2 Corinthians 12:1-13

Paul’s Defense of His Apostolic Authority, Part 4 — Paul’s Exalted Heavenly Vision and his Thorn in the Flesh

In today’s passage, Paul continues his “foolish boasting,” but he reveals something that is recorded nowhere else in Scripture: a heavenly vision. But he then immediately returns the readers’ attentions to his weaknesses. Paul’s earthly weaknesses, not his revelations, are given as the platform for demonstrating the Lord’s power and grace.

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.

  • By insisting that their teachers tout their credentials, the Corinthians were forcing Paul to boast about a vision that the Lord gave him.
  • To boast about this would not benefit the church and would have no personal gain to himself, though the Corinthians would see that he was not outmatched by his rivals in one important area of their boasting, namely, mystical experiences or ecstatic phenomena as marks of genuine apostleship.
  • It should not be overlooked that Paul’s mention of this ecstatic rapture was a necessary introduction to what he says about his thorn in the flesh (v7-10), another evidence of his weakness.

2-4 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.

  • A man. Is this Paul, or is he speaking of someone else? I believe it’s Paul’s vision; the “boasting” and the subsequent personal account of the thorn in the flesh make no sense otherwise.
    • Paul’s hesitancy to boast of his visions is reflected in his use of the third person (as if it had happened to someone else).
  • Fourteen years ago. Sometime around AD 42, perhaps near Tarsus or Antioch, prior to his first missionary journey. This event took place during the so-called “silent years” of Paul’s life that he spent in Syria and Cilicia. See Gal 1:21; Ac 9:30; 11:25.
  • Third heaven. What does this phrase mean? Was it a common description of the realm of God?
    • This phrase does not imply belief in a simplistic “three-story universe” but reflects a commonsense distinction between
      • the atmosphere where birds can be seen to fly,
      • the higher area where the sun, moon, and stars can be seen,
      • and the unseen realm where God dwells.
    • 1Ki 8:27 [Solomon’s prayer]. Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!
    • 2Ch 2:6 [Solomon’s letter to King Hiram]. Who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him?
    • Neh 9:6 [The Levites’ prayer]. You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host.
    • Ps 148:4. Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
  • Paradise. Does this differ from third heaven in v2? Grk paradeisos, a Persian loan-word used in the Septuagint to refer to the garden of Eden (see Ge 2:8–10; 13:10; Isa 51:3; Ezk 28:13; 31:8–9) but in the NT to refer to a place of blessedness where God dwells. In the NT, paradise is mentioned three times.
    • In Lk 23:43 it refers to the abode of the righteous dead.
      • Lk 23:42-43. The criminal on the cross said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
    • In Rev 2:7 it refers to the restoration of Edenic paradise predicted in Isa 51:3 and Ezk 36:35.
      • Rev 2:7. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
      • Isa 51:3. The Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.
      • Ezk 36:33-36. “Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’ Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.”
    • The reference here in 2Co 12:4, in my opinion, is to be translated as parallel to the mention of the “third heaven” in v2. Assuming that the “first heaven” would be atmospheric heaven (the sky) and “second heaven” the more distant stars and planets, “third heaven” would refer to the place where God dwells. This is much more likely than some variation on the seven heavens mentioned in 2 Enoch and in other nonbiblical and rabbinic works.
  • Both terms—third heaven and paradise—would be recognized by Jewish readers (and we can assume, therefore, by the Corinthian Gentiles) as references to the realm of God’s direct presence. This scene was the “hidden paradise” of Jewish thought, the dwelling place of the righteous dead that is located within the abode of God.
    • The eschatology of late Judaism drew a conceptual distinction between the first paradise (Ge 2 & 3), the last or eschatological paradise (Rev 2:7), and the hidden paradise of the intervening period (Lk 23:43).
    • Cf Rev 2:7. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
    • Cf Lk 23:42-43. He [the repentant crucified criminal] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
  • Whether in the body or out of the body I do not know. Why would Paul not know whether he was in the body or having an out-of-body experience?
    • Perhaps consciousness of heavenly realities was so amazing as to totally eclipse any awareness of the physical world of space and time, removing any consciousness of embodiment.
  • He heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. Was Paul not able to tell of the specifics of his experience because it could not be adequately explained or because he was commanded not to utter them?
    • If Paul was under the command of God not to relate the information to others, that might give us an idea of the purpose for the vision. Perhaps it had been designed for him alone to fortify him for future service and sufferings.
    • Glimpses the NT does give of heavenly glories are aimed at strengthening faith and promoting holiness, not to satisfy curiosity (2Pt 3:10-14; 1Jn 3:2-3).
  • There is no other record of this event. None of the events in Acts can be identified with the vision or revelation related here.

5-6 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses—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.

  • If I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. Paul is, again, calling the false apostles liars.
  • I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. Paul had good reason to boast if he wanted to, but he wanted the Corinthians’ estimation of him to be based on their own observation of his conduct and their own evaluation of his teaching.

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.

  • A thorn. What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?
    • The nature of this “thorn” or “messenger” is much disputed. The most frequently proposed possibilities include:
      1. Paul’s inner psychological struggles (such as grief over his earlier persecution of the church, or sorrow over Israel’s unbelief, or continuing personal temptations)
      2. Paul’s opponents, who continued to persecute him (cf. Nu 33:55 and Ezk 28:24, where thorns refer to Israel’s enemies)
      3. Some kind of physical affliction (possibly poor eyesight, malaria fever, or severe migraine headaches)
      4. Some kind of demonic harassment (a messenger of Satan).
    • Most commentators, it seems, prefer some form of the third view, since “thorn in the flesh” would seem to suggest a physical condition.
    • My own view, that I hold very loosely, is some form of the second view, that it refers to a group of opponents or a single opponent that was a constant or near constant source of harassment to Paul. I am open, however, to the other views.
    • We should understand that there is simply not enough information to draw any firm conclusion to exactly what this thorn
  • To keep me from becoming conceited…to keep me from becoming conceited. The phrase is repeated in this translation because it occurs in the Greek text two times in the verse (according to most mss). Perhaps Paul repeats it because of the emphatic nature of its affirmation.
  • I think we can infer three things from this verse.
    • The agent, the one who gave the thorn, was God.
    • The thorn was given to achieve a good purpose: to prevent spiritual conceit.
    • The thorn was given immediately or soon after the vision described in v2-4.
  • A messenger of Satan. Is there anything that we can gather from the idea that Paul’s thorn was given by God and, at the same time, was a messenger of Satan? Does this give us any glimpse into the relationship between God and Satan?
    • My own view is that God uses Satan and demonic forces for his own ends. Satan and the demons are under the command of God the same as all of the rest of creation. They are free agents, but of a different sort from humans. Though it’s been contested, my view is that Satan is not free to disobey a direct command from God.

8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.

  • Three times. I take this to be literal, not figurative. Three times indicates that Paul has now finished praying for the thorn’s removal, having received his answer from Christ (v9).
  • About this. About what? What is the referent of this? I see three options:
    • The thorn
    • The messenger
    • The matter overall

9-10 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.

  • My grace is sufficient. Paul says that God’s grace “is sufficient” (in the present tense), underscoring the ever-present availability and sufficiency of God’s grace, for Paul and for every believer, regardless of how critical one’s circumstances may be (cf Ro 8:31–39).
  • My power. The majority of later mss as well as some other witnesses include the pronoun “my” here, but the omission of the pronoun has excellent support as well.
    • Scribes may have added the pronoun for clarity, making the referent—God—explicit. This would also make “power” more parallel with “my grace.”
    • Though the original text probably did not include “my,” scribes who added the word most likely felt they were following the sense of Paul’s statement.
  • My power is made perfect in weakness. If the pronoun my is original or assumed by Paul, what does it mean? Isn’t God’s power already perfect? What does it mean that God’s power is made perfect in weakness?
  • V9-10 form the climax of this passage. The answer to Paul’s prayer in v8 did not take the form he had expected. The thorn remained, but so too did his recollection of the divine reply.
  • The supreme example of power in weakness is formed by Christ on the cross!

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.

  • You forced me to it. Paul was coerced by the Corinthians into boasting (cf 11:16-19). It was not really the foolish boasting of his opponents that had driven him to boast but the folly of the Corinthians in heeding it.
  • Commended. Instead of giving heed to the false apostles’ boasting and then requiring it of Paul, the Corinthians should have defended Paul.
  • Super-apostles. Though many commentators believe this refers to the apostles in Jerusalem to whom the false apostles in Corinth were unfairly comparing Paul, I believe this is sarcastically referring to the false apostles themselves. See the notes on 2Co 11:5 for our previous discussion on this.
  • Even though I am nothing. Paul called himself the “least of the apostles,” having persecuted the church (1Co 15:8–9), and he owes everything to the grace and call of God in his life (1Co 15:10; 2Co 3:4–6). Paul frequently disavows any personal merit that might have made him worthy of apostleship.

12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.

  • Signs of a true apostle…with signs. These two words are the same in the Greek: σημεῖον, sēmeion. They are used differently, however.
    • In the case of The signs of a true apostle, the definition is simply “that by which a person or a thing is distinguished from others and is known” and doesn’t necessarily have any supernatural connotation to it.
      • Ex: The man you’re looking for is a large man walking with a cane.
    • The second—with signs—does refer to supernatural indications of something. It’s “an unusual occurrence, transcending the common course of nature, of miracles and wonders by which God authenticates the men sent by him, or by which men prove that the cause they are pleading is God’s.”
  • Signs and wonders and mighty works. Are these three different things, or are these three words meant to simply say “miracles”?
    • I believe there is no distinction meant by Paul here. Signs and wonders and mighty works describe miracles in general.
  • Paul reminds his converts of certain distinguishing features of his ministry at Corinth that proved he was a genuine apostle worth commending.
  • An alternative translation of this verse has been suggested: “The marks of an apostle were produced in your midst with great perseverance and were accompanied by signs and wonders and mighty works.”
    • In this case, the “marks” would refer to the transformed lives of the Corinthians and the Christ-like character of Paul, largely distinguishable from the “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!

  • I myself did not burden you. When Paul uses burden here, he’s referring to financial burden.
  • With more irony, Paul says that the only wrong he did the Corinthians was not asking them for money (see 11:9–14 for the reason).

 

Final notes:

Paul was not able or was not allowed to speak about the details of his heavenly revelations (v4) but he quotes Christ’s declaration (My grace is sufficient v9) to underscore that his earthly weaknesses (not his revelations) would be the platform for perfecting and demonstrating the Lord’s power (see chart on Weakness and Strength in the ESV Study Bible). This is the main point of today’s passage and the foundation of Paul’s self-defense throughout 2 Corinthians.

Why did Paul reveal his heavenly revelation in his letter to the Corinthians? Perhaps it was because his opponents had boasted of their own visions as “proof” that they were sent by God, so Paul felt the need to reveal his own such experiences.

If Paul is speaking of himself in v2-4, why does he objectify his experience? I think there are some reasons that we can gather from this passage.

  • Paul was clearly embarrassed at needing to boast at all—an activity that in itself did not contribute to the common good.
  • Paul wished to avoid suggesting that he was in any sense a special kind of Christian. The revelation was given him as a man in Christ (v2); the initiative had been God’s, not his own.
  • Although Paul recognized the honor involved in being the recipient of a vision (v5), he wanted to dispel any idea that it added to his personal status or importance.

In 2 Corinthians, there are six references to the work of Satan.

  • He seeks to outwit and defraud believers (2:11).
  • He blinds the understanding of unbelievers to prevent their belief in the Gospel (4:4).
  • He seeks to diametrically oppose the purposes of Christ (6:15).
  • He tries to lead believers away from wholehearted devotion to Christ (11:3).
  • He deceives by masquerading as an angel of light, as do his followers (11:14-15).
  • On occasion, by divine command, he uses a “thorn” to batter believers (12:7).

 

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