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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

2 Corinthians 12

Verses 1-18

B. Claims made by Paul 11:1-12:18

In this section Paul gave further evidence that he possessed apostolic authority to encourage the whole Corinthian church to continue to respond positively to his ministry. Some writers refer to 2 Corinthians 11:1 to 2 Corinthians 12:13 as Paul’s "Fool’s Speech" because of the recurring "foolishness" terminology in this passage (aphrosyne, aphron, paraphron; cf. 2 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Corinthians 11:16 [twice], 17, 19, 23; 2 Corinthians 12:11; 2 Corinthians 12:16).

Verse 1

The apostle again explained that he felt his boasting was necessary to convince the fleshly-minded Corinthian minority. It was not profitable for any other reason.

All visions of this type were revelations, but not all revelations came through visions. Furthermore visions are always seen, but revelations may be seen or perceived in other ways.

"If, as seems likely, his opponents are claiming paranormal experiences to validate their apostolate (cf. on 2 Corinthians 5:12-13), the very vagueness of Paul’s reference may be his way of asserting the uniqueness of his apostolate." [Note: Barnett, pp. 558-59.]

Verses 1-10

4. Special revelations Paul received 12:1-10

Paul had cited his freedom to minister without the Corinthians’ financial support and his sufferings in ministry as grounds for boasting. He next mentioned the special visions and revelations that God had granted him. He referred to these here to bolster his readers’ confidence in his apostolic calling and authority further.

Verses 2-4

The "man" of whom Paul spoke in the third person was himself (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). He referred to himself this way probably out of reluctance to speak of this matter. Moreover he wanted to minimize the effect of boasting, which citing such a spectacular experience would have produced.

Paul could not tell (did not know) whether God had transported him physically into the third heaven (cf. Acts 8:39; 1 Thessalonians 4:17) or whether his experience had been a vision (cf. Genesis 15:12-21; Ezekiel 1:1). The third heaven probably represents the presence of God. It could be a technical description of God’s abode above the cloudy heavens overhead and beyond the farthest reaches of space that man can perceive. "Paradise" (2 Corinthians 12:4) is a good synonym for the third heaven (cf. Luke 23:43; Revelation 2:7).

What Paul heard, not what he saw there, is that to which the apostle referred. That message was personal; Paul never revealed in Scripture what God told him. However, it had the effect of strengthening his faith and hope that the Lord would abundantly reward his sufferings. This experience evidently took place when Paul was ministering in and around Tarsus. He did so about A.D. 42, 14 years before A.D. 56, the most probable date for the composition of 2 Corinthians.

"The man who experienced the ineffable ’ascent’ even to the third heaven was the same man who had experienced the undistinguished ’descent’ from a window in the Damascus wall [2 Corinthians 11:32-33]." [Note: Hughes, p. 422.]

Verses 5-6

Such a revelation could have made Paul quite a Christian celebrity had he publicized it. Nevertheless he preferred to proclaim his sufferings since then people could see more easily the supernatural working of God through him. Paul did not want his converts to form an opinion of him based on what they heard about him. He preferred that they do so because of what they saw and heard with their own eyes and ears. Besides, other people could not verify many of his experiences.

Verse 7

Others might live in awe of Paul because of the spectacular revelations they had heard he had received, but Paul himself was in no danger of becoming too impressed with himself. God had given him a "thorn" (Gr. skolops, better than "stake") in his flesh. This was a gracious gift from God, though it was unpleasant to Paul. It reminded him of his limitations and so kept him humble.

"In this passage there is a complete reversal of the religious pride and the religious triumphalism of the ’superlative’ apostles. Genuinely apostolic ministry sustains ’weaknesses . . . on behalf of Christ,’ replicating his sufferings yet finding power in ministry in dependence on him. There is no place for arrogance in ministry." [Note: Barnett, p. 567.]

Why did Paul change from the third person to the first person in describing this experience? He probably did so because there was no danger that others would think too highly of him because of the outcome of his vision.

Does "flesh" here mean his physical flesh or his sinful human nature? Was the "thorn" a physical affliction or some external problem? Many early church Fathers and Reformers understood the thorn as a spiritual temptation, perhaps a tendency toward pride or the opposition of Paul’s enemies. Some modern Roman Catholic interpreters take it as temptation assailing moral purity. Many modern Protestant interpreters see it as a physical illness or infirmity such as bad eyesight, a speech impediment, malaria, or epilepsy (cf. Galatians 4:13-15). Since the scriptural data does not provide a definite answer, it seems best to suspend judgment on this decision. Various commentators have made good cases for every one of the positions described above. Probably Paul avoided being explicit so his readers would not focus on his particular form of affliction alone.

Paul regarded his thorn in the flesh as a messenger that came from Satan to frustrate him (cf. Job 2:1-10). Nevertheless God had permitted it and would use it to bring good out of evil (Romans 8:28). [Note: See Sydney H. T. Page, "Satan: God’s Servant," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50:3 (September 2007):449-65.]

Verse 8

Normally Paul meant Jesus Christ when he used the title "the Lord." There are other scriptural examples of believers addressing their prayers to the second person of the Trinity (Acts 1:24; Acts 7:59). However normally they addressed the Father in the name of the Son with the Spirit’s help (e.g., Ephesians 2:18). Here "Lord" definitely means God, and probably it means Jesus with emphasis on His being Paul’s master (cf. Acts 9:5). The fact that Paul repeated his petition three times shows how intensely he wanted God to remove his affliction, like Jesus in Gethsemane.

Verses 9-10

Here is an example of God denying a prayer request because He wanted to give something better (though not more comfortable). What we must learn from what Paul told us about this messenger of Satan is that God used it to teach the apostle dependence on Himself and the sufficiency of His grace.

"What is grace? It is God’s provision for our every need when we need it." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:675.]

So thoroughly had Paul learned this lesson that he even boasted about his afflictions. He realized that when he was naturally weak the Lord would provide the power that he lacked and needed. [Note: See Larry J. Waters, "Paradoxes in the Pauline Epistles," Bibliotheca Sacra 167:668 (October-December 2010):425-30.] He enabled Paul to do things he could not have done had he been naturally strong (cf. Romans 8:35-37).

"This is the summit of the epistle, the lofty peak from which the whole is viewed in true proportion." [Note: Hughes, p. 451. Cf. Barnett, p. 572.]

This is one of the most important lessons every ambassador of Jesus Christ must learn. Both natural weakness and supernatural power are constantly at work in us, as they were in Paul and in Jesus. The Cross is the greatest example of divine power working through human weakness. The greater we sense our weakness, the more we will sense God’s power (cf. Ephesians 3:16; Philippians 4:13). Someone has said that Christians live on promises, not explanations. This is one of the greatest promises that God has given us to live on.

We may not have experienced as high spiritual highs or as low spiritual lows as Paul did, but we too are in constant need of being aware of God’s supernatural power. Our success does not depend on our natural abilities but on God’s power working in and through us. Human weakness can be a profound blessing if it results in our depending more on God and less on self. [Note: See Rick Warren’, "God’s Power in Your Weakness," in The Purpose-Driven Life, pp. 272-78.]

"It was not, however, in the weaknesses themselves that Paul took delight but in the opportunity sufferings endured ’for Christ’s sake’ afforded him for Christ’s power to reside and be effective in his life (2 Corinthians 12:9 b)." [Note: Harris, p. 397.]

"Human weakness provides the opportunity for divine power." [Note: Hughes, p. 453.]

"In the Christian life, we get many of our blessings through transformation, not substitution. . . . Sometimes God does meet the need by substitution; but other times He meets the need by transformation. He does not remove the affliction, but He gives us His grace so that the affliction works for us and not against us." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:675.]

"In the ’Fool’s Speech’ proper [2 Corinthians 11:21 to 2 Corinthians 12:10] Paul (1) exposes the triumphalism of the ’false apostles,’ whose keyword is hyper (they have ’more’ to offer than Paul, whom they are ’above,’ or ’better’ than), but also (2) ’boasts’ of his ’weaknesses,’ that is, of those sufferings incurred in the course of ministry in replication of the sufferings of Christ." [Note: Barnett, p. 534.]

Verse 11

Again Paul reminded his readers that he had spoken of his own qualifications as an apostle as he had only because the Corinthians required such proof. He had not done so because he wanted to commend himself or because his critics boastfully commended themselves. The majority in the church should have defended him before the critical minority.

"If any Christian community was qualified to write Paul’s testimonial, it was the Corinthian church. They had remained silent, forcing Paul to speak up. His action had been excusable, but not theirs. Commendation was what he deserved and they owed." [Note: Harris, p. 398.]

They knew he was just as qualified as the "super-apostles" (Gr. huperlian apostolon, i.e., whether the false apostles or the Twelve, cf. 2 Corinthians 11:5). Paul considered himself a "nobody" in the sense that he had received everything that made him an apostle. Apart from the grace and calling of God he was not superior to any other believer. Another possibility is that when Paul called himself a nobody he was speaking ironically, using a description of himself that his critics employed.

Verses 11-13

Paul’s previous conduct in Corinth 12:11-13

Verses 11-18

5. Paul’s supernatural miracles and paternal love 12:11-18

In this pericope Paul concluded his claims to be a genuine apostle by citing the miracles that God had done and the love that He had manifested to the Corinthians through Paul. He did this to dispel any lingering reservations any of his readers might have had concerning his apostolic credentials.

Verse 12

The "signs of an apostle" refer generally to the supernatural gifts and activities that marked the true apostles. This reference seems to indicate that Paul was referring to the Twelve rather than to the professed apostles when he used the term "super-apostles" (2 Corinthians 12:11; 2 Corinthians 11:5). God had enabled Paul to manifest these signs, so he described them as being done among them rather than as having done them. Paul’s perseverance in his apostolic mission in Corinth despite much opposition distinguished him from the false apostles (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:1; 2 Corinthians 11:4; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Acts 18:6; Acts 18:9-10; Acts 18:12-16). "Signs," "wonders," and "miracles" are synonymous terms that emphasize respectively their authenticating value, astonishing effect, and supernatural power.

"These passages [i.e., Acts 2:22; Romans 15:18-19; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; Hebrews 2:4] demonstrate that in the New Testament the purpose of signs and wonders and powers is that of authentication, even when deceitfully imitated by satanic forces." [Note: Hughes, p. 457.]

Verse 13

In irony again Paul appealed to his readers for forgiveness because he had not treated them as he had a right to do as an apostle. It was only in refraining from demanding his rights of support as an apostle that Paul had not treated the Corinthians as an apostle would normally do (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:5-12; 1 Corinthians 9:1-18). He had given them special privileges. This treatment had led some to criticize him.

Paul’s focusing on the signs (evidences) of an apostle rather than on the rights of an apostle is helpful for all servants of the Lord to observe. We, too, should concentrate on demonstrating the proofs of our ambassadorship in our works, especially our perseverance, rather than expecting those we serve to follow us because we claim our rights. We need to earn the respect of those we serve with our works rather than demanding it because of our position.

Verses 14-15

Paul was about to return to Corinth another time, his "anticipated visit." [Note: See the chart in the introduction section of these notes.] When he came, he planned to continue his same financial policy with them; he would remain financially independent of them (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:15; 2 Corinthians 11:9; 2 Corinthians 11:12). He wanted their welfare and their affection more than their money. His concerns were also their spiritual maturity (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1-4) and their complete devotion to Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:2-3).

As a general principle, parents (Paul) sacrifice for their children (the Corinthians), not the other way around. However in another sense children do have a responsibility to help their parents (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:3-14; 1 Timothy 5:8). Parental responsibility is more basic, however, and this is what Paul stressed here. In family life parents sometimes refuse the support of their children, as Paul did of the Corinthians, if they feel that doing so is in their children’s best interests. Paul planned to use all his resources to contribute to the Corinthians’ welfare. Nevertheless he expected at least their love in return for doing so.

Verses 14-18

Paul’s proposed conduct in Corinth 12:14-18

Verses 16-18

Whether the Corinthians showed Paul proper filial love or not he would continue to sacrifice for them.

Some in Corinth had evidently accused Paul of craftily obtaining money from the Corinthians indirectly through his agents such as Titus. They may have regarded the collection for the poor Jerusalem saints as one way that Paul was stealthily getting money from them for himself. If that was their charge, he may have used his critics’ terms in irony to show that he had been crafty. However, he was crafty not in getting money from them but in giving money to them. He had done this by working to support himself while in Corinth. Even if critics were not leveling this charge, the intent of Paul’s irony in 2 Corinthians 12:16 remains the same.

Titus’ visit with another brother may have been the one when he began to assemble the special collection (2 Corinthians 8:6 a) from which Titus had just returned to Paul in Macedonia (2 Corinthians 2:12-13; 2 Corinthians 7:6-7). Or it could have been the one that had taken him back to Corinth to complete the collection (2 Corinthians 8:16-24). Since Paul appealed to Titus’ conduct as proof that Paul had not taken advantage of the Corinthians, I tend to prefer the former view.

Paul’s illustration of a parent’s loving sacrifice for his or her children in this section should have helped his readers understand his own motives and actions more clearly. It helps us understand the proper attitude of a servant of Jesus Christ toward those he or she serves and how this attitude should manifest itself in the practice of ministry.

C. Exhortations in view of Paul’s approaching visit 12:19-13:10

As he concluded his epistle Paul looked forward to his anticipated return to Corinth in the immediate future (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:14). He shared his concerns about what he might experience and warned his readers to make certain changes before he arrived. He did this so he would not have to shame or discipline them when he arrived.

Verse 19

The first part of this verse may have been a statement or a question. The meaning is the same in either case. Paul said what he did, especially in 2 Corinthians 10:1 to 2 Corinthians 12:18, primarily to build up the Corinthian believers in their faith. His self-defense was only a means to that end. It was for that worthy goal that he was willing to speak "foolishly." He recognized that he, as a man in Christ, was ultimately responsible to God, not to his critics (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:17; 2 Corinthians 5:11).

Verses 19-21

1. Paul’s concerns 12:19-21

Verse 20

Paul feared that he might see qualities in his readers that he did not want to see if they refused to respond to his instructions in this letter. Furthermore he feared that they might see the disciplinarian in him. He also feared that he might sorrow if he saw continuing carnal conduct in them (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:11-12; 1 Corinthians 1:31; 1 Corinthians 3:3; 1 Corinthians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 5:2; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 11:18; 1 Corinthians 14:33; 1 Corinthians 14:40).

"It is an understatement to say that Paul was afraid of what he might find at Corinth upon his third visit. This list of sins reflects a church that was in turmoil. Little wonder that he was coming to correct the situation." [Note: Martin, p. 464.]

Verse 21

Moreover he feared that he might suffer humiliation over their failure to repent of the attitude that had embarrassed him on his former painful visit. This situation would cause Paul to mourn over those in the church who had not repented of their former sins. The sins mentioned seem to have been unrelated to Paul’s critics, though the critics may have practiced them as well. Paul’s concern here seems to have been mainly the ungodly conduct that had marked the Christians in Corinth since the founding of their church. [Note: See René A. López, "A Study of Pauline Passages with Vice Lists," Bibliotheca Sacra 168:671 (July-September 2011):301-16.]

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.