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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 12

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come . . .—The English “doubtless” corresponds to a Greek illative particle. To boast, then, is not expedient for me. The MSS., however, present a considerable variety of readings. The best-authenticated text is probably that which would be represented in English by, I must needs glory. It is not, indeed, expedient, but I will come . . . The sequence of thought would seem to be that the Apostle felt constrained by the taunts of his opponents to indulge in what looked like self-assertion in vindication of his own character; that he was conscious, as he did so, that it was not, in the highest sense of the word, expedient for him; and that, under the influence of these mingled feelings, he passed over other topics on which he might have dwelt, and came at once to that which had been made matter of reproach against him.

Visions and revelations of the Lord.—It need scarcely be said that the history of the Acts is full of such visions (Acts 9:4-6; Acts 16:9; Acts 18:9; Acts 22:18; Acts 23:11; Acts 27:23). One other instance is referred to in Galatians 2:2. There is scarcely any room for doubt that this also had been made matter of reproach against him, and perhaps urged as a proof of the charge of madness. In the Clementine Homilies—a kind of controversial romance representing the later views of the Ebionite or Judaising party, in which most recent critics have recognised a thinly-veiled attempt to present the characteristic features of St. Paul under the pretence of an attack on Simon Magus, just as the writer of a political novel in modern times might draw the portraits of his rivals under fictitious names—we find stress laid on the alleged claims of Simon to have had communications from the Lord through visions and dreams and outward revelations; and this claim is contrasted with that of Peter, who had personally followed Christ during his ministry on earth (Hom. xvii. 14-20). What was said then, in the form of this elaborate attack, may well have been said before by the more malignant advocates of the same party. The charge of insanity was one easy to make, and of all charges, perhaps, the most difficult to refute by one who gloried in the facts which were alleged as its foundation—who did see visions, and did “speak with tongues” in the ecstasy of adoring rapture (1 Corinthians 14:18). It may be noted as an instance of St. Luke’s fairness that he, ignorant of, or ignoring, the charge of madness that had been brought against St. Paul, does not grudge the Apostle of the Circumcision whatever glory might accrue from a true revelation thus made through the medium of a vision (Acts 10:10-11).

Verse 2

(2) I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago.—Better, I know a man. The Greek verb, though a perfect tense in form, is invariably used with the force of a present. It is all but impossible to connect the facts that follow with any definite point of time in the Apostle’s life as recorded in the Acts. The date of the Epistle may be fixed, without much risk of error, in A.D. 57. Reckoning fourteen years back, we come to A.D. 43, which coincides with the period of unrecorded activity between St. Paul’s departure from Jerusalem (Acts 9:30) and his arrival at Antioch (Acts 11:26). It would be giving, perhaps, too wide a margin to the words “more than fourteen years ago” to refer the visions and revelations of which he here speaks to those given him at the time of his conversion, in A.D. 37. The trance in the Temple (Acts 22:17) on his first visit to Jerusalem may, perhaps, be identified with them; but it seems best, on the whole, to refer them to the commencement of his work at Antioch, when they would have been unspeakably precious, as an encouragement in his arduous work. It may be noted that Galatians 2:2 specifically refers to one revelation at Antioch, and it may well have been preceded by others. The term “a man in Christ,” as a way of speaking of himself, is probably connected with the thought that “if any man be in Christ he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). As one who lived and moved and had his being in Christ, he was raised to a higher region of experience than that in which he had lived before. It was in moments such as he describes that he became conscious of that “new creation” with a new and hitherto unknown experience.

Whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell.—No words can describe more accurately the phenomena of consciousness in the state of trance or ecstasy. It is dead to the outer world. The body remains, sometimes standing, sometimes recumbent, but, in either case, motionless. The man may well doubt, on his return to the normal condition of his life, whether his spirit has actually passed into unknown regions in a separate and disembodied condition, or whether the body itself has been also a sharer in its experiences of the unseen. We, with our wider knowledge, have no hesitation in accepting the former alternative, or, perhaps, in reducing the whole revelation to an impression on the brain and the phenomena known as cataleptic. St. Paul, however, would naturally turn to such records as those of Ezekiel’s journey, in the visions of God, from the banks of Chebar to Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:3; Ezekiel 11:1), and find in them the analogue, though, as he admits, not the solution, of his own experience. The lives of many of the great movers in the history of religious thought present, it may be noted, analogous phenomena. Of Epimenides, and Pythagoras, and Socrates, of Mahomet, of Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Aquinas, and Johannes Scotus, of George Fox, and Savonarola, and Swedenborg, it was alike true that to pass from time to time into the abnormal state of ecstasy was with them almost the normal order of their lives. (See article “Trance” in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, by the present writer.)

Such an one caught up to the third heaven.—Rabbinic speculations on the subject of Heaven present two forms: one which, starting probably from the dual form of the Hebrew word, recognises but two heavens, both visible—the lower region of the clouds and the upper firmament; and a later, which, under the influence of ideas from the further East, spoke of seven. A remarkable legend in the Talmud (Bereshith Rabba, 19, fol. 19, Colossians 3:0) relates how the Shechinah, or glory-cloud of the Divine Presence, retired step by step from earth, where it had dwelt before the sin of Adam, at every fresh development of evil; into the first heaven at the fall, into the second at the murder of Abel, and so on, till it reached the seventh heaven on Abraham’s going down to Egypt, and descended again by successive steps from the birth of Isaac to the time of the Exodus, when it came once more to earth and dwelt in the Tabernacle with Moses. If we assume St. Paul to have accepted any such division, the third heaven would indicate little more than the region of the clouds and sky. It is more probable, however, from the tone in which he speaks, as clearly dwelling on the surpassing excellency of his visions, that he adopts the simpler classification, and thinks of himself as passing beyond the lower sky, beyond the firmament of heaven, into the third or yet higher heaven, where the presence of God was manifested. The seven heavens re-appear naturally in the legends of the Koran (Sura lxvii.) and in the speculations of mediæval theology as represented by Dante. We probably hear a far-off echo of the derision with which the announcement was received by the jesting Greeks of Corinth and by St. Paul’s personal rivals in the dialogue ascribed to Lucian, and known as the Philopatris, in which St. Paul is represented as “the Galilean, bald, with eagle nose, walking through the air to the third heaven.”

Verse 3

(3) And I knew such a man.—Better, as before, I know.

Verse 4

(4)That he was caught up into paradise.—The stress laid on this second vision hinders us from thinking of it as identical with the former, either in time or in object-matter. Paradise (see Note on Luke 23:43) was emphatically the dwelling-place of the souls of the righteous, the reproduction in the unseen world of the lost beauty of the Garden of Eden—the “paradise of joy,” as the LXX. in Genesis 2:15 translates the name. There, flowing about the throne of God, was the fountain of the water of life, and the tree of life growing on its banks (Revelation 2:7; Revelation 22:1-2). Speculations on the question whether St. Paul thought of it as nearer or farther from earth than the third heaven are obviously idle and profitless. The nearest approach which we can make to an adequate distinction between the two visions is that the first revealed to his gaze the glory of the Throne of God, with angels and archangels round it, and seraphim and cherubim,—a vision like that of Moses (Exodus 24:10), and Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-3), and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:4-28), and St. John (Revelation 4:2-11)—thoughts like those of Hooker’s death-bed (Walton’s Life)—while the latter brought before his spirit the peace and rest ineffable, even in their intermediate and therefore imperfect state, of the souls who had fallen asleep in Christ and were waiting for their resurrection.

Unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.—The first two words present the tone of a paradox—speech unspeakable, or utterances unutterable. The verb in the second clause hovers between the text, “it is not lawful” and “it is not possible.” The hymns which St. John records in Revelation 4:8-9; Revelation 5:12-14; Revelation 7:12; Revelation 15:3, may give us some faint approach to what dwelt in St. Paul’s memory and yet could not be reproduced. Sounds of ineffable sweetness, bursts of praise and adoration, hallelujahs like the sound of many waters, voices low and sweet as those of children, whispers which were scarcely distinguishable from silence and yet thrilled the soul with a rapturous joy—this we may, perhaps, think of as underlying St. Paul’s language. In the mystic ecstatic utterances of the Tongues—themselves needing an interpreter, and helping little to build up those who heard them, though they raised the life of those who spoke with them to a higher level—we may, perhaps, trace some earthly echoes of that heavenly music. (See Notes on Acts 2:4; 1 Corinthians 14:2.)

Verse 5

(5) Of such an one will I glory.—There is, if we rightly understand it, an almost exquisite sadness in the distinction which is thus drawn by the Apostle between the old self of fourteen years ago, with this abundance of revelations, and the new self of the present, feebler and sadder than the old, worn with cares and sorrows, the daily rush of life and its ever-growing anxieties. Then he saw with open vision; now he walks by faith and not by the thing seen. He can hardly recognise his own identity, and can speak of the man who had then this capacity for the beatific vision as though he were another—almost as if he were dead and gone. The “non sum qualis eram” of decay and age presents manifold varieties of form, the soldier recalling the stir and the rush of battle, the poet finding that the vision and the “faculty divine” are no longer entrusted to his keeping, the eloquent orator who had “wielded at will a fierce democracy,” complaining of slow speech and of a stammering tongue; but this has a sadness peculiar to itself. Faith, hope, love, peace, righteousness, are still there, but there has passed away a glory from the earth, and the joy of that ecstatic rapture lies in the remote past, never to return on earth.

Verse 6

(6) For though I would desire to glory . . . He had said in the preceding verse that he will glory only in his infirmities. He is about to lay bare to their gaze the greatest of all those infirmities. “If I should boast of that,” he says, “I shall not be acting as a madman does” (the thought of insanity is throughout dominant in the words “fool” and “folly”), “for I will confine myself to a simple statement of fact.”

Verse 7

(7) There was given to me a thorn in the flesh.—The vague mystery with which St. Paul thus surrounds the special form of “infirmity” of which he speaks, has given rise to very different conjectures, which will require to be treated with more or less fulness. It will be well to begin with getting as closely as we can at the idea of the central word. The Greek word for “thorn,” then, might better be translated stake. It is used, e.g., of stakes thrust into the ground to form a palisade round a grave—

“And round about they dug a trench full deep,
And wide and large, and round it fixed their stakes.

—Homer, Iliad, vii. 441.

A sharp-pointed stake of this kind was often used as a means of torture in the punishment known as impaling, and the two Greek words for “impaling” and “crucifying” were indeed almost interchangeable (Herod. i. 128; ix. 18). So in Euripides (Iphig. in Tauris. 1430)—

“Say, shall we hurl them down from lofty rock,
Or fix their bodies on the stake?”

It is significant that men like Celsus and Lucian, writing against the faith of Christians, used the term “stake” instead of “cross,” as more ignominious, and spoke of Jesus as having been “impaled” instead of “crucified” (Origen, c. Cels. ii.; Lucian, De morte Peregr., p. 762). So Chrysostom used the word “impaled” of St. Peter’s crucifixion. On the other hand, medical writers, such as Dioscorides and Artemidorus, by whose use of the word, as possibly coming to him through St. Luke, St. Paul was likely to be influenced, apply the term to what we call a “splinter” getting into the flesh and causing acute inflammation (Diosc. ii. 29; iv. 176). Dioscorides, it may be noted, was a native of Anazarba in Cilicia, and probably a contemporary of St. Paul’s. The word used figuratively, therefore, comes to bring with it the sense of some acute form of suffering, something, to use a word of like history and significance, excruciating in its character. So used, it might, as far as the word itself is concerned, be applied to any sharp agony, either of mind or body.

The history of the interpretations which have been given to this mysterious term is not without interest as a psychological study. Men have clearly been influenced, to a large extent, by their subjective tendencies. They have measured the sufferings of St. Paul by their own experience, and thinking that he must have felt as they felt, have seen in his “thorn in the flesh” that which they felt to be their own sharpest trial. Some of these conjectures may be dismissed very briefly. It cannot be, as some have thought, the remembrance of his own guilt in persecuting the disciples of Christ, for that would not have been described as a “thorn in the flesh” nor could he well have prayed that it should depart from him. For a like reason, it could not have been, as some Protestant commentators have imagined, any doubt as to the certainty of his own salvation, or of his being included in God’s pardoning love. We may safely set aside, again, the view that he refers to his struggle with heathen enemies, like Demetrius, or Judaising rivals, for these had been included in his list of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:22-23, and here he is clearly speaking of something generically new. There remain two hypotheses. (1) That he speaks of the conflict with sensual passion; and (2), that he refers to some chronic infirmity of body that brought with it constantly recurring attacks of acute pain. For each of these a strong case may be made out. In favour of (1) it may be urged that the language of St. Paul in not a few places implies the existence of such a struggle with temptation. He sees a law in his members warring against the law of his mind (Romans 7:23). Sin wrought in him all manner of concupiscence (Romans 7:8). He found it necessary to keep under his body, and bring it into subjection (1 Corinthians 9:27). What has been said as to the question, “Who is offended, and I burn not?” suggests a special sympathy with that form of struggle against evil; and in the “fire-tipt darts of the wicked one” of Ephesians 6:16 (where we have the participle of the same verb), we may, perhaps, trace an allusive reference to impulses of this nature. It is clear that with some temperaments temptations such as this, besides the moral pain which they bring with them, may inflict a bodily suffering little less than excruciating, and the words that speak of the “flesh” as the seat of suffering, and of its being a “messenger of Satan,” at least fall in with the view thus presented. Nor is it enough to say, on the other hand, that St. Paul’s character made such temptations impossible. The long line of patristic, and mediaeval, and modern Romish interpreters who have taken this view, though of little weight as an authority, is, at least, evidence that they knew the bitterness of such temptations, and though their thoughts may have been coloured by the experiences of the monastic life and enforced celibacy, as in the story of the temptations of St. Antony, we may fairly read in their testimony the fact that sensual temptation may assail men who are aiming at a high ascetic standard of holiness. Experience seems, indeed, to show that the ecstatic temperament, with its high-wrought emotional excitement, is more than most others liable to the attacks of this form of evil. So the daily evening hymn of St. Ambrose includes the prayer, “ne polluantur corpora.” So Augustine bewails the recurrence in dreams of the old sensuous temptations to which he had yielded in his youth (Confess. x. 30); and Jerome is not ashamed to tell the history of such temptations, alternating here also with ecstatic visions of divine glories, to the female friend whom he exhorts to persevere in her vow of chastity (Epist. ad Eustochium, c. 7). It may be added that this view falls in with the tone in which St. Paul approaches “the thorn in the flesh” as the crown of all his infirmities. No self-humiliation could go beyond this disclosure of what most men hide. As in the confessions of Augustine and Jerome, just referred to, the last veil is withdrawn, and men are told that the man who has had visions of God is one of like passions with themselves, subject, as they are, to the strongest temptations of his sensuous nature. As in the triumphs of the Emperors of Rome, a slave rode in the same chariot with the conqueror, and bade him ever and anon remember that he also was a man, so here there was a continual reminder that he too might become as others were. If there was any danger of being exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, nothing could more easily bring a man down from that ideal height than the consciousness that this was his besetting temptation.

On the other hand, there are some serious considerations that militate against this theory. There is no trace of any sins of this nature in any of St. Paul’s retrospects (as in Acts 22:3; Acts 23:1; Acts 26:4; Philippians 3:4; Philippians 3:6) of his state before his conversion. His tone in Romans 7:25 is that of one who has fought and overcome in the struggle with “the flesh”; and it is clear from the whole context, that with St. Paul the “fleshly mind” does not necessarily involve sensual sin. The language of 1 Corinthians 7:7 (“I would that all men were even as I myself”), which is the nearest approach to a direct statement on the subject, is scarcely compatible with the thought that, instead of the calmness of habitual self-control, the man who so spoke was all along fighting against impulses which were so strong us to bring with them actual torment. It may be added, as almost decisive, that St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, would use language that they could understand, and that there is not a jot or tittle of evidence that the word for “thorn” was ever used by any Greek writer of the sting of sensuous impulse. It was not likely, indeed, that they, accustomed to a licentious indulgence in this matter, would see in such an impulse any cause of pain and anguish. If the Apostle had meant this it would have been necessary for him to express his meaning far more plainly. On the other hand, there is, as we have seen (Notes on 2 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 4:10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:2-4), abundant evidence that St. Paul did suffer from some acute form of bodily disease. The very word “stake,” or “thorn,” or “splinter,” would suggest to the Corinthian readers of the Epistle the idea of corporeal rather than mental suffering. The “large letter” of his signature (Galatians 6:11), the characteristic “steadfast gaze” (see Note on Acts 13:9), the wish of the Galatians, if it had been possible, to have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him (Galatians 4:15), all point to brows and eyes as being the seat of suffering. The very word to “buffet” (see Note on Matthew 26:67) suggests the same conclusion. Nor need we be surprised that this infirmity—neuralgia of the head and face, or inflammation of the eyes, perhaps, in some measure, the after consequences of the blindness at Damascus—should be described as “a messenger of Satan.” That was, in fact, the dominant Jewish thought as to the causation of disease. The sores and boils of Job (Job 2:7), the spirit of infirmity of the woman whom Satan had bound (Luke xiii 16), St. Paul’s own reference to Satan as hindering his journeys (1 Thessalonians 2:18), his delivering men to Satan for the destruction of their flesh and the salvation of their souls (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20), St. Peter’s description of our Lord as healing all that are oppressed of the devil (Acts 10:38)—these are enough to prove, that while men referred special forms of suffering of mind and body, chiefly the former, to the agency of demons, they were prepared to recognise the agency of Satan in almost every form of bodily calamity.

On these grounds, then, it is believed the balance turns in favour of the latter of the two hypotheses. A more complete solution of the problem may, perhaps, be found in accepting it as, in some measure, supplemented by the former. I venture to think, however, that all or most of the facts urged on behalf of that view, may legitimately come under the words “lest I should be exalted above measure.” The man who is so exalted is in danger of sensual passions. The ecstatic is on the border-land of the orgiastic. He needs a check of some kind. If this were so with St. Paul, as with Luther and Augustine (and the language of Romans 7:8 must be admitted to point to some past struggles), what more effective check could there be than the sharp pain of body, crucifying the flesh with the affections and lusts (Galatians 5:24), with which we have seen reason to identify the “thorn” of which St. Paul speaks? One who thus lived as in “the body of this death” could thank God who, even in this way, gave him the victory over the law of sin (Romans 7:24). His sufferings were to him, as has been well pointed out by Dean Stanley (in a Note on this verse), what the mysterious agony that used at times to seize on Alfred in the midst of feast and revel, had been to the saintly and heroic king, a discipline working for his perfection.

Verse 8

(8) For this thing I besought the Lord thrice.—We are reminded of our Lord’s three-fold prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36; Luke 22:42-45). Was St. Paul himself reminded of it? There also the answer to the prayer was not compliance with its petition, but the gift of strength to bear and to endure.

Verse 9

(9) And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee.—The words fit in, more or less, with each of the two views that have been discussed above. From one point of view, however, it seems infinitely more in harmony with our thoughts of God, that the prayer to be relieved from pain should be refused, because it was working out a higher perfection than was attainable without it, than that a deaf ear should have been turned to a prayer to be relieved from the temptation to impurity. Such a prayer seems to us to carry with it something like an assurance of its own prevailing power. Some of the better MSS. omit the possessive “My,” and with that reading the words take the form of a general axiom affirming that, in the highest sense, “might is perfected in weakness.” The last word is the same as that translated “infirmity” in the next clause. The variation, as concealing this, is so far unfortunate.

Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities.—The word, as has just been said, is the same as the “weakness” in the answer to his prayer. He finds not comfort only, but actual delight, in his consciousness of weakness, because it is balanced by the sense that the might of Christ dwells in him and around him. The word for “rest” is literally, as a like word in John 1:14, to dwell as in a tent, and suggests the thought that the might of Christ was to him as the Shechinah cloud of glory encompassing him and protecting him.

Verse 10

(10) Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities.—The thoughts of the Apostle go back to the sufferings of which he had spoken fully in 2 Corinthians 11:0 and elsewhere. One new word is added, “reproaches” (better, insults), which elsewhere in the New Testament meets us only in Acts 27:10; Acts 27:21, in the sense of material damage. Here the reference is probably to the taunts and sneers to which we have traced allusions in 2 Corinthians 1:17; 2 Corinthians 3:1; 2 Corinthians 7:8; 2 Corinthians 8:2; 2 Corinthians 10:10; 2 Corinthians 11:6; 2 Corinthians 11:8; 2 Corinthians 11:16. He was able to bear even these with satisfaction when he felt that he was bearing them for the sake of Christ. He had learnt to add another paradox to those of 2 Corinthians 6:9-10, and to feel that the greatest weakness was not only compatible with the highest strength, but might be the very condition of its energy.

Verse 11

(11) I am become a fool in glorying.—The two last words are wanting in the better MSS., and the verse opens with a somewhat thrilling abruptness,—I am become insaneit was you (emphatic) who compelled me. The words are partly ironical—partly speak of an impatient consciousness that what he had been saying would seem to give colour to the opprobrious epithets that had been flung at him. The passage on which we now enter, and of which we may think as begun after a pause, is remarkable for the reproduction, in a compressed form, of most of the topics, each with its characteristic phrase, on which he had before dwelt. The violence of the storm is over, but the sky is not yet clear, and we still hear the mutterings of the receding thunder He remembers once more that he has been called “insane”; that he has been taunted with “commending himself”; that he has-been treated as “nothing” in comparison with those “apostles-extraordinary” who were setting themselves up as his rivals. “I,” he says, with an emphatic stress on the pronoun, “ought to have had no need for this painful self-assertion. You ought to have acknowledged my labour and my love for you.”

Verse 12

(12) Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you.—The passage is remarkable for using the word “signs,” first, in the general sense, as “notes” or “tokens,” and then more specifically for works of supernatural power. On the special meaning of the three words, “signs,” “wonders,” “power,” see Note on Acts 2:22. The passage is noticeable as being one of those in which St. Paul distinctly claims a supernatural power for himself, and appeals to its exercise. (Comp. Romans 15:19—written, it will be remembered, shortly after this—and 1 Corinthians 2:4.)

In all patience.—Better, in endurance of every kind, as referring to the hardships and privations specified in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, in the midst of which the work had to be carried on.

Verse 13

(13) What is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches?—His mind travels back to the insinuation that he cared less for them than he did for the churches of Macedonia, because he had maintained his independence and had received no gifts from them. If they complained of this, they should, at least, remember that this was the only point of inferiority. They had experienced fully all the advantages that flowed from his special power as an Apostle. For that wrong, so far as it was a wrong, he asks their forgiveness.

That I myself was not burdensome.—He uses here, and in the next verse, the same characteristic word for “sponging” on them, which has been commented on in the Note on 2 Corinthians 11:9. He obviously dwells on it with a touch of irony, as a word that had been used of him by some of his rivals.

Verse 14

(14) Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you.—The visit to Corinth of Acts 18:1. followed by a long sojourn, may perhaps be reckoned as the first occasion; then came the projected journey from Ephesus to Corinth and thence to Macedonia (2 Corinthians 1:16); now he was preparing for the third journey, announced in 1 Corinthians 16:5-7, from Macedonia to Corinth. (See, however, the Note on 2 Corinthians 13:1.)

I seek not your’s, but you.—The words point to the secret motive of the conduct which had annoyed some of the Corinthians. He loved them, as all true friends love, for their own sake, not for anything he might hope to gain from them. He must be sure that he had gained their hearts before he could receive their gifts as poor substitutes for their affections; and therefore he announces beforehand that he meant to persevere in the same line of conduct, working for his own maintenance as before. Romans 16:23 indicates that he so far deviated from his purpose as to accept the hospitality of Gaius of Corinth.

For the children ought not to lay up for the parents.—Better, perhaps, are not bound to lay by. There is a touch of exquisite delicacy and tenderness, reminding us of like characteristics in the Epistle to Philemon, in this apology for the seeming wrong of which men had complained. He could claim the rights of a father, as in 1 Corinthians 4:15; might he not be allowed to fulfil a father’s obligations, and to give to his children rather than receive from them?

Verse 15

(15) And I will very gladly spend and be spent.—The pronoun is emphatic, I, for my part. The latter verb implies spending to the last farthing. As he sought not theirs, but them, so he is ready to spend for them not only all that he has, but even, as if to the verge of exhaustion, all that he is. And yet with all this there was the painful consciousness of toiling without adequate return. It seemed to him, in his intense craving for affection, as if their love varied inversely with his own.

Verse 16

(16) But be it so, I did not burden you.—The pronoun is again emphatic. The word for “burden” is not the same as in 2 Corinthians 12:13-14, but puts the fact less figuratively. The abruptness of the sentence requires us to trace between the lines the under-currents of unexpressed thoughts. The extreme, almost jealous, sensitiveness of the Apostle’s nature leads him to imagine the cynical sneer with which these assertions of disinterested work would be received. “Be it so,” he hears them saying; “we admit that he, in his own person, when he was with us, made no demands on our purses; but what are we to think of this ‘collection for the saints’? How do we know into whose pockets that money will go? We know him to be subtle enough” (the adjective is that from which we get the “subtlety” of 2 Corinthians 4:2; 2 Corinthians 11:3) “to take us in somehow: what if the collection be a trap?” There is a specially taunting force in the Greek for “being crafty,” as taking the fact for granted, and assuming that it would inevitably lead on to some new development of that character in act.

Verse 17

(17) By any of them whom I sent unto you?—The English expresses the meaning of the Greek, but does not show, as that does, the vehement agitation which led the writer, as he dictated the letter, to begin the sentence with one construction and finish it with another. Did any of those I sent . . . did I by this means get more out of you than I ought? He has in his mind, as far as we know, Timotheus, who had been sent before the First Epistle (1 Corinthians 4:17); Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus, who were the bearers of that Epistle (1 Corinthians 16:15); and Titus, who was sent, as we have seen, to learn what its effect had been. Had any of these, he asks, been asking for money on his account?

Verse 18

(18) I desired Titus, and with him I sent a brother.—Better, the brother. The Greek has the article, and he refers definitely to the first of the two unnamed brethren alluded to in 2 Corinthians 8:18-22. The Greek idiom of what is known as the “epistolary aorist,” hinders the English reader from seeing that St. Paul is referring to what was being done at the time when the letter was written. It would accordingly be better rendered, I have besought Titus to go; I am sending the brother with him. The ungenerous suspicions of some of the Corinthians had made him almost morbidly sensitive, and he repeats practically what he had said before (2 Corinthians 8:20-21), that his motive in sending these delegates was to guard against them. Having stated this, he can appeal to their past knowledge of Titus, as a guarantee for the future. Had he “sponged” on any man, or tried what he could get out of him? Had he not identified himself with the Apostle, both in the general spirit which animated him and in the details of his daily life? It is a natural inference from this that Titus also had worked for his own maintenance and lived in his own lodging. If we may assume the identity of Titus with the Justus into whose house St. Paul went when he left the synagogue at Corinth (see Note on Acts 18:7), the appeal to the knowledge which the Corinthians had of him gains a new significance.

Verse 19

(19) Again, think ye that we excuse ourselves unto you?—Many of the best MSS. present the reading palai (long ago), instead of palin (again). In this case the sentence is better taken as an assertion, not as a question—”You are thinking, and have been thinking for a long time, that it is to you that we have been making our defence.” The Greek verb for “excuse,” is that which is always used of a formal apologia, or vindication (Luke 12:11; Luke 21:14; Acts 19:33; Acts 24:10). St. Paul deprecates the idea that he has any wish to enter on such a vindication. He is anxious to explain his conduct, as in 2 Corinthians 1:15-24; 2 Corinthians 8:20-24; 2 Corinthians 11:7-12, but he does not acknowledge that he stands at the bar before their judgment-seat. He speaks, i.e., in the same tone of independence as in 1 Corinthians 4:3-5. The motive which really prompts him to speak as he has spoken is not the wish to clear himself from aspersions, but “before God in Christ,”—under a profound sense that God is his Judge, and that Christ is, as it were, the sphere in which his thoughts revolve,—he is seeking to “edify,” i.e., to build them up in the faith or love of God. He has the same end in view in all this perturbed emotion as in the calm liturgical directions of 1 Corinthians 14:12-26.

Verse 20

(20) For I fear, lest, when I come . . .—Something of the old anxiety which had led him to postpone his visit (2 Corinthians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 4:21) comes back upon his spirit. He and some of those Corinthians are likely to meet under very unfavourable conditions, neither of them acceptable to the other, severity meeting with open or masked resistance.

Lest there be debates . . . .—The list that follows forms a suggestive parallelism of contrast to that in 2 Corinthians 7:11, the ethical imagination of the Apostle, with its keen perception of the shades of human character, dwelling now on the manifold forms of opposition, as before it had dwelt on the manifold fruits of repentance. It will be worth while to attempt to fix the exact significance of each word somewhat more accurately than is done in the Authorised version. “Debates,” rather strifes or quarrels, had in older English a darker shade of meaning than it has now. Men spoke of a “deadly debate” between friends. Chapman’s Homer makes Achilles complain that he has cast his life into “debates past end” (Iliad, ii. 331). “Envyings” better jealousies, another Greek word being appropriated for “envy” in the strict sense. The word, like “jealousy,” is capable of a good sense, as in 2 Corinthians 7:11; 2 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Corinthians 11:2. It is well, perhaps, to notice how closely allied are the qualities which the word expresses, how soon “zeal” (2 Corinthians 7:11; Philippians 3:6) passes into “jealousy” in a good sense, and that again into “jealousy” in a bad sense. “Wrath.” The passion so described is treated by great ethical writers (Aristotle, Eth. Nicom. iii. 8) as almost inseparable from true courage. In the New Testament it is always used either of human wrath in its evil aspects (Luke 4:28; Acts 19:28; Hebrews 11:27), or—but only in the Apocalypse, where it occurs in this sense frequently—of the wrath of God (Revelation 14:10; Revelation 14:19; Revelation 15:1; Revelation 15:7; Revelation 16:1; Revelation 16:19). There is, therefore, no need to alter the English here. The three words occur in the same connection in Galatians 5:20, a nearly contemporary Epistle.

Strifes.—The Greek word (eritheia) begins with the same three letters as that for “strife,” and till a comparatively recent period was supposed to be connected with it, and so to be identical in meaning. It has, however, a very different history, not without interest, even for the English reader. The concrete form of the noun (erîthos) meets us in Homer and elsewhere as a day-labourer, as in the description of the shield of Achilles:

“And there he wrought, a meadow thick with corn,
And labourers reaping, sickles in their hand.”

—Iliad, xviii. 550.

The next step in the growth of the word, was the verb “to serve for wages,” and this was transferred to those who in matters of state compete for honours and rewards, rather than for their country’s good. Aristotle (Pol v. 2, § 6; 3, § 9) enumerates the fact which the word expresses as one of the causes of revolutions, but carefully distinguishes it from “party spirit,” or “faction” as being more directly personal. Rivalries would, perhaps, be an adequate rendering, but what are known in political life as the cabals of cliques or coteries as contrasted with open party-fights exactly correspond to the evils which the Apostle had in his thoughts.

Backbitings, whisperings.—The English reads the idea of secret calumny into both words. In the Greek, however, the first expresses “open abuse or invective,” as in James 4:11; 1 Peter 2:1; 1 Peter 2:12. In contrast with this we have the “whispers” of the slanderers, the innuendoes and insinuations of the man who has not the courage for the more open attack. So the “whisperer” is spoken of with special scorn in Sir. 21:28; Sir. 28:13. The word in its primary meaning is used for the low chirp of the swallow, which was, as it were, reproduced in the confidential whispers of the retailer of scandal. (See Note on “babbler” in Acts 17:18.)

Swellings, tumults.—The first word is found here only in the New Testament, but is formed regularly from the verb “to be puffed up,” which is prominent in 1 Corinthians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 4:18-19; 1 Corinthians 5:2; 1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 13:4. It was clearly, in St. Paul’s mind, the besetting sin of the Corinthians. As far as we know, the word may have been coined by him, but as connected with the medical idea of flatus and inflation, it may not improbably have been one of the technical terms, used figuratively, which he borrowed from St. Luke’s vocabulary. It is almost necessary to coin an English word to express it. “Inflated egotisms” is an adequate paraphrase: “puffed-upnesses” would be, perhaps, too bold a coinage. The word for “tumult” has met us before. (See Notes on 2 Corinthians 6:5; Luke 21:9; 1 Corinthians 14:33.) Disorders, confusions, what figuratively we call the “chaos,” into which a public meeting sometimes falls, are what the word expresses, rather than the more open outbreak indicated by “tumult.”

Verse 21

(21) And lest when I come again . . .—The words do not imply more than one previous visit (Acts 18:1), but it can scarcely be said that they exclude the supposition of another. (See Note on 2 Corinthians 13:1.)

My God will humble me among you.—We lose the force of the Greek verb by not seeing that it reproduces the word which has been so prominent in the Epistle, and which has appeared in 2 Corinthians 7:6, as “cast down;” in 2 Corinthians 10:1 as “base;” in 2 Corinthians 11:7 as “abasing.” There is something almost plaintive in the tone in which the Apostle speaks of the sin of his disciples as the only real “humiliation” which he has to fear. The readings vary; and one of them may be taken as a question: Will God humble me again? There is, however, it is believed, no adequate ground for altering the text.

That I shall bewail many which have sinned already.—Literally, who have sinned beforehand; leaving it uncertain what time is referred to. He may refer to sins before admission into the Church, of which men had never really repented, or to sins before the time of his writing, or before that of his arrival. On the whole, the first interpretation has most to commend it. He has in his thoughts such persons as those described in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and suspects that some of them have not really renounced the sins which he there names. Of the three forms of evil, the first is generic and the two latter more specific; the last probably indicating the darker forms of evil. It is obvious that the words cannot refer to the incestuous offender who had repented (2 Corinthians 2:7), nor to the Church generally in connection with that offence (2 Corinthians 7:9-11). Probably he had in view the party of license, who maintained the indifference of “eating things sacrificed to idols,” and of “fornication,” just as, in the previous verse, he had chiefly in view the party of his Judaising opponents.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/2-corinthians-12.html. 1905.
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