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If in chapter 11 we have seen God's grace in sustaining the vessel through all adversity, Paul now speaks of the other side of this, the grace which gives unspeakable blessedness in being "caught up" above all earthly things and occupations. He speaks of this as "visions and revelations of the Lord." It is not that he is basing any Christian teaching whatever upon this experience, but rather indicating thereby that such things may be in measure known to anyone who is "in Christ." Verse 2 is rightly translated, "I know a man in Christ." It is manifestly he himself of whom Paul speaks (as verse 7 proves); and he does not write of this until fourteen years after it happened, for it did not involve anything that, as an apostle, he was bound to communicate. The experience was simply that of "a man in Christ," and written now no doubt as an encouragement to all who are "in Christ," not as a revelation to others of the will of God. But the occasion was so sublimely that of spiritual blessedness, that he was not at all conscious of whether or not his body was present with him. This is repeated in verse 3, no doubt to press home the fact that this was something above and outside of the flesh. First it is said he was caught up to the third heaven; and this is further described in verse 4 as "paradise." This is one of three times that paradise is mentioned in the New Testament, and each indicates the presence of God, the meaning being "a garden of delights." If the first heaven is that of earth's atmosphere, and the second the astronomical heaven, then the third is higher than human intellect reaches, indescribable therefore by material comparisons.
He says nothing of the wonder of the vision, no doubt because this was beyond description, just as the words he heard were impossible to communicate to others. But Paul's writing of this as he does, is an effective guard for us against accepting men's descriptions of their visions as establishing some particular teaching. If anyone could have based anything upon his vision, Paul would be the man; but while the vision was deeply precious to himself, he could not even share it with others.
He would glory in the grace that had so blessed him as a man in Christ. But of himself, as in the flesh, he would not glory, except in those infirmities that humbled the flesh. If he would desire to glory, he would not be a fool and go beyond the truth, as is the common temptation among men. Indeed, he would forbear speaking more, though true, lest others should think more of him personally than was strictly true. For thorough honesty does not desire to leave wrong impressions.
The tendency to personal pride, even in this devoted servant of the Lord, required what he calls "a thorn in the flesh" in order that he might be preserved from self-exaltation. Even the marvellous experience of being called up to heaven did not eradicate from him the flesh with its insidious evils. His "thorn" was no doubt some physical affliction. It has been remarked that the flesh in Paul might be tempted to boast that he was the only man who had ever been so caught up to heaven, yet in this case the flesh would be boasting in something it had nothing to do with; for Paul was not even conscious of his body being there. And God allowed Satan to inflict Paul with this thorn, no doubt with malicious spite on Satan on Satan's part, but with pure wisdom and love on Gods part.
Neither Paul nor his associates used the gift of healing in this matter; but three times Paul prayed beseechingly that God would remove the affliction from him. God answered, not as Paul had asked, but exceedingly abundantly above his request: "My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness." To have the difficulty removed would have been easier for Paul, but to have grace from God to bear it would bring more glory to God, and deeper blessing also to Paul. God's effective work is done, not by the robust health and energy of man, but by power that uses even the weakest of vessels.
Paul therefore responds, "most gladly" in willingness to rejoice even in his infirmities, for it means that the power of Christ would rest upon him. Simply believing God in this matter, he actually took pleasure in infirmities, reproaches, necessities, persecutions and distresses which came to him for Christ's sake. For in this very weakness he was strong, not with the strength of the flesh, but of spiritual reality.
And again he speaks of what he considers the foolishness of his boasting: he had not wanted it, but they had compelled him. Instead of criticizing him, they, having been converted through him, ought to have commended him for his manifestly unexcelled apostolic character and labours.
The evidence of his apostleship had been very clear in Corinth, his humble, stedfast endurance of all adversity; and added to this "signs, wonders, and mighty deeds." God had accredited his message with such unquestionable proofs of His divine working, not by any means having the dubious character of the many Satanic or fleshly counterfeits of our day.
His work among them had produced results as clear as in other assemblies. Who would say they were inferior? If Paul's work as to them had been valueless, they might have had reason to discredit him. If they criticized him for taking no support from them, this of course did not invalidate the work of God in their own souls by the ministry of Paul, but he will add, "Forgive me this wrong," if indeed they considered it to be a wrong.
Both in verse 14 and in chapter 13:1 he speaks of being ready to come to them the third time. Actually, he had not come the second time, as he had intended: he had been only once in Corinth. But in coming to them, he will not change his practice: he will still receive no support from them; for he does not seek what they have, but themselves, that is, their true welfare according to God. And he applies to this a natural, normal principle, that of parents providing for their children, rather than the reverse. He was doing this. Of course, we must not forget the other side of the truth either, as emphasized in 1 Timothy 5:4, for if parents are in need, their children are responsible for their relief, if they have the wherewithal.
But it is no mere sense of responsibility that moves Paul: he would very gladly expend every effort to help the Corinthians, and to "be spent" in service to them, even though this unselfish love was misunderstood, and requited with resentment. Genuine love does not give up because it is not appreciated.
Verse 16 shows the way in which some of the Corinthians were accusing Paul. They suspected that, because he took no support from them, he was seeking first to secure them as his own followers, by apparent unselfishness, in order afterward to reap some material benefits from them. Those whose minds are set selfishly on material things, will always suspect others too of selfish motives. Did they not understand the true working of the Spirit of God in the Lord's servant?
So he asks them if, when he sent Titus and another brother to them, he had in any way used these brethren to gain some material profit from them. Indeed, did Titus not show the same unselfish character as Paul? Every true evidence denied the suspicions of the Corinthians. Evidently for some time they had thought that when Paul spoke in this way, it was mere excuses. But this was a callous and inconsiderate attitude. Solemnly Paul insists, "we speak before God in Christ;" and they are left no alternative but to believe him, unless of course they want to take the extreme position of considering him to be deliberately lying. But he was speaking and acting in genuine concern for their edifying.
Now he candidly expresses to them the fear that, when he comes, he may find their condition so contrary to truth that they will find him contrary to them. No doubt he writes with the earnest desire that any such thing might be previously corrected, so that he would not be given the painful duty of dealing with it. If theirs was a cynical attitude toward Paul, then it would not be surprising to find among them "debates, envying, wraths, strife's, backbiting, whisperings, swellings, tumults."
Note that, while the above mentioned evils can be strongly reproved, yet he does not speak of disciplinary action in verse 20, but in verse 21. If Paul was called upon to discipline those there who had been guilty of committing flagrant evil, and had not repented, in this he says, "My God will humble me." Whether those disciplined were humbled (as they should be), yet the responsibility of Paul's having to act, would be to him far from pleasant, but humbling. Of course, it is always the responsibility of the assembly to judge any known conduct of "uncleanness, fornication, and lasciviousness," but if in Corinth such was present, and the assembly failed to carry out proper judgment, then Paul would be required of God to insist on this when he came. How much better for the assembly to bear such a burden, and not make it the painful duty of the Lord's servant.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24