THE BATTLE FOR CHURCH LEADERSHIP IN CORINTH
Chapter 12 – PAUL’S VISIONS AND HIS THORN
Chapter 12 continues the final arc of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In this arc, chapters 10 to 13, Paul addresses the rebellious Christians in Corinth who refuse to respect his leadership and prefer the super-apostles instead.
In this chapter, Paul continues to expound his sufferings in ministry. But more than that, he revealed something more important: God’s purpose for our sufferings.
I. THE MAN WHO WAS CAUGHT UP INTO PARADISE (v1-5)
“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. 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. 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— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.”
This chapter begins with the phrase, “I must go on boasting.” This indicates that Paul continues his discourse from the previous chapter about his sufferings. But in this opening passage, Paul is addressing a new issue regarding the super-apostles. And based on Paul’s words, it seems that the issue has something to do with visions and revelations.
Visions and revelations are not uncommon experiences in the New Testament period. Many characters in the Bible have received visions and revelations from the Lord. However, it is not also surprising that some have abused this experience. Many false teachers claim to have received special revelations from God but contradict the teachings of the Apostles. This is one of the earliest crises of the First-Century church. Some of the Apostles that addressed this in their letters are Peter (2 Peter), John (1 John 4, 2 John), and Jude. And of course, also Paul.
Given this, it is not surprising that the super-apostles also claimed to have received visions and revelations from God. Psychologically speaking, this act is a good technique to boost one’s authority in the church. The very idea that a person received a special message from God draws great attention to one’s self. Therefore, it is no wonder that the super-apostles, who don’t have any apostolic authority, use this to establish authority for themselves.
So in this passage, Paul argues that He too, as an official Apostle, also receives visions and revelations from God. But contrary to the super-apostles, Paul refuses to use this to exalt himself. This is particularly notable for he used a third-person pronoun to refer to himself when explaining the story. According to Paul, he knows “a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.” Back in their days, the third heaven refers to the heavenly dwelling place of God. The first heaven is the sky and the second heaven is the space beyond earth where the stars dwell (outer space). Paul adds that he is not even sure if it is physical or spiritual. Regardless, the point is he also receives visions and revelations from God, and he doesn’t boast about it. For Paul, is not something to be used to glorify one’s self. Paul states that it should be used to boast about God, not them. And if he is going to boast about anything, he prefers to boast about his weaknesses instead. Now, what’s up with our weaknesses? is there something we can boast about it?
II. PAUL’S VISIONS AND HIS THORN (v6-10)
“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. 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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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. 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.”
In this passage, we can further see Paul’s extraordinary humility. But more than that, this passage is very important for it reveals one of the reasons behind our sufferings.
Paul continues that he has no intention to boast about himself or his visions from God (“I refrain from it”) “so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.” Despite being a well-knowledgeable and authorized apostle, Paul has no desire to be exalted in the way that the super-apostles do. But here’s the catch, to truly prevent him from being “conceited,” Paul revealed that God sent a “thorn in his flesh,” which is also a “messenger of Satan,” to harass him. According to Paul, the revelations that he received from God are so great that it is powerful enough to tempt him to boast about them. Now, it has never been revealed what this thorn is but what is certain is that it is a demonic force that brings Paul so much pain and trouble. Paul even said that he pleaded three times for God to remove it from him. But here is God’s beautiful answer:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
This beautiful verse means that instead of removing the thorn, God chose to strengthen Paul. This has a lot of beautiful implications. In our lives, it is 100% certain that we will experience pains and sufferings. And as humans, our natural tendency is to avoid it. And when we have problems, we also naturally rely on our strength. Now, according to Paul’s explanation in this passage, our sufferings and weaknesses are actually opportunities to glorify God. When we are at our weakest, we can rely on God’s strength to help us overcome our sufferings and not on our own. And once we do, we, and the people around us will witness the power of God’s strength. This is what Paul is teaching us. He wants us to embrace our weaknesses so that we can glorify God through them. This is why Paul concludes: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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.”
So just like Paul, a person who truly understands this will not be afraid of sufferings anymore, for he knows that through it, God’s power and glory will shine brightly.
III. PAUL’S CONCERN FOR THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH
A) The Signs of a True Apostle (v11-13)
“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. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. 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!”
So again, in this passage, we can see Paul defend himself against the super-apostles. He simply explains that his actions are the signs that he is a true apostle.
B) “We didn’t take advantage of you!” (v14-18)
“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. I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? But granting that I myself did not burden you, I was crafty, you say, and got the better of you by deceit. Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 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?”
In this passage, Paul is emphasizing that he didn’t “burden” them during his ministry. This is a reference to what Paul said in chapters 8 and 9 about giving and how he didn’t ask them for any financial support when he was ministering to them and relied on the other churches’ supports instead. At this point, we can notice that Paul is becoming repetitive in his words, which is a sign that means that he wants his readers to get his point. And in this passage, Paul wants the rebellious Corinthians to understand and believe that he didn’t take advantage of them (unlike the super-apostles (2 Cor. 11:20)).
C) Paul’s Fear for the Corinthians (v19-21)
“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. 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. 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 this passage, Paul expresses his fear for the rebellious Corinthians. Again, we can see Paul continue to defend himself from all accusations that they had against him. One of the positive lights of his defense is that everything that they do is for the benefit of the Corinthians. It is all for their “upbuilding.” But since they are behaving this way, Paul fears that his efforts for them must have been a waste. In other words, Paul fears that the Corinthians might not be living the transformed, Spirit-filled lives that are expected from them as Christians. According to Paul, he fears that he might see them with “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.” According to Paul, these are signs of living in the flesh and not in the Spirit (Gal. 5:19-21).
And most of all, Paul’s greatest fear is this: UNREPENTANCE. He is afraid to learn that the rebellious Corinthians did not truly repent of their sinful lives. As Paul said, “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.”
From this point onwards, we can see Paul change gears from being on the defensive to the offensive. He is now the one questioning the intended readers to defend or examine themselves. This is important for this sets the stage for the final confrontation between Paul and the rebellious Corinthians and to the conclusion of Paul’s 2nd letter to them.
God Bless!! 🙂