The Gift of Grace

| 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 | July 30, 2017
This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Explore the Bible Teacher Helps 2016-2017

Week of August 6, 2017

The Point:  God’s grace allows me to face anything life throws at me.

God’s Sufficient Grace:  2 Corinthians 12:1-10.

[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. [2] 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. [3] 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– [4] and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. [5] On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. [6] 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. [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. [8] Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. [9] 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. [10] 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. [ESV]

Visions and Revelations [1-4].  Verse 1 begins with I must go on boasting. At four points in this section of 2 Corinthians, Paul makes clear that only under compulsion does he join the foolish boasting of his opponents: in the introduction to the speech [11:18-19], just following its conclusion [12:11], at the seam separating the hardship list from the account of Paul’s escape from Damascus [11:30], and here at the seam separating the account of the escape from Damascus and Paul’s ascent to heaven [12:1]. Clearly the apostle’s words on the necessity of his foolish boast seem strategically placed for emphasis. The repetition of God knows in this passage serves to mark key turning points in the speech, specifically forming parallel introductions to each of Paul’s more specific illustrations of his weakness. These parallel introductions, moreover, reiterate the main theme of the apostle’s speech, “boasting about weakness.” Here, as with the use of boasting at 11:30, the verb speaks of necessity, what Paul feels he needs to do given the current threat to the Corinthians posed by the interlopers. Since the false teachers are boasting according to the flesh [11:18] and being embraced by at least some in the Corinthian church [11:19], Paul feels compelled to join in boasting. But though boasting is necessary, Paul again makes clear his assessment of such a foolish form of boasting: Though there is nothing to be gained by it [12:1]. Even though boasting is not really advantageous or beneficial, nevertheless Paul will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. The terms visions and revelations are plural, and thus the apostle may be providing a general heading, which will then be followed by a specific example, the ascent to heaven. Visions involve the intersection of the heavenly and earthly realms in some way and, in the New Testament for instance, can speak of the appearance of angelic beings [Luke 1:22; 24:23], or, as with Paul’s apocalyptic encounter on the road to Damascus, an encounter with the exalted Christ [Acts 26:19]. Some of the visions Paul had seen by this point in his ministry are recorded in Acts, including his vision of Ananias laying hands on him [9:11-12], the vision of the man from Macedonia asking for help [16:9-10], a vision of encouragement during his early days in Corinth [18:9-10], and a visionary experience during a visit to the temple in Jerusalem [22:17-21]. Other visions would occur later [Acts 23:11; 27:23-24]. The term revelations refers to a “disclosure” of some kind [Luke 2:32; Rom. 2:5; 8:19; 16:25; 1 Cor. 1:7; 14:6,26; 2 Thess. 1:7; 1 Peter 1:7,13], and it is clear from what follows that words were disclosed to Paul in the specific encounter he has in mind. In fact, such revelations seem to be the focus in verse 7. Both the visions and revelations were of the Lord, indicating that the content of the visions and revelations was given to Paul by the risen Lord. With verse 2 Paul provides a specific example of these visions and revelations of the Lord. In validating his own experiences and motives in this letter, Paul has appealed both to what he knows [1:7; 4:14; 5:1,6,11,16] and what God knows or is aware of [1:23; 2:17; 4:2; 5:11; 7:1,12; 11:11,31] at several points thus far. Now he writes, I know a man in Christ. The apostle may simply mean that he is “aware of” a certain person, or that he “has information about” that person, but the nature of the acquaintance as described in the following sentences speaks of intimacy or close personal relationship. Further, what Paul knows, what he does not know, and what God knows form the highly crafted, structural backbone of 12:2-3. But of whom does Paul speak? He describes the person simply as in Christ, a common Pauline phrase that here is equivalent to affirming that the person is a Christian. There are at least two main reasons for believing that Paul is speaking of his own experience and not of someone else. First, the whole context concerns Paul’s own boast about aspects of his ministry, and moving on to visions and revelations fits the flow of Paul’s boasting more naturally if it refers to his own experience. Second, the purpose of the thorn, to keep Paul from becoming self-consumed [12:7], only makes sense if the ascent to heaven was Paul’s own experience and thus a temptation to pride. But why did Paul speak of his experience in the third person? Such a third-person approach to relating one’s own experience was used at points in rhetoric to deflect attention from oneself, thus reducing the offense of boasting about oneself. Paul’s whole posture in his “boasting” involves humbly focusing attention on the Lord and not on himself. But Paul’s main interest in even mentioning his ascent to heaven is that it affords him an opportunity to talk about the thorn. Since he chooses to mention the extraordinary encounter with God, he insists on talking about it in a way that makes clear he is not inappropriately boasting about one of the most amazing spiritual experiences of his life. Fourteen years ago would place Paul’s heavenly ascent at about AD 40-42, during his time of ministry in Syria and Cilicia; considering Paul’s other letters and the account of his ministry in Acts, we have no known record of this particular experience elsewhere. Paul’s experience involved suddenly being caught up to the third heaven [2] and caught up into paradise [3]. There are good reasons for understanding Paul’s reference to the third heaven as speaking of the highest heavenly realm, God’s throne room in the heavenly temple’s holy of holies, and that this third heaven has a direct relationship to paradise mentioned in verse 3. Paradise, in some traditions, was associated with the holy of holies in the heavenly temple and thus the very presence of God. It may be, therefore, that Paul was taken into the very presence of God in the heavenly holy of holies. In parallel fashion [12:2-3] the apostle confesses ignorance as to whether he was in the body or out of the body when the vision took place. The point is that such an event is so outside the realm of normal experience, Paul could not be sure exactly what happened to him in this regard. But God knows [2,3]. The only aspect of Paul’s experience we are told about is that he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter [4]. Thus Paul was not allowed to reveal the words that had been spoken to him.

Boasting Only in Weaknesses [5-6].  In telling of his heavenly ascent [2-4], Paul has briefly departed from the speech’s resolute focus on boasting in weakness. For this astounding spiritual experience certainly would qualify as a “strength,” that is, a powerful validation of Paul’s apostleship. By sharing the account in the third person, however, the apostle has objectified the experience to a certain extent, maintaining a sense of distance between himself and his experience, as if he was detached from the experience and looking on. But he now puts the account in perspective, orienting it to his larger program of boasting, restating his commitment to boasting only in his weaknesses [5]. Paul sets up a contrast between that about which the apostle will boast and that about which he is not willing to boast. He will boast on behalf of the person in the ascent narrative, and he won’t boast on behalf of himself, except of my weaknesses [5]. His present program will not permit him to use his experience of the ascent to heaven as an item for boasting. He has shared that experience for another purpose, to introduce one of the great weaknesses of his life, his thorn in the flesh. Nevertheless, at the beginning of verse 6 he points out that even if he wanted to boast about the experience, it would not constitute foolishness, for he would simply be recounting an experience that really happened. Paul further explains his rationale for that commitment to only boast in his weaknesses – he doesn’t want to be evaluated on the basis of an experience like the ascent but rather on the basis of what may be observed in a face-to-face ministry encounter [6b]. Paul clearly feels strongly about being evaluated inappropriately. He particularly does not want to be evaluated by the false teachers at Corinth on the basis of anything but the daily practice of ministry. In effect, then, 12:5-6 constitutes a “seam” in the speech, a transition from the account of the ascent to heaven to the account of how this “strength” led to unremitting ministry “weakness,” Paul’s thorn in the flesh. These two verses underscore the main theme around which the speech is built, “boasting in weakness.” Paul declares that if he chose to boast in the experience, it would not constitute foolish boasting since he would be telling the truth; but he is committed not to go that route, instead sticking to his “boasting stratagem” of focusing on weaknesses.

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh [7-9].  In verse 7 we finally come to Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh,” his climactic illustration of “weakness” in this wide-ranging and “foolish” boast. The image of thorn speaks of forms of opposition, something incessantly painful and thus irritating or vexing. But before turning to the nature of the thorn itself, we must first discern the function of the verse’s initial segment. Paul has already used the Greek term translated here as surpassing greatness four times in 2 Corinthians, once when speaking of the extraordinary degree to which he had been oppressed in Asia [1:8], and again at 4:7 to write of God’s surpassing power. Paul uses the term twice in 4:17 to convey thoughts on the eternal weight of glory that far outweighs the momentary, light trouble faced in the present age. Thus the word describes something that is extraordinary in character and here makes a nice bridge from the end of verse 6. Paul insists that he not be evaluated beyond what he says and does in ordinary, everyday ministry, and he proclaims, in fact, that it was because of extraordinary revelations that he has received his thorn. In verses 7-8 we are told six things about the thorn. First, Paul’s thorn in the flesh was given to him so that he would not become conceited. Paul is dealing with an ongoing situation. The word conceited has to do with being full of oneself or becoming consumed with self-importance. So for Paul the thorn plays an important role in keeping his self-perception from being skewed by the extraordinary revelations he has received. Second, the thorn has been given to the apostle; this was no accident, or the machination of evil people, or something Paul has taken upon himself. The apostle describes the thorn as a gift. The tone surrounding the thorn seems positive and redemptive, suggesting that the verb should be understood as a divine passive, with God as the “giver.” Ultimately the thorn was for Paul’s spiritual good and the display of God’s power. We are not told when the thorn was given, just that it was given in response to the revelations. Third, it was a thorn in the flesh, which we understand to refer to the persecution the apostle experienced at the hands of opponents. Fourth, although the thorn was redemptive and ultimately from God, Paul also describes it as a messenger of Satan. The genitive (of) could be a genitive of source (from Satan) or possession (belonging to Satan), but regardless, Paul sees Satan’s messenger as directly involved in his thorny situation. Paradoxically, the thorn was both a “gift” from God and a “goad” from Satan. Fifth, the thorn was given in order that it might harass Paul. The word tells of being treated roughly or beaten. Paul probably uses the word here to speak of being tormented, again with the present-tense form to communicate that this torment is ongoing. Finally, sixth, Paul writes, I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. The urgency of Paul’s request can be seen in that he cried out to God three times. His plea to God was that the thorn would be taken away or perhaps kept away from him. In general three main categories encompass the suggestions on the thorn’s identity. (1) Physical illness of some kind. Suggestions include malarial fever, epilepsy, severe headaches, a pathology of the eyes, a speech impediment, perhaps a socially debilitating disease or disfigurement, or some unspecified personal illness. (2) A psychological malady. Suggestions include anxiety disorders, pangs of conscience over persecuting the church, deep suffering over his ineffectiveness in reaching the Jews with the gospel, and depression. (3) Opposition. Suggestions include conflict with the Judaizers, specific opponents, opposition in general, a specific opponent at Corinth, and even the church at Corinth itself. We may do best to honor Paul’s decision not to name his thorn. However, if one were forced to choose, the two strongest positions are options 1 and 3 above, with perhaps a slight edge being given to the option 3: intense opposition of some kind. So Paul asked that he might be relieved of this thorn, the incessant persecution he faces in the course of his ministry. Yet the apostle’s request was denied. Verse 9 is contrastive, setting Paul’s plea over against God’s answer, which was, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Here God speaks of His grace, His “enabling” Paul to deal with the thorn, as entirely sufficient for the apostle. Thus God told Paul in effect, “You do not really need the thorn removed. All you need is my grace to deal with it.” God goes on to explain why the thorn needs to stay in place: my power is made perfect in weakness. The principle presents the synergetic relationship between apparently antithetical concepts. At 6:7 Paul has already noted that his ministry stems from the power of God, and, similar to the point made here, 4:7 celebrates the fact that God’s power comes in fragile jars of clay, containers made of earth, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. In this letter each time Paul speaks of God’s power, he is dealing with a dynamic that characterizes his ministry. The power manifested in his ministry comes from God. So the principle that power is made perfect in weakness has to do with God’s power manifested in Paul’s ministry. As Paul has talked about weakness in the broader context, it seems clear that various kinds of trials are in mind. The apostle does not seem to be speaking about weakness in terms of a lack of ministry skill or ineptitude of some sort. So how might we understand God’s power to be made perfect in weakness? The verb perfect in this context means to “bring something to a desired end.” So when God says that power is made perfect in weakness, He means that the power of God has its intended effect or fulfilment in contexts of weakness, that is, in trials and persecutions. This is quite similar to 4:7, where persecuted jars of clay manifests the treasure of the gospel and thus the power of God. The Corinthian interlopers, by contrast, have attempted to play their strengths, their power Christianity, over against Paul’s weakness. Yet God proclaims that His true power, and thus authentic ministry, does not work from a power orientation, but rather from a position of weakness. Based on the principle that power is made perfect in weakness, the apostle now adds two additional reflections on this posture in boasting. First, in light of God’s explanation for why the thorn would not be taken away, Paul says he will boast in his weaknesses all the more gladly. The word gladly refers to doing something “with pleasure.” Second, the apostle says he will take this great pleasure in boasting about his weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Later in the letter, the apostle writes that Christ was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God [2 Cor. 13:4]. In other words, God’s power has been manifested in His Son, Jesus Christ, and Paul, who is in relationship with Christ, identifies with Christ’s weakness. He also, through Christ, participates in the manifestation of God’s power. Here the apostle expresses this as Christ’s power “taking up residence on” or “being at home with” him.

Conclusion to the Fool’s Speech [10].  Playing off his reflections on his weaknesses and Christ’s power in verse 9, Paul concludes the speech with (1) the apostle expressing delight in his unabashed weaknesses about which he has boasted in this foolish discourse and then (2) an explanation for why such onerous experiences prove a source of delight. 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 verse 9 the apostle writes that he will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses; in the parallel of verse 10 he expresses, I am content with weaknesses. Generally New Testament authors use the verb translated content to speak of taking pleasure or delight in something and thus approving of it. Paul proclaims that the onerous experiences he has described in the Fool’s Speech can be viewed as a source of delight because of their outcome: power in ministry. In this concluding list of hardships, weaknesses serves as a general heading stamped on the whole speech. Paul has employed the term four other times since the beginning of the speech, twice as singular [11:30; 12:9b] and twice as plural [12:5,9c]. Both the singular form and the plural form can refer to the content of Paul’s boast [11:30; 12:5,9], as is the case here. Insults, on the other hand, points to a subcategory of weaknesses. The noun can refer to a disaster or hardship generally, and this could be the sense in the present case, or it could point to an attitude or arrogance or insolence. In the present context, however, Paul may have in mind the times he has been mistreated, shamed, or insulted, as when he was beaten or stoned. The apostle has used the word we translate as hardships, where he insists that giving should be done freely, not motivated by a person being put under pressure. Accordingly, the word can refer to some form of compulsion, constraint, or necessity. Yet the present context parallels the use in an earlier hardship list at 6:4, which probably communicates the sense of “crises” or “difficulties.” Fourth in this summary list, the apostle mentions persecutions, and fifth, calamities. All of these hardships Paul suffers for the sake of Christ. Throughout 2 Corinthians one of the key aspects of authentic ministry concerns motive. Paul does not minister for personal profit, but rather out of obedience and obligation to Christ and for His glory. Paul seeks to advance the kingdom of Christ and God, not his own kingdom. Only such a posture could undergird the endurance depicted in the Fool’s Speech. But God’s divine proclamation concerning the purpose of his thorn has also helped Paul keep his hardships in perspective. Accordingly, Paul explains that this is why such onerous experiences prove a source of delight, because weaknesses lead to strength, that is, empowerment for ministry. At 12:9 we are told God’s response to Paul’s request that his thorn be removed, and Paul records that response in the form of a general principle: for my power is made perfect in weakness. Paul now personalizes the principle with For when I am weak, then I am strong. Paul’s point, playing off the principle he has received from God, is that the weaknesses, indignities, crises, persecutions, and troubles he has faced for the cause of Christ – these actually put him in a position of being more effective in ministry.”  [Guthrie, pp. 576-600].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why does Paul sense the need for boasting [12:1]? What is Paul boasting about [see 11:30; 12:5]? Where is Paul’s focus in his boast? How can you “boast about weakness”? What do you recognize about God and about yourself when you boast in this way?
  2. What six things does Paul tell us about his thorn in the flesh [12:7-8]? Who gave him the thorn? Why was it given to him? What was Paul’s initial response to the thorn? Why did Paul want God to remove the thorn? What was God’s answer to Paul’s prayer?
  3. In 12:9-10, we have an excellent example of how we are to respond to a promise by God; to an indicative statement of what God does for His children. God tells Paul: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. How does Paul respond to God’s promise? How has Paul’s view of his thorn changed based upon God’s promise? Instead of praying for its removal, what two things does Paul now do? What strength and encouragement for ministry does Paul receive by believing and acting upon God’s promise?

References:

The Message of 2 Corinthians, Paul Barnett, Inter Varsity.

2 Corinthians, David Garland, NAC, B & H Publishing.

2 Corinthians, George Guthrie, BENT, Baker.