There’s a saying, the origin of which I’m unsure, but I like it. I’ll paraphrase it: There’s no need to explain yourself; your friends don’t need an explanation, and your enemies won’t accept an explanation. The problem is, life isn’t quite that simple. We don’t live in a static world. Sometimes people who were friendly to you at one time can turn against you – especially if they have been negatively influenced by an enemy or a competitor.
In Messiah’s Community, there are few things more painful than to see factions develop, and unity crumble, and to have to watch people in whom you’ve invested considerable time and love, people who really ought to know better, become prejudiced against you.
Rabbi Paul had to endure just such heartache from the believers in Corinth. Having spent a year and a half ministering in this great cosmopolitan city, and starting the congregation there, after he left the people began splitting into factions, choosing their favorite leaders and bad-mouthing others. Many had become disloyal to him. The situation necessitated Paul’s first letter to them, which was very pointed, summoning the people to repentance.
At the time of the writing of this second letter, things had much improved, but apparently there was still one person who was continuing a campaign of trying to influence people against Paul. There were also false teachers, self-styled “super apostles” who were gifted orators, but instead of serving Messiah humbly, they acted out of selfish ambition. And the Corinthians, because of their immaturity, lacked the discernment to see through the façade, and were hood-winked by these so-called “super apostles”.
In the previous chapter, and continuing into chapter 12, Paul is forced to defend his own apostleship. Being a wise and humble man, he’s clearly uncomfortable having to do this. But he knows that he is responsible before God for their spiritual well-being, and so he is willing to engage in what he realizes is foolishness, having to lay out his credentials, touting his commitment, but it is entirely for their sake. Let’s begin our study of chapter 12.
I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.
One of the tactics these opportunistic false teachers used to manipulate the naive Corinthians, was to claim to have had supernatural visions in which they received ‘special revelation’ from God. Whether they really received visions from God is, in my opinion, highly suspect; but no matter – the worldly-minded Corinthians, enthralled by celebrity, gobbled it up.
Meanwhile, here we have Paul, who has selflessly been serving Yeshua and His people, and who has had multiple encounters with angels and even with Messiah Himself. I’m sure he would much rather have written to them about the things of the Lord, but the Corinthians’ worldliness and immaturity made it necessary to talk about himself.
And, I’m sad to say, the very same scam is being perpetrated today. Far too many naïve and worldly Christians, attracted to celebrity, are taken captive through the same sort of smooth, sophisticated oratory and grandiose spiritual claims by so-called apostles and prophets. Like their First Century forebears, these are ambitious men, teaching falsehood, and living lavish lifestyles, all while claiming to be servants of Yeshua.
I know a man in Messiah 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. 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. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.
As we’ll see when we get to verse 7, Paul is alluding to himself. But he does so in third person, which was a more modest way of expressing oneself. How refreshing and how unlike the false apostles, who freely boasted of their ‘superior’ knowledge and who claimed more direct access to God. And whereas they were all too ready to dish out the details of their alleged visions, the good and true apostle shows reverence by keeping the content of those holy voices to himself.
Since we don’t know the precise year of the writing of 2 Corinthians, we can’t pinpoint where Paul would have been fourteen years earlier. It’s possible this divine encounter took place during the fourteen years he was in Syria and Silicia (Gal. 1:21-2:1), but there’s no way to know for certain.
He doesn’t know if he was translated physically to God’s presence, or whether it was purely a vision. Let me point out that Paul’s use of the expression ‘third heaven’ doesn’t mean that there are three levels in Heaven, though some have mistakenly used this verse to support the idea. Paul was simply using terminology commonly understood in that day. The ‘first heaven’ would be the blue sky above us; the ‘second heaven’ would be the starry night sky beyond our atmosphere, and the ‘third heaven’ would be the very place of God’s abode – beyond this entire creation. He calls the location ‘paradise’ – which is from a Persian word used in the ancient world to denote an outside luxurious garden, enclosed by walls, of the type usually reserved for kings and high nobility.
But let’s not miss his point: that if the Corinthians were going to be respecters of persons, if they admired those who claimed to have had visions and angelic or divine encounters, they could certainly number Paul among them. As a matter of fact, we have in the New Covenant the record of several of Paul’s divine and angelic encounters. His conversion on the road to Damascus was the result of a direct encounter with the resurrected Messiah Yeshua. He experienced divine intervention when he and Silas were jailed in Philippi (Acts 17), had a vision of a man from Macedonia asking him to come to them (Acts 16), and had an angelic visitation when aboard a ship at sea and in great peril (Acts 27:21-25).
I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 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.
Paul has no desire whatsoever to boast, though he’s saying that even if he were to give a ‘tell-all’ account of his visit to Paradise, it would be entirely legitimate. After all, he would be telling the truth. But he knows full well that to do so would be counter-productive; first of all, it would only lend credibility to the boasting of the false apostles, and why imitate their example? Secondly, it would only feed the Corinthians’ already unhealthy, biased attitudes. They are too focused on outward appearances and manifestations. Why encourage that? This is why he refrained from going on about it. He doesn’t want them putting him up on a pedestal, the way they had done so for the bogus ‘super-apostles’.
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, Paul speaks of being given this infirmity. Can a sickness or adversity be considered a ‘gift’? Yes, if through the experience of it we learn to humble ourselves and draw near to the Lord.
The Greek word used for ‘thorn’ (skolops) is also used to describe, not a small needle or a thumbtack, but a tent-stake. Whatever this physical ailment was, it wasn’t a minor irritation. It was evidently a significant problem. He describes it as “tormenting” him.
Paul calls this ‘thorn’ in the flesh a messenger of Satan. Interesting expression! Now while I’m sure Satan was delighted to attack Paul (as he had been to attack Job), it could not have happened without God’s sovereign permission. Essentially, then, Satan’s malice accomplished God’s purpose – to keep Paul from conceit. And that is good. Sometimes it’s good to ask God to keep you on a short leash.
Bear in mind that there’s no indication the physical ailment ever abated! God allowed our brother to suffer whatever it was more or less permanently. And what was the physical ailment? We’re not told, but scholarly speculation abounds. My personal guess is that Paul lost a significant portion of his eyesight. There are two references in his letter to the Galatians that hint at this. In chapter 4 he recalls their one-time extravagant love for him, and he says, I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me. The other is near the end of the letter, where he wrote, See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand.
Paul appealed to God three times – probably not three short prayers, but more likely three extended sessions of prostrating himself and beseeching God to heal him. Three is a good and significant number, and the sense is that God concluded the matter after that third appeal with His verbal response. God did not heal Paul, and I assure you it wasn’t because he lacked faith. The fact that Paul prayed persistently for healing, and that God chose not to grant it, should put to silence the false and wicked health and wealth teaching masquerading as the Gospel.
But let’s not miss the point he’s making: whatever the ‘thorn in the flesh’ he took it as being from the Lord, as a way to keep him humble, and for that he is thankful. To be arrogant or conceited is spiritually a very dangerous condition. It is the very opposite of what God wants for us, and is insulting to the God who humbled Himself through the Incarnation, washed men’s feet, and endured the Cross.
And let’s consider Yeshua’s words to him. Yes, I believe it was God the Son who responded to Paul’s appeal, since He said that His power is perfected in weakness, and in the second half of this same verse Paul expresses his desire for Messiah’s power to rest on him. He said to Paul, My grace is sufficient for you. “Paul, you should be able to say, ‘Dayenu’”. God’s grace is the greatest gift mankind has ever been offered. Everything else is icing on the cake, as it were.
Yeshua also said to Paul, and to us, My power is made perfect in weakness. Let me encourage you to think about the obstacles you face, or the physical limitations you live with, or the adversity that comes your way, as not a random or arbitrary thing, but rather as something allowed by God for our greater good. If our weakness moves us to depend more on Him, and less on ourselves, that is a very good thing. Granted, it’s much easier said than done, but pressing in close to the Lord will do a lot more for us than kvetching.
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Messiah’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Messiah’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Boasting in weaknesses? Delighting in weaknesses? I can only imagine how weird this would sound to an unbeliever. Everything about Paul’s approach to adversity is counter-intuitive. And it’s because this dreadfully sinful and fallen world has conditioned us to judge by external appearances.
We are always on the lookout for the bigger thing, the fancier thing, the more hip, cool, and relevant thing. The very notion that we would shine a spotlight on our weaknesses goes against everything by which this world gauges success. But, you see, the Kingdom of Heaven is in 180° opposition to the philosophy of this world. And this world is not our home. We are not trying to impress men, but are invested in Messiah’s Kingdom. But tell that to the so-called “super-apostles” who didn’t have the first clue about true humility, or what pleases God.
Rabbi Paul was eminently qualified to address enduring insult, hardship and persecution. I think few people in history have even come close to suffering as much for Messiah’s sake as he did. In the previous chapter he described some of what he had suffered: beatings, whippings, wrongful imprisonments, insults, shipwreck, hunger, and add to that list defamation of character from supposed leaders and fellow brothers in the Corinthian church.
The rabbi from Tarsus was one of the greatest men who has ever lived; he paid a steep price for refusing to compromise the Gospel and one of the things that made him great was his honesty. We look at Paul and marvel at how far he traveled, how much he accomplished, and how much he endured, and we think, “What a strong man!” Yet, he was very candid about his weakness and his need for the strength that comes only from the Lord. We would do well to take our lead from Paul, and view our weakness as an opportunity to boast in the goodness and power of Messiah Yeshua. If we put our confidence in Him instead of ourselves, we will prove to be far stronger than we could ever have imagined!
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. The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance. How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!
At the risk of redundancy, let me again say that Paul had no desire to have to boast of his accomplishments – boasting which he considered foolish. But it had become necessary in order to protect the worldly and undiscerning Corinthians from the schemes of the false apostles. So he reminds them that when he was with them he also performed great signs and wonders and miracles. There was nothing lacking in his apostolic authority.
But he surmises that perhaps they didn’t respect him because he didn’t demand they shell out money for the privilege of having him in their midst, as was the habit of the false apostles. Paul employs sarcasm to drive home the point. “Forgive me for not demanding that you make large contributions to my ministry. Forgive me that I didn’t ask you to finance my $60 million private jet, four Rolls Royces and two mansions.”
I hope you share my disdain for those who pervert the Gospel like that. But con artists in Christian garb can only operate because we, like the Corinthians, are so easily impressed by celebrity status, or wooed by the promise of prosperity if we’ll just jump through their hoops. It’s our own pride and selfish ambition that enables the false apostles of our own day to continue.
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. 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? Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery! Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent 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 act in the same spirit and follow the same course?
A little more sarcasm here, addressing their distrust of the good Apostle. Paul’s first visit resulted in the founding of the Church in Corinth. He remained there a year and a half, and invested his time and energy selflessly. His second visit was brief but very painful, as they had already become disloyal to him, broken into factions and embraced false teachers who demanded much of them.
By contrast, Paul is like a good parent, who puts the needs of his children ahead of his own desires. Love sacrifices for the other, it doesn’t demand. Yeshua described the contrast between a good, caring shepherd and a hired-hand. Some minister to the people of God purely for financial gain. Others do it out of a heart of love. But should those who do it with a pure motive be treated with less respect?
Now he is planning a third visit, and he assures them that, although he will be taking up a collection for the poor believers in Judea (something he discussed in chapter 8), he will not ask them for any personal financial support. Again, although he had every right to expect financial support, Paul refused to place any financial demands on the Corinthians; nor did Titus. The problem was, up till now, they mistook that as a sign of his lack of authority.
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 Messiah; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening.
He wants them to be absolutely clear that he has been saying these things, not out a boastful self-aggrandizement, but for their sake. They were being taken advantage of by these bogus “super-apostles” and they didn’t even know it. They so lacked in discernment that they couldn’t tell the difference between an authentic apostle and the counterfeits. He assures them that he is speaking and acting in good conscience before the Lord.
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 quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 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.
Paul is giving the Corinthian believers a heads-up. He will be returning, and if he finds them continuing to act in a manner displeasing – not so much to him, but really to the Lord, then they themselves will find him displeasing.
And what a laundry list of behavior that has characterized them: quarreling with each other, jealousy over one another, shouting matches, factions, hateful and malicious speech against one another, gossiping, arrogance, sexual perversion and complete disorder. You wouldn’t necessarily be surprised to find that environment if you walked into a Hell’s Angels clubhouse, but in the local church? One expects much better things from those who claim to be the followers of Messiah Yeshua.
If people come to know the Lord as a result of seeing our love for one another, then what do you think happens when people see us showing contempt for one another, disparaging one another and engaging in rivalry with one another. I’ll tell you what happens: they associate that with Yeshua, and they want nothing whatsoever to do with Him!
The chapter ends on a lamentable note, but 2 Corinthians as a whole will end much more hopefully than this. For now, let’s resolve not to allow sin to subtly weave its way into our community. Let’s be on our guard against the schemes of Satan. Let’s be honest about our weaknesses and press in to the Lord for the strength we need. Let’s practice the all-important spiritual disciplines of prayer and study of Scripture, which will help us avoid being manipulated by false teachers. And let’s continue in love and service to one another in Yeshua’s name.