telling of an incident that he experienced personally (first person).
That kind of ascent into heaven has Biblical antecedents.
- “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11).
- “In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth of the month, as Ezekiel was among the captives by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and Ezekiel saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1). Jewish mystics wrote of seeing visions of the heavenly throne and the glory of God.
The portion of this text that most often finds its way into sermons is the passage in verses 7-9 where Paul speaks of the thorn in his flesh and the Lord’s response to Paul’s pleas for relief: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-4. CAUGHT UP INTO PARADISE
2 I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I don’t know, or whether out of the body, I don’t know; God knows), such a one caught up into the third heaven. 3 I know such a man (whether in the body, or outside of the body, I don’t know; God knows), 4 how he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
“I know a man in Christ” (v. 2a). As noted above, Paul couches this report in the third person, as if he were talking about someone else. However, verses 1, 5, and 7 (especially 7) suggest that he is talking about himself. Scholars have suggested several possible reasons why Paul would have spoken about himself in the third person. I favor the idea that Paul, with reservations about boasting, uses the third person to distance himself from boasting about his part in this vision.
“fourteen years ago” (v. 2b). This would have been about 40-44 A.D., several years after Saul/Paul’s Damascus Road vision of the risen Christ. The vision that Paul will describe now is another vision.
“whether in the body, I don’t know, or whether out of the body, I don’t know; God knows” (v. 2c). By the time that Paul wrote this epistle, the church was being threatened by a Gnostic dualistic heresy that believed that the material world and the physical body are unholy––and that the spiritual world and spiritual body are holy. No one who subscribed to Gnosticism could imagine that a man in bodily form could ascend into a heavenly realm.
Such a notion is contrary to the Judeo-Christian view that (1) God created the world and all that is in it, and God’s creation is holy and (2) the physical and spiritual are united in humans, and both physical and spiritual are holy. It is also at odds with the Incarnation, in which God became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth (John 1:14)
So with this verse, Paul leaves open the possibility that he ascended into a heavenly realm in bodily form (thus opposing the Gnostic viewpoint). He denied knowing, however, whether he ascended in bodily form or not, which left open the possibility that this was an out of body experience.
“such a one caught up into the third heaven” (v. 2d). In verse 4, he will say that the man was “caught up into Paradise,” apparently equating the third heaven and Paradise.
The people of that time and place thought of heaven as an overarching dome (or firmament) from which the sun, moon, and stars hung. Rain fell through holes or windows in the firmament.
They also thought in terms of multiple heavens––three, five, or seven heavens stacked above the earth. In this case, Paul is using the three-heaven model, and is saying that he has been caught up into the highest heaven, the abode of God.
“I know such a man (whether in the body, or outside of the body, I don’t know; God knows)” (v. 3). See the comments above on verse 2c.
“how he was caught up into Paradise” (Greek: paradeisos) (v. 4a). The word Paradise was borrowed from Persia, where a paradise was a park or garden––often surrounded by a wall––often a retreat for a king. For the Jews, the word would bring to mind the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 2:8).
The word paradise (paradeisos) is used on two other occasions in the New Testament:
- On the first occasion, the thief on a cross said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus said to him, “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
- On the second occasion, Jesus is addressing the church at Ephesus, which has done many things right but has “abandoned the love you had at first.” Jesus warns that they must repent, or he will remove their lampstand from its place. But he also promises, “To him who overcomes I will give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of my God” (Revelation 2:4-7).
“and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (v. 4b). Paul has been very open in his proclamation of the Gospel and his theological writings. However, on this occasion he has been made privy to Godly secrets meant for him only. He is not free to divulge them to other mortals.
The point of these Godly secrets is that God has taken Paul into his confidence, and that gives Paul authority in the face of his opposition in Corinth.
2 CORINTHIANS 12:5-6. I WILL NOT BOAST
5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in my weaknesses. 6 For if I would desire to boast, I will not be foolish; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, so that no man may think more of me than that which he sees in me, or hears from me.
“On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in my weaknesses” (v. 5). Paul feels free to boast about the confidence that God placed in him fourteen years ago, because that helps to establish his legitimacy in the face of his opponents in Corinth.
However, he finds it much more comfortable to boast in his weaknesses. The reason is simple. His ministry finds its power, not in Paul’s strength, but in God’s power. Paul knows that he brings nothing essential to the table except for his willingness to go where God leads him and to do what God tells him to do. He is weak, but God is strong.
“For if I would desire to boast, I will not be foolish; (Greek: aphron) for I will speak the truth” (v. 6a). The Greek word aphron is composed of a (not or without) and phren (wisdom or understanding)––so it means “without wisdom or understanding” or “foolish.”
Paul can boast without making foolish claims, because he limits himself to telling the truth.
“But I refrain, so that no man may think more of me than that which he sees in me, or hears from me” (v. 6b). Although Paul could boast, he refrains from doing so. He is satisfied to have people judge him on his merits––on what they see in him or hear from him.
2 CORINTHIANS 12:7-9. A THORN IN THE FLESH
7 By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted excessively, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively. 8 Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me.
“By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted excessively, there was given to me a thorn (Greek: skolops) in the flesh” (v. 7a). After hearing “unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter,” (v. 4b) Paul might be tempted to pride and boastfulness. But God countered that temptation by inflicting on him some sort of misery that Paul refers to as “a thorn (skolops) in the flesh.”
A skolops was a sharp object, such as a splinter, thorn, hook, or stake. Thorn is a good translation here, but splinter or hook would also be appropriate.
A skolops could be physical (some sort of physical limitation or misery––something that would cause pain), spiritual (wounded pride, fear, etc.), or metaphorical (Paul’s enemies in Corinth might have been his thorn in the flesh). Tertullian thought the thing that afflicted Paul might be an earache or a headache. Others have suggested that the affliction might have to do with Paul’s eyesight (see Galatians 6:11).
This misery gave Paul pause from any inclination to be boastful. For one thing, it distracted his attention from the exalted revelation he had seen, and focused it on his human frailty.
Anyone who has ever experienced a deep wound by a splinter or thorn can appreciate how that works. Whether we suffer a stubbed toe, a hammered finger, or a deeply embedded thorn, we might be 99 percent healthy but are likely to spend most of our attention on the one percent that is giving us pain.
“a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively” (v. 7b). This reminds us of the book of Job, where God gave Satan permission to afflict Job severely (but not to take his life) as a test of Job’s faith.
Some afflictions are like that––given by God to keep our pride in check or to test our faith. But many afflictions are self-inflicted. That is usually the case with addictions (tobacco, alcohol, drugs, or pornography). It is often the case with certain behaviors, such as allowing our anger to rage unchecked.
But whatever the cause of our afflictions, self-generated or not, they can be a God-send to get our attention and to help us to seek spiritual footing.
“Concerning this thing, I begged (Greek: parakaleo) the Lord three times that it might depart from me” (v. 8). The Greek word parakaleo combines two words, para (near) and kaleo (to call), and means to call near––to invite––to beseech––to exhort.
In this verse, Paul speaks of this triple prayer for relief to emphasize how desperately he wanted God to remove this affliction.
“He has said to me, ‘My grace (Greek: charis) is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect (Greek: teleo) in weakness'” (v. 9a). Grace (charis) is a significant word in the New Testament. The use of charis in the New Testament has its roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness. The Lord told Paul that the Lord’s grace would help Paul to overcome his affliction.
Note that all but the first few words of verse 9a are in quotation marks. I checked the commentaries to see if this was a quotation from the Old Testament, only to realize that it was a record of the words that the Lord spoke to Paul.
“Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me” (v. 9b). With regard to Paul’s “weakness,” he acknowledged that people said of him, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10).
But Paul has said, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
Now he relates that the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9a). Paul can be content in his weakness, knowing that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). Jesus manifested the power of weakness at the cross, and continued to manifest it through the person of the apostle Paul.
2 CORINTHIANS 12:10. I TAKE PLEASURE IN WEAKNESS
10 Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then am I strong.
“Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake” (v. 10a). Paul has experienced all these things: Weakness, injury, necessity (the absence of that which is necessary), persecution, and distress. But he has borne these burdens lightly, knowing that they serve an eternal purpose. He is committed to Christ, and endures all manner of hardship “for Christ’s sake.”
“For when I am weak, then am I strong” (v. 10b). Paul has compared himself and his colleagues to clay jars––common and delicate but holding a treasure (4:7). He has said that they are “pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, yet not to despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; struck down, yet not destroyed” (4:8-9). He has survived every kind of adversity by God’s grace.
His opponents charged that “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is despised” (10:10). But Paul countered, “It isn’t he who commends himself who is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (10:18). It is the Lord’s approval that makes Paul strong––strong even in the midst of his weakness.
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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan