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CHAPTERS 10-13. HIS DEFENCE AGAINST HIS OPPONENTS and HIS HEARTFELT PLEA TO HIS ‘CHILDREN’ NOT TO BE LED ASTRAY.
Paul Now Lays Down The Gauntlet Against Some Of His Opponents Who Have Seemingly Arrived In Corinth (2 Corinthians 10:1 to 2 Corinthians 12:13)
Up to this point Paul’s letter has been written on a fairly amicable basis. He has made clear certain real problems still existing in the Corinthian church, but on the whole has not felt it necessary to defend himself too strongly. There have been inferences and hints that all was still not fully well, but nothing that was too powerful. His thoughts about them had become more settled and he had felt that the bad times were probably mainly over. Now, however all changes, and Paul goes into a powerful defence against some ‘pseudo-apostles’ who are seeking to undermine his ministry, and his fear as to what their effect on the Corinthians will be (2 Corinthians 12:20-21).
The very abruptness of the change of tone requires an explanation. The probable explanation may possibly be the simplest one. That even as he was coming to an end of writing his letter news reached him of certain preachers from Jerusalem who had arrived at Corinth who were antagonistic towards him, were personally attacking him and seeking to reveal him as a fraud, were proclaiming a diminished Christ, and were winning a hearing and dividing the church, thus seeming to upset all that he had achieved. It would seem that those who brought the news informed him of what these men were saying against him, as they sought to destroy his position completely, and woo the Corinthians over to themselves.
So, fearful lest he might lose what Titus’ visit and his severe letter had gained, he launches into this powerful defence in which he pulls no punches. This would fit in with the fact that this time he is not speaking of only one opponent but of a number of such.
In these days of instant telecommunication it is difficult for us to fully understand what it must have been like to be dependent on news arriving slowly, without any possibility of quickly discovering what the true situation was, especially when dealing with a church as volatile as that at Corinth. On the arrival of such news there would arise a deep fear in the mind and heart of Paul of the collapse of all that he had worked for, and all that he had thought was put right. All he could then do was write strongly, and as quickly as possible, in the hope of stopping it before it got worse.
So Paul opens this section by identifying himself by name. This is something that he does comparatively rarely in the body of a letter (although see Galatians 5:2; Ephesian 2 Corinthians 3:1; Colossians 1:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:18; Philemon 1:9). Here it is as a contrast to his opponents and to stress his personal status. They have previously declared their loyalty to him, let them remember that he is the one appointed as an Apostle of Christ by the will of God. It may also be an indication that he takes the pen from his emanuensis and begins to write in his own hand.
‘I, Paul, . . . beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be’ (2 Corinthians 10:1-2). This appears so startling after his previously revealed attitude that many today find it hard to accept that 2 Corinthians 1:1 to 2 Corinthians 9:15 and 2 Corinthians 10:1 to 2 Corinthians 13:13 originally coexisted in the same letter. They point out that there are also other aspects of chapters 10--13 that seem to be at odds with the rest of the letter.
For example, Paul's remarks about his critics become much more pointed and strident. The "some" who peddle the word of God for profit (2 Corinthians 2:17) and carry letters of recommendation (2 Corinthians 3:1-3) are now called "false apostles," "deceitful workmen" and are depicted as coming as "angels of light" like Satan does (2 Corinthians 11:13-15), although he does have such people in mind in 2 Corinthians 2:17; 2 Corinthians 4:2. Compare also 2 Corinthians 5:12. They are depicted as out to enslave and exploit the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:20). His defence also becomes much more impassioned: "What anyone else dares to boast about -- I also dare to boast about" (2 Corinthians 11:21). Although we must not overlook that he has ‘gloried’ in certain things all the way through (e.g. 2Co 1:5-9 ; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 2 Corinthians 1:14; 2Co 2:14 ; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 2 Corinthians 3:1-2 etc).
And he boasts as ‘one out of his mind’ (2 Corinthians 11:23). But again we should note 2 Corinthians 5:13 where he also speaks of being ‘beside himself’. So while not totally different the atmosphere seems to have become more charged.
Furthermore his tone is now marked by biting sarcasm and scathing irony. For example in 2 Corinthians 11:19 he says, "You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!". And finally, Paul's attitude toward the Corinthians becomes patently more threatening. "On my return," he warns, "I will not spare those who sinned earlier" (2 Corinthians 13:2), which sits ill with 2 Corinthians 2:4, and adds , "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith" (2 Corinthians 13:5) (although this latter does tie in with 2 Corinthians 6:1).
There can be no real doubt about the change of tone and attitude, although possibly not to the extent often mooted, heightened to a new intensity rather than actually new.
A number of proposals have been put forward to account for this state of affairs. Some think that the explanation lay in Paul's frame of mind, that he penned chapters 10-13 after a night's sleep from which he awoke with a sense of foreboding.
Others that a lengthy dictation pause intervened, a period in which he was too busy to continue with the letter, and that during it he received fresh news of an alarming nature, prompting him to abruptly alter his approach as he hurriedly finalised his letter.
Others consider that perhaps chapters 1-9 are addressed to the general Corinthian congregation, while chapters 10--13 are directed at certain false apostles and their adherents who formed a minority. The bearer could make this abundantly clear as he read out the letter. (It was personally delivered not posted, thus enabling its intentions to be made clear). Or perhaps that chapters 1-9 are intended for the majority who supported Paul (2 Corinthians 2:6), while chapters 10-13 are aimed at the minority who were still against him. Or that he has begun to write it himself rather than through an emanuensis and thus expresses himself more strongly.
The difficulty with any of these is that there are not the usual contextual clues to alert the reader to the receipt of disturbing news ("I hear that --"), a change of audience ("Now, to the rest of you --") or a change of writers ("I write this in my own hand"). This has led some to suggest that Paul intentionally reserved his criticism until he had regained the Corinthians' trust or that he first consolidated his apostolic authority and then exercised it against those who were still opposed to him, again with the bearer making the situation clear.
But the real problem that requires explanation is not so much the general content but the sudden change of approach and stridency of tone at 2 Corinthians 10:1, and the difference in emphasis. How probable from a pastoral standpoint would it be, it is asked, for Paul to begin the letter with praise ("Praise be to the God and Father . . ." 2 Corinthians 1:3) and conclude with a sharp warning ("Examine yourselves," 2 Corinthians 13:5)? There is no real parallel to this in his other letters. However in the light of 1 Corinthians 9:25 that is not really a problem, for there Paul could praise God and still say about himself that he was, at least theoretically, in danger of being rejected after testing. How much more so then the Corinthians.
Many have therefore suggested that chapters 10-13 are to be identified with Paul's "severe letter," sent prior to chapters 1--9 to rebuke the church for its lack of support and to call for the punishment of the individual who had challenged and humiliated Paul on his last visit, and late added to another letter. But this falls down both on content, there is for example no mention of his chief opponent (2 Corinthians 2:6), and on lack of explanation as to where the remainder of the letter disappeared to. It has, for example, no opening greeting. Another alternative offered is that 2 Corinthians 10-13 was written after chapters 1-9 in response to reports of new developments at Corinth. But this fails because we have to explain why it was not conjoined simply as it was, including its opening salutation and the closing salutation of the previous letter. It is also very little different from seeing the section as arising just as chapters 1-9 have been written, on receipt of disturbing news, but with more difficulties.
For one vital fact to take into account is that there is a total lack of any manuscript or patristic evidence to suggest that chapters 10-13 ever circulated independently of chapters 1-9. This is a major drawback of both of these last alternatives. This is especially so as abrupt changes of tone do occur elsewhere in Paul's letters (for example in Philippians 3:2). It is not something unique in his letters.
"I am glad I can have complete confidence in you" (2 Corinthians 7:16) may fit ill with "examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith" (2 Corinthians 13:5), but it does also sit ill with ‘we entreat you that you receive not the grace of God in vain’ (2 Corinthians 7:1). The fact is that all the way through the letter Paul is trying to convey a positive message while at the same time expressing his fears. One may be seen as an encouragement and the others as a warning to the same people.
It would appear to us that the best explanation of all these various problems is that which sees the change resulting as a result of the arrival of bad news while he was in course of writing the letter. The bad news that his rivals, with whom he has had to struggle elsewhere, have arrived at Corinth and are maligning him and his ministry, not so much this time on the basis of what saves (for Paul mentions no such doctrinal disagreement) but on the basis of the essence of Christ Himself, and on the basis of their priorities and jealousies, and of seeing Paul as an upstart. In view of the previous upset which he had thought was settled this would very much affect him. Indeed it would shake him to the core. We have already had indications that he is still not absolutely sure of them. The bad news thus reconfirms his fears and arouses deep alarm within him. The result being that he then takes up the pen himself, in great concern, so as to write these last strongly apologetic chapters in order, he hopes, to stymie further disagreements within the church before it is too late. (The volatility of the church in Corinth will later be confirmed in the letter to the Corinthians written by Clement of Rome at the end of the century).
Furthermore the fact that Paul has failed to notify them clearly in 1-9 of his future plans with regard to visiting them (it is only indirectly referred to in 2 Corinthians 9:4), which must seem surprising in the circumstances in view of the fact that it had after all been such a big thing with them (2 Corinthians 1:17), would strongly support the idea that 10-13, which does contain such information, must be a part of the same letter, which is the view we take.
‘I must needs glory, though it is not expedient; but I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.’
His glorying must necessarily go on in order to combat his opponents, even though in other circumstances it would be ‘not on’, it would not be acceptable behaviour. And he will now consider his opponent’s claims that they have visions and revelations of the Lord. This was no doubt what had impressed the Corinthians the most. These men spoke in tongues, prophesied, received revelations, (1 Corinthians 14:26), had wondrous experiences of the Spirit in visions (described by themselves), did they? They heard and they saw. And they spoke loudly about what they experienced? Well, let them consider or rival this.
He Glories in Wondrous Experiences, Dreadful Weakness and The Manifestation of Miracles, In All of Which He Is a Match For His Opponents (2 Corinthians 12:1-13 )
Having stressed the differences between himself and the opposing visiting preachers in that he had been the one who founded their church and first built up a people in Corinth for Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2); in that he had brought the Corinthians the true knowledge about Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:6); in that he made it free and without charge (2 Corinthians 11:7-10); and in that he came in humility and not in an overbearing way (2 Corinthians 10:1; 2 Corinthians 11:29), and having matched their claims to pure descent (2 Corinthians 11:22) and having more than matched their claims to being servants of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:23-29), Paul now goes on to look at the further attributes which they boast about as making them superior, their visions and revelations, and their performing of ‘signs’.
And yet how hard he finds it to ‘boast’ comes out in that he refers to what he is about to describe in the third person. He does not want to speak of it brazenly. He does not want to focus attention on himself. It had been so awe-inspiring and holy that he cannot speak of it directly. Indeed so uniquely awe-inspiring that God had to give him something to counterbalance it in order to keep him genuinely humble. That is why he has just mentioned his humiliating descent in the basket, and will mention his ‘thorn in the flesh’, in order to keep a proper perspective. And he then expresses regret that he has to mention his other-worldly experience at all. For even the experience itself was ‘unspeakable’, something that could not be talked about.
What a contrast there is here between Paul and his opponents. Instead of glorying in his unique experience he pulls back a corner of the curtain and then immediately closes it. But he has let enough light through for the signal to be picked up. None of his opponents have even dared to claim an experience like this, and none have had an experience which needed to be followed by God’s action to prevent them becoming too exalted about it.
‘I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knows), such a one caught up even to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or apart from the body, I know not; God knows), how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.’
Fourteen years ago he had had an experience that went beyond all experiences. It was the very basis of his unique Apostleship. He does not know whether it happened to him physically, or whether he was lifted out of his body spiritually. God is the only One Who knows that. But he knows that it happened, and that it happened ‘in Christ’. He was caught up into ‘the third heaven’, into Paradise itself. Not just the heavens above, nor the heavens where spiritual activity is taking place, but the very presence of God Himself. And there he heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter (compare Revelation 10:4). He received revelations which he cannot mention or describe. He was given a unique insight into God and His ways. He was made uniquely aware of the glory of God. And they were things which were for him alone and of which he has no right to speak. If his opponents had had an experience such as that they too would have been unwilling to talk about it. For it was God-forbidden.
It is doubtful whether this refers to his experience on the Damascus Road. Indeed part of the reason for his previous mention of his escape from Damascus may have been to cancel out such an idea. For there the words he heard were made known. And then he was not ‘a man in Christ’. This was something so profound in this experience that it was the highpoint of his spiritual life. But he mentions it to keep his opponents’ claims in perspective. They boast of visions and revelations. Then let them know that he has had such which were far more excessive than anything they had ever known.
But his refusal to say more not only brings out the awesomeness of his experience, but also illustrates the fact that he is not prepared to compare visions blow by blow. The fact is that if they had had a vision like his they would not talk about it. That puts all their boasts in perspective. In his presence let them keep quiet. Compared with his their experiences are paltry.
Paul certainly had other visions and revelations. See Acts 9:3-19; Acts 16:9; Acts 18:9-10; Acts 22:17-21. But compared with this one they were as nothing. He did not even release details of it to Luke. And even here, having established the fact, he leaves it there. He will not supply the detail of that particular experience to bolster his case. It was completely other-worldly.
‘A man in Christ.’ This was important. His experience was as a result of his being ‘in Christ’. It was no pagan experience or connected with the mysteries. It was because of his closeness to the living Christ that he had had the experience. All that had happened to him then was ‘In Christ’.
‘Caught up.’ Only used twice by Paul (compare 1 Thessalonians 4:17). It was to be taken out of the material world into a heavenly dimension to meet with God or with Christ. It was to be caught up to the realm beyond the known.
‘Whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knows.’ This is repeated twice which stresses its importance. He does not want this experience to be used theologically, or to be seen in the light of the experience of others. It must not be used to argue that such experiences can only happen outside the body, but nor must it be used to declare that a man cannot operate apart from his body. It must not be used to suggest that the body is somehow evil in itself. It must not be compared with the ascension of Jesus, or the taking up of Elijah.
But nor must it be interpreted as just some venture from the body, like Ezekiel’s, or as an experience of dying and then returning to his body as described by many. It was not that kind of experience at all. It just happened and he does not know how it happened. And, he says, it must be left there. It cannot be used to deny a bodily resurrection, or indeed to teach it. He does not want to liken it to any other experience. It was wholly mysterious, unlike those of his opponents which they could explain without difficulty.
‘The third heaven.’ Possibly to be seen as the result of his meditation on 1 Kings 8:27 where Solomon speaks of ‘heaven and the heaven of heavens’, and based on Biblical uses of the term ‘heavens’ for the skies which includes sun, moon and stars (part of creation - Genesis 1:0); for that which lies beyond the skies, where angels might be and God can be reached (1 Kings 8:13 and often); and for the private abode of God Himself, (he may have had in mind here the outer and inner sanctuary in the Temple, the latter limited to God in His unapproachable glory, with His attendant cherubim). And all this thought of vaguely in spacial terms, although not specifically stated to be so, without being too specific. To them it was the world which was the universe. All else was ‘outside’. What was outside it was what we would call another ‘dimension’. Even today most people find it difficult to think in solely philosophical terms of not here nor there, but ‘outside’ space (we have not even the ready language for it), and it was no different then.
But we must ever remember that ‘three’ conveyed the idea of completeness and totality. The ‘third’ heaven would thus sum up the perfection of Heaven. In other literature this expands to five, seven and ten heavens, but that is more speculative. Paul is not being speculative (‘I cannot tell’).
‘Paradise.’ The word comes from the Persian meaning an enclosed park, such as the gardens of the Persian kings. In LXX it was used to translate ‘the fruitful plain of Eden’. But in the Old Testament it never refers to anything outside this world. In the New Testament it was used by Jesus, if we interpret strictly, of the place to which men go after death and where He would be prior to His resurrection (Luke 23:43). It is probably in mind in Luke 16:19-31, the place of the righteous dead. But it is doubtful whether we are to so limit it. The idea is probably mainly that such people are with God. It is used in Jewish literature of where God is. In Revelation 2:7 it is the reward for overcomers, and there they will eat of the tree of life. In Revelation 21:1-5 this clearly has in mind our eternal dwellingplace in the glorious presence of God, depicted in terms of a more wonderful, ‘heavenly’ Eden of which God Himself is the light. Here in Paul it probably equates with the third Heaven, where God dwells in His indescribable glory.
‘And heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.’ Words which cannot be spoken, and which commentators have been trying to fathom ever since. The idea is probably that they were awe-inspiring and beyond man’s grasp and capability, so that if their ideas were conveyed man would be unable to bear the result. They are similar to His unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16). It is noteworthy that like Isaiah before him (Isaiah 6:1-4) he does not try to describe God. He is lost in the indescribable. He describes only ‘unutterable sayings’ (compare the ‘voice from the throne’ which issues in the end - Revelation 19:5), and that in terms of the unspeakable. All that is of God is too holy to be fathomed by man, or to be heard and seen.
What Paul is really saying is that he was caught up into the presence of God and for that brief time was caught up in such an indescribable heavenly experience in His presence that he could neither describe nor relate it, nor would want to, and that it would be blasphemy to make the attempt. He knew that what he had experienced was nothing to do with man while on this earth. But it had almost certainly affected the whole of his thinking from then on. It could hardly do otherwise. No longer for him the philosophical arguments about God, or the godly speculation. Even though he could not describe it, it affected all his thinking, all his doctrine and the whole of his ministry and life. And we must see such phrases as ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:6) in that context. We are probably to see ‘is not lawful’ to mean not so much forbidden by God’s edict as forbidden by its very nature.
Let these pseudo-apostles with their constant speculation think on that. And let the Corinthians themselves recognise that they must choose between one who has met God in full intimacy, and cannot speak of it because of its awesomeness and its holiness, and those who claim to be aware of God through whatever method of obtaining such knowledge they used, and constantly speak of it. If they had really met God as they had said they would remember the words of Ecclesiastes 5:2, ‘Do not be rash with your mouth, and do not let your heart be hasty to utter anything before God, for God is in heaven and you are on the earth, therefore let your words be few.’ Such experience can only result in humility.
‘On behalf of such a one will I glory: but on my own behalf I will not glory, save in my weaknesses.’
Yet he seeks no glory because of his experience. Let them consider the reality and glory certainly. But he does not want them to look at him and admire him. Let them rather look on his weaknesses and remember those, and that they arise precisely because of his experience. It is not him to whom they should look but the ineffable God. The marks of his Apostleship are to be seen more in the fact that he shares in the sufferings of Christ, than in the glory of revelations.
‘For if I should desire to glory, I shall not be foolish; for I shall speak the truth: but I forbear, lest any man should account of me above that which he sees me to be, or hears from me.’
He could glory if he wanted to, and it would not be foolish, because he would speak the truth. And yet how foolish that would be. So he forbears. God has spent more time reminding him that he is but a mortal man, than He has anyone else. What a fool he would be to seek to impress people with his experience when in the present they can see nothing but this weak man with his fightings, and struggles, and disabilities. Let them see him and listen to him. And let them judge him by that, and by the fact that he fills up that which is behind of the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24). Then let them see and listen again.
‘Above that which he sees me to be, or hears from me.’ The sight and voice of the glory of God are hidden from them, even forbidden to them, for what He has said is unspeakable. They must see and hear, either through the vision and revelations of the impostors (2 Corinthians 12:1), or through the sight and words of Paul, who alone has experienced the sight and words of God. The treasures are in an earthen vessel that the glory may be of God (2 Corinthians 4:7).
‘And by reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted overmuch, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, that I should not be exalted overmuch.’
For God has gone out of His way to ensure that Paul was kept mindful of what he was. Because of the exceeding greatness of the revelations that He had given Paul, He also allowed him to be given something else so that he would not be over exalted, over proud, with thoughts above what he should have. And this was a thorn (or ‘stake’) in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to buffet him. The fact that it was a messenger of Satan prevents us from thinking of God’s direct action. It was something, therefore, which God allowed, (and was therefore His gift), but not something that He Himself arranged for him.
What this thorn in the flesh, this messenger of Satan, was, he gives us no clue, only that God could have taken it away. It is doubtful therefore whether it was his appearance, unprepossessing though that seems to have been. The only description we have is of ‘a man small in stature, thin haired on the head, crooked in the legs, of good state of body, with eyebrows joining and nose somewhat hooked.’ His thorn in the flesh has been interpreted as either signifying some painful and debilitating or irritating illness (thorn in the flesh), or some constant antagonist, whether earthly or heavenly, who constantly followed him around and caused trouble (messenger of Satan), or in some way attacked him.
‘Thorn in the flesh’ seems to signify pain and irritation, and possibly worse, for he may have seen how a thorn in the flesh could result in death through tetanus. But that it was permanent is clear from the fact that it was not taken away. ‘An angel of Satan’ could be anything caused by Satan. Compare Job 1:0, and the whole of Job, where it included physical disasters, loss of property, a nagging wife, and thoughtless friends. Although as some have pointed out the term angellos is only elsewhere used by Paul of persons.
Consideration must be given to the fact that it may have been given to him immediately after the revelation. The verse can certainly be read in that way. We can compare how once Jacob had wrestled with God, he came away lame (Genesis 32:25), and how Zacharias was made dumb in the Temple even though only at the vision of an angel (Luke 1:20), although that was for unbelief. The kind of experience that Paul had had might well have left its effect in some way on his body or on his psyche.
Various suggestions have been made over a whole range of disabilities. Some have suggested physical disabilities such as: epilepsy (because he fell down on the Damascus Road), a speech impediment (poor of speech - 2 Corinthians 10:10; 2 Corinthians 11:6), malaria (‘weakness’, malaria was prevalent in some of the areas he visited), an ophthalmic malady (‘you would have given me your own eyes’ - Galatians 4:14-15; compare 2 Corinthians 6:11), leprosy, attacks of migraine, or irritable bowel syndrome, which in one of its many forms can be equally debilitating and strike suddenly, bringing pain in the body and continual pressure in the head while not necessarily affecting general health. Paul never, however, suggests sickness as being one of his trials in the lists of trials.
Others have suggested emotional disabilities such as hysteria, caused by some of his experiences, or periodic depressions, possibly resulting from the burden of the inability to reach his own people (Romans 9:2-3). The thorn and messenger of Satan could also refer to permanent persecution (1 Peter 5:8), troublesome people (2 Corinthians 11:13-15), spiritual snares and fleshly temptations. But all these could be seen as what he could normally expect. Perhaps Paul did find the single life difficult. The possibilities are endless, which is all to the good for it covers all problems that God’s people might suffer, and can be an encouragement to them.
The metaphors are not much more help. The Old Testament spoke of troublesome people as being a "barb in the eye" or a "thorn in the side" (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13; Judges 2:3; Ezekiel 28:24), while in Paul’s days "a stake in the flesh" was a common figure of speech for excruciating physical pain. So Paul could be speaking metaphorically of the heretical teachers who constantly dogged his steps and hindered his ministry (compare the mention of weaknesses, injuries, necessary hardships, and persecutions in 2 Corinthians 12:10), or he might be thinking of any number of disabilities.
‘To buffet me (continually).’ And therefore to ‘treat me cruelly’ (compare 1 Corinthians 4:11). Paul found it a constant torture. Those who have suffered pain throughout their lives will understand his thoughts precisely.
‘That I should not be exalted overmuch.’ The experience of God he has described was an ever present danger as well as an ever present blessing. It would have been so easy for him to think that he was something special. The churches on the whole saw him as something special, and that too could be a danger to him. (We too mostly see him as something special). But it would have been a disaster if he had seen himself as something special. And there is nothing like pain that cannot be easily dealt with to prevent someone from seeing himself as something special. It soon brings someone back to their knees and reminds them that they are but human. But he seemingly learned the lesson continually through hard experience.
‘Concerning this thing I besought the Lord three times, that it might depart from me.’
‘Three times’ may well mean ‘a number of times.’ Since the beginning when man first began to use numbers ‘three’ has meant more than just a number and regularly meant ‘many’ compared with a ‘few’ (which was represented by ‘two’ - 1 Kings 17:12). Thus he had begged the Lord more than a few times that it might be taken from him. It was not something that he found at all bearable. Note the term ‘the Lord’. This usually means Jesus Christ, and is one of the rare cases where prayer is said to be made to Him. The prayer was very personal, and it may be significant that it was said to the great Healer.
‘And he has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you: for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may take up its abode on me.’
The reply that at some stage came to him from Christ, and is still effective (perfect tense), was not what he wanted. It was that the thorn would not be removed. Jesus Christ wanted him to remain weak, so that he might remain strong, triumphing over weakness, triumphing over the thorn and triumphing over the danger of self-exaltation. ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ His unmerited love, favour and compassion revealed in His personal ministering to Paul, with all the power at His disposal, would be sufficient to see him through it. It would be his sufficiency. And the reason too was given, so that he might be perfectly strengthened through the power of Christ, manifested even while he seemed weak.
So Paul came not only to accept his disability, but to glory in it along with his other weaknesses. If that was the price of having the power of Christ abiding on him, then it was a price worth facing up to. For enjoying the power of Christ, both in his own life, and in his work for others, meant more than all. His disability helped him to die daily so that the power of Christ might be manifested through his mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:10-11). This is true whether the ‘power of Christ’ means ‘Christ’s own power’, or the power which consists of Christ as ministered by God.
‘Wherefore I take pleasure (‘gladly boast’) in weaknesses: in injuries (or ‘insults’), in necessary hardships, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake, for when I am weak, then am I strong.’
This placed here might suggest at first sight that the ‘thorn in the flesh’ covered all these seen as one whole, the burdens of his ministry. But it is more likely that the one enabled him to also face the many. He was hardly likely to expect God to remove all these. They were a part of the sufferings of Christ which he expected constantly. So they cannot be the specific thorn in the flesh. But the sufficiency that he received in respect the power of Christ abiding on him because of the thorn helped to maintain him in all his sufferings. For he had learned the secret that his weakness so threw him on God that he always emerged the stronger.
Paul again lists examples of the troubles that he has endured for Christ's sake. Three of the four appear in the earlier lists. All four are troubles that Paul faced on his missionary travels. The first one, hubris, has in mind wanton acts of violence. Paul uses it in 1 Thessalonians 2:2 of the “injury and insult” that he experienced at Philippi when he was publicly whipped and imprisoned without good reason (Acts 16:22-24; compare Acts 14:5). Ananke (compare Acts 6:4, “necessary hardships”) refers to the divine necessity which necessitates such adverse circumstances as calamity, torture and bodily pain. Diogmos is commonly used of tracking down a prey or an enemy and has in mind persecution (compare Acts 4:9, “persecutions”). Paul may well here be thinking of how he was pursued from city to city by hostile Jews. Stenochoria (compare Acts 6:4, “distresses, difficulties”) refers to finding oneself in a tight corner or in narrow straits, pressed in with no apparent way of escape.
‘For when I am weak, then am I strong.’ This is true for two reasons. Firstly because his weakness drives him back to God so that he remains totally dependent on His power, and secondly because the weakness itself renders him usable by the God who uses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. It is in his very weakness that the power of God can be most effective, that the power might be of God and not of him.
‘I am become foolish, you compelled me; for I ought to have been commended of you. For in nothing was I behind the very highest ranking apostles, though I am nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, by signs and wonders and mighty works.’
Having bared his soul to them he now declares once again that all this boasting has been foolishness. He feels he has become foolish. But only because they had forced him to it. It was their fault. They should have been commending him because of what he was, as the chosen Apostle of Christ by the will of God, but they had not. Instead, as they had at the painful visit, they were failing to give him support. Yet who should know better than they that in nothing had he fallen short of the highest ranking Apostles, the Twelve. As much as any he had patiently wrought signs and wonders and mighty works among them.
Miracles were performed in virtually every city that Paul visited. In Paphos (Acts 13:6-12); in Iconium (Acts 14:3); in Lystra (Acts 14:8-10); in Philippi (Acts 16:16-18); in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:5); in Corinth (1 Corinthians 2:4 ]; in Ephesus (Acts 19:11-12); in Troas (Acts 20:9-12); and in Malta (Acts 28:1-10). In fact, Paul in his letters says repeatedly that his preaching was not merely one of word but of "power and the Spirit" (see for example, Romans 15:19; 1 Corinthians 2:4; Galatians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:5).
‘Though I am nothing.’ But he does not want them to think that he has turned to boasting again. Ei with the indicative denotes what is fact in someone's eyes. So Paul is saying that in the eyes of the world, and certainly of the pseudo-apostles and some of the Corinthians he counts for nothing, and he does not deny that they are right. It is not he who counts for anything, but God. The opposition has already alleged that he lacks formal letters of commendation, that his speaking amounts to nothing and that he is unimpressive in his person (2 Corinthians 3:1-3; 2 Corinthians 10:10).
Or it may reflect his own self-recognition. While he can say that he is not the least bit inferior to the other apostles in signs and wonders, he always attributes his success to the grace of God within him (1 Corinthians 15:10). In and of himself he is aware that the "least of the Apostles" and the "chief of sinners," because he had persecuted the church of God (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:15).
‘Signs and wonders and mighty works among them.’ An all-inclusive description covering every type of miracle.
‘For what is there wherein you were made inferior to the rest of the churches, except it be that I myself was not a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong.’
Indeed the only Apostolic ‘sign’ that he did not work among them was that of making himself a burden to them, of imposing on them for hospitality over a long period. This he would not do. And that was the only thing that made them ‘inferior’ to other churches! What folly! Sarcastically he begs them to forgive him that wrong.
Alternately he may have realised that the Corinthians really were upset about the fact, having been stirred up by the pseudo-apostles. If so the request for forgiveness may be genuine, and not sarcastic. But what follows suggests that this is not so.
Having Completed His Exercise in ‘Foolishness’ Paul now Finalises His Position (2 Corinthians 12:14-21).
He begins by assuring them of his care for them and then penetratingly analyses what he fears is their own deteriorating situation in all this. For in the end his concern is not so much the false apostles as the effect their visit has had on the church themselves. That is what matters most to him. And he wants them to know that he is very fearful about what he will find, and will consequently have to do in reply. Let them be assured that there will be no strategic withdrawal this time. The false apostles will have to be dealt with, but even more the church itself will have to be sorted out, and he will not spare. So let them consider their own position and consider what they will do.
The very intensity of his words demonstrates how he sees the picture changed by the arrival and activity of the false apostles.
Behold, this is the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be a burden to you. For I seek not yours, but you. For the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.’
So he is now ready to pay them their third visit. But he will still not call on them for hospitality. They have enough to do in providing it for the pseudo-apostles. For he is not coming seeking anything from them. He seeks only them. Their good, and their advantage. For because he is their spiritual parent, it is they who should be looking to him, not he to them. That is the natural way of things between children and parents. The parents provide for the children out of love, and look for love and obedience in return.
‘To lay up.’ The idea can be used of amassing a fund. But Paul is more probably thinking of many ways whereby he can benefit the Corinthians, making provision for them spiritually in every way.
He Assures Them of His Care For Them (2 Corinthians 12:14-18 ).
He declares that he intends shortly to visit them for a third time. But when he does he will again not be a burden on them. (This suggests that he did not think that they were really upset about his not being a charge on them, or otherwise he would surely have accepted the hospitality, becoming all things to all men). For as their parent it is his responsibility to look out for them, not theirs to look out for him. So he will rather spend and be spent for them, for he loves them truly. Indeed neither he or his co-workers have at any stage sought to take advantage of them.
His first visit had been an eighteen-month stay that had seen the establishment of the Corinthian church (Acts 18:1-18). Then he had maintained himself by tent-making. His second visit had been a painful one for Paul. As we have seen earlier, while he was there, a leader in the congregation, supported by a number of its members, had publicly insulted him and challenged his authority, demanding proof that Christ was speaking through him (2 Corinthians 13:3). And the church had meanwhile sat by and had done nothing to support him. He had hurriedly left them then because he saw the possibility of a split in the church if he did not. That was when he had written his severe letter. Now he was coming in hope, for a third time, and this letter was in preparation.
‘And I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more abundantly, am I loved the less?’
And he is happy that it should be so. He is delighted to spend himself, until he is absolutely spent, for them. (The play on words is also there in the Greek). He will hold nothing back. He will gladly give of himself, of his time, of his energy, of his affection, of his reputation and, if need be, of his health. He loves them abundantly. Will they then respond to his abundant love with something less?
‘But be it so, I did not myself burden you, but, being crafty, I caught you with guile.’
And yet if it is to be so, it must be so. For he is aware of what they are saying about him, of the accusations being made against him. They are saying that no, he did not burden them with a requirement for hospitality, but rather he was crafty and caught them with guile. He arranged the big collection which in due course he would come to collect. The implication is that they then expected him to take a percentage for himself. So would he by that means obtain by guile what he was pretending that he would not accept from them. And the benefit that he would thus obtain would be far more. This was no doubt what the pseudo-apostles were pointing out to them. (They probably could not conceive of anyone who actually was willing to evangelise without receiving any material benefit).
Others interpret it as a straight statement, a statement that, because of his love for them, instead of being a burden to them he had used all his guile to win them to Christ, that like a fisherman he had offered them bait and reeled them in, using ‘guile’ to win them to Christ, with the sole aim that they should receive from him that wonderful benefit without cost.
Well, whichever view they had about him, let them consider the facts.
‘Did I take advantage of you by any one of them whom I have sent to you?’
Did any of the people whom he sent take advantage of them? Did they come away with any money which would benefit Paul? Let them think about it and weigh up the facts.
‘I exhorted Titus, and I sent the brother with him. Did Titus take any advantage of you? Did we not walk in the same spirit? Did we not walk in the same steps?’
It was he who encouraged Titus to come with the other brother. Did he take advantage of them then? Did he not just behave like Paul. Did they both not walk in the same spirit? Were their footprints not going in the same direction?
To ‘walk in the same Spirit’ may indicate that both did what they did in response to the Holy Spirit. They were of one heart and mind because of His inworking. Unlike the pseudo-apostles whose view of the Spirit was that He would benefit them, not call on them for self-sacrifice. Alternately we may see it as ‘spirit’ with a small ‘s’ indicating that their mindset was the same because of what was in their hearts, paralleling ‘walk in the same steps’. They walked together because they were both agreed in their hearts.
His Final Wake Up Call (2 Corinthians 12:19-21 )
‘You think all this time that we are excusing ourselves to you. In the sight of God speak we in Christ. But all things, beloved, are for your edifying.’
Do they really think that all this time he is only making excuses? Never. For let them consider before Whose eyes they speak. They speak in the sight of God. And they also speak ‘in Christ’. And as he has declared before, in them is ‘yes’ and ‘Amen’ (2 Corinthians 1:17-24). So there is no way in which, standing before God and dwelling in Christ, he can be trying to deceive them. No, they are beloved by him and by Titus, and their sole purpose is their building up and edifying. All that they do is to that end. And what is the consequence of their concern to build them up and edify them? It is that they must deal in depth with their sins which have again sprouted up.
2 Corinthians 12:20-21, ‘For I fear, lest by any means, when I come, I should find you not such as I would, and should myself be found of you such as you would not; lest by any means there should be strife, jealousy, wraths, machinations, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, disorderly behaviour; lest again in my coming my God should humble me before you, and I should mourn for many of them that have sinned heretofore, and repented not of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they committed.’
He now summarises why he has previously spoken so strongly. It is because he is afraid of what he will find is true of them when he comes. (The use of subjunctives leaves the question open. It is a probability but not a certainty). He is afraid that what he discovers then will but add to his sufferings, will result in another humbling, another heavy burden added to his ‘care for all the churches’.
This sudden bombardment at the end of these chapters, and bombardment it is, is intended to make the whole church sit up and think, and it is something that he has been preparing for. As they have listened to this last part of his letter being read they will have, as it were, largely been the audience considering his arguments against the false apostles. But now he wants them to know that his battle will not only be with the false teachers (2 Corinthians 10:2), but with them, for it is not so much the false teachers that he is concerned about as the Corinthians themselves. It is they who are his great concern. Let them then consider themselves (2 Corinthians 13:5). For he is afraid of what he will find when he looks at them, that he will find that they are still torn apart in dissension and strife, and riddled with immorality in spite of all his past efforts.
So he challenges them with the fact that his fear is very much that when he comes he will not find them as he would like to find them, as those over whom he can rejoice. But rather that he will find that they have not repented and put away their sins about which he had already warned them (in 1 Corinthians and in the severe letter).
Then he outlines those sins. They are the sins of infighting, of jealousy and anger towards each other as they support different sections and views, of continual bursts of antagonism towards one another (plural form), of intrigue and plotting, of party spirit and rivalry, of rumour spreading and pernicious talk, of pride and boasting and puffing out of chests, of disorderly behaviour and anarchy in the assembly, and indeed of all uncleanness, and especially those particular sins of being unequally yoked with idolatrous associations, together with their sins of sexual misbehaviour which partly result from this. (The news about all this had probably come from those who had warned him of the arrival of the false apostles).
And if all this is true let them be assured of one thing, that they also will not find him as they would like to find him. Indeed because of their behaviour, they will find him coming in anger, rather than in meekness and love. Let them then recognise that they are not sheep on the sidelines considering a case. They, and what they are, is in the end the central issue.
And his further fear is then that his forceful words will only result in further strife, in further jealousy, in further expressions of wrath, this time both ways, in an intensifying of their splitting up into factions, in continual backbiting, in more whisperings behind the hand, in further swellings of the chest through pride, and in further disorderly behaviour. Yet he knows that, unless they right themselves, it will have to be.
For he is aware that when he comes, if he does face a church in complete disarray, he will have to tackle it head on with all guns blazing. The time for gentleness and meekness will be past. And he does not like the thought of the consequences. For the result can only be that he will once again arrive to be insulted and humiliated as he was before, and thus be humbled by God as it will be a testimony to his failure. (He still feels that this is something that many would wish to avoid). And to be greatly grieved as he sees among them those who have committed uncleanness, fornication and lasciviousness, and have not repented. He is thus making quite clear that he does not view the prospect of his visit with any pleasure, accompanied as it will be by humiliation and grief, and is giving them the opportunity to do something about it before it is too late.
And the implication is (already stated in 2 Corinthians 12:20) that, unless they do so, he is going to have to himself do something about it, and when he does, it will be a something which will not be very pleasant. And he is fearful of what the effect might be on the church and its future.
So after all that he has been writing he makes clear that in the final analysis it is their state that he is still concerned about, and what he might find, and more so now as a result of the presence of the false apostles. This sudden list of sins may seem to come unexpectedly, but it actually brings them back to the main purpose of his letter, the reconciling of the whole church, although expressed more strongly now because of the new situation which makes him doubtful of their genuine continued repentance. It is an attack at the very root of their failures. It brings out his renewed fears of those old failures which had hoped had been dealt with but have again apparently sprouted up as a result of the effects of the pseudo-apostles on them. He fears that they will have aroused all the old tensions which he had hoped had been mainly settled as a result of 1 Corinthians, his forceful letter and Titus’ visit. He therefore wants them to consider their ways and to recognise that he has no illusions about what their true state might well be, unless they will now take heed to what he has written. It is in fact up to them to decide what his attitude will be when he comes.
This forceful statement accords well with the earlier suggestion that, while earlier writing his letter rejoicing in their seeming reformation, and in the good spirit of unity and wellbeing that Titus had described as now being among them, he had suddenly received news of the working among them of men who had caused all the old problems to resurface, so that he had now not only felt it necessary not only to repudiate those men and compare himself with them in strongest terms, but also to appeal to the Corinthians in the strongest terms not to allow the worst to happen to them. The letter of rejoicing has become a desperate plea for them not to be so foolish as to revert to what they had been, and worse, and a warning of what it will do to their relationship with him. Thus does he bear the cares of this particular church. This is Apostolic authority at its strongest.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17