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Bible Commentaries
2 Corinthians 12

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-10


Chapter 26


2 Corinthians 11:30-33; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (R.V)

THE difficulties of exposition in this passage are partly connected with its form, partly with its substance: it will be convenient to dispose of the formal side first. The thirteenth verse of the eleventh chapter-"If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things that concern my weakness"-seems to serve two purposes. On the one hand, it is a natural and effective climax to all that precedes; it defines the principle on which Paul has acted in the "glorying" of 2 Corinthians 11:23-29. It is not of exploits that he is proud, but of perils and sufferings; not of what he has achieved, but of what he has endured, for Christ’s sake; in a word, not of strength, but of weakness. On the other hand, this same thirtieth verse indubitably points forward; it defines the principle on which Paul will always act where boasting is in view; and it is expressly resumed in 2 Corinthians 12:5 and 2 Corinthians 12:9. For this reason, it seems better to treat it as a text than as a peroration; it is the key to the interpretation of what follows, put into our hands by the Apostle himself. In the full consciousness of its dangers and inconveniences, he means to go a little further in this foolish boasting; but he takes security, as far as possible, against its moral perils, by choosing as the ground of boasting things which in the common judgment of men would only bring him shame.

At this point we are startled by a sudden appeal to God, the solemnity and fullness of which strike us, on a first reading, as almost painfully gratuitous. "The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed for ever, knoweth that I lie not." What is the explanation of this extraordinary earnestness? There is a similar passage in Galatians 1:19 -"Now touching the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not" - where Lightfoot says the strength of the Apostle’s language is to be explained by the unscrupulous calumnies cast upon him by his enemies. This may be the clue to his vehemence here; and in point of fact it falls in with by far the most ingenious explanation that has been given of the two subjects introduced in this paragraph. The explanation I refer to is that of Heinrici. He supposes that Paul’s escape from Damascus, and his visions and revelations, had been turned to account against him by his rivals. They had used the escape to accuse him of ignominious cowardice: the indignity of it is obvious enough. His visions and revelations were as capable of misconstruction: it was easy to call them mere illusions, signs of a disordered brain; it was not too much for malice to hint that his call to apostleship rested on nothing better than one of these ecstatic hallucinations. It is because things so dear to him are attacked-his reputation for personal courage, which is the mainstay of all the virtues; his actual vision of Christ, and divinely Authorized mission-that he makes the vehement appeal that startles us at first. He calls God to witness that in regard to both these subjects he is going to tell the exact truth: the truth will be his sufficient defense. Ingenious as it is, I do not think this theory can be maintained. There is no hint in the passage that Paul is defending himself; he is glorying, and glorying in the things that concern his weakness. It seems more probable that, when he dictated the strong words of 2 Corinthians 11:31, the outline of all he was going to say was in his mind; and as the main part of it-all about the visions and revelations-was absolutely uncontrollable by any witness but his own, he felt moved to attest it thus in advance. The names and attributes of God fall in well with this. As the visions and revelations were specially connected with Christ, and were counted by the Apostle among the things for which he had the deepest reason to praise God, it is but the reflection of this state of mind when he appeals to "the God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed for evermore." This is not a random adjuration, but an appeal which takes shape involuntarily in a grateful and pious heart, on which the memory of a signal grace and honor still rests. Of course the verses about Damascus stand rather out of relation to it. But it is a violence which nothing can justify to strike them out of the text on this ground, and along with them part or the whole of 2 Corinthians 12:1 in 2 Corinthians 12:1-21. For many reasons unknown to us the danger in Damascus, and the escape from it, may have had a peculiar interest for the Apostle; haec persequutio, says Calvin, erat quasi primum tirocinium Pauli; it was his "matriculation in the school of persecution." He may have intended, as Meyer thinks, to make it the beginning of a new catalogue of sufferings for Christ’s sake, all of which were to be covered by the appeal to God, and have abruptly repented, and gone off on another subject; but whether or not, to expunge the lines is pure willfulness. The Apostle glories in what he endured at Damascus-in the imminent peril and in the undignified escape alike-as in things belonging to his weakness. Another might choose to hide such things, but they are precisely what he tells. In Christ’s service scorn is glory, ignominy is honor; and it is the mark of loyalty when men rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer, shame for the Name.

When we go on to 2 Corinthians 12:1-21., and the second of the two subjects with which boasting is to be associated, we meet in the first verse with serious textual difficulties. Our Authorized Version gives the rendering: "It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord." This follows the Textus Receptus: Καυχασθαι δη ου συμφερει μοι ελευσομαι γαρ κ.τ.λ., only omitting the γαρ (for I will come). The MSS. are almost chaotic, but the most authoritative editors-Tregelles, Tischendorf in his last edition, and Westcott and Hort - agree in reading Καυχασθαι δει ου συμφερον μεν ελευσομαι δε κ.τ.λ.

This is the text which our Revisers render:

"I must needs glory, though it is not expedient; but I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord." Practically, the difference is not so great after all. According to the best authorities, Paul repeats that he is being forced to speak as he does; the consciousness of the disadvantages attendant on this course does not leave him, it is rather deepened, as he approaches the highest and most sacred of all subjects-visions and revelations he has received from Christ. Of these two words, revelations is the wider in import: visions were only one of the ways in which revelations could be made. Paul, of course, is not going to boast directly of the visions and revelations themselves. All through the experiences to which he alludes under this name he was to himself as a third person; he was purely passive; and to claim credit, to glory as if he had done or originated anything, would be transparently absurd. But there are "things of his weakness" associated with, if not dependent on, these high experiences; and it is in them, after due explanation, that he purposes to exult.

He begins abruptly. "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 knoweth), such a one caught up even to the third heaven." A man in Christ means a Christian man, a man in his character as a Christian. To St. Paul’s consciousness the wonderful experience he is about to describe was not natural, still less pathological, but unequivocally religious. It did not befall him as a man simply, still less as an epileptic patient; it was an unmistakably Christian experience. He only existed for himself, during it, as "a man in Christ." "I know such a man," he says, "fourteen years ago caught up even to the third heaven." The date of this "rapture" (the same word is used in Acts 8:39 1 Thessalonians 4:17 Revelation 12:5: all significant examples) would be about A.D. 44. This forbids us to connect it in any way with Paul’s conversion, which must have been twenty years earlier than this letter; and indeed there is no reason for identifying it with anything else we know of-the Apostle. At the date in question, as far as can be made out from the Book of Acts, he must have been in Tarsus or in Antioch. The rapture itself is described as perfectly incomprehensible. He may have been carried up bodily to the heavenly places; his spirit may have been carried up, while his body remained unconscious upon earth: he can express no opinion about this; the truth is only known to God. It is idle to exploit a passage like this in the interest of apostolic psychology; Paul is only taking elaborate pains to tell us that of the mode of his rapture he was absolutely ignorant. It is fairer to infer that the event was unique in his experience, and that when it happened he was alone; had such things recurred, or had there been spectators, he could not have been in doubt as to whether he was caught up "in the body" or "out of the body." The mere fact that the date is given individualizes the event in his life; and it is going beyond the facts altogether to generalize it, and take it as the type of such an experience as accompanied his conversion, or of the visions in Acts 16:9; Acts 22:17 f., Acts 18:9. It was one, solitary, incomparable experience, including in it a complex of visions and revelations granted by Christ: it was this, at all events, to the Apostle; and if we do not believe what he tells us about it, we can have no knowledge of it at all.

"Caught up even to the third heaven." The Jews usually counted seven heavens; sometimes, perhaps because of the dual form of the Hebrew word for heaven, two; but the distinctions between the various heavens were as fanciful as the numbers were arbitrary. It adds nothing, even to the imagination, to speak of an aerial, a sidereal, and a spiritual heaven, and to suppose that these are meant by Paul; we can only think vaguely of the "man in Christ" rising through one celestial region after another till he came even to the third. The word chosen to define the distance (εως) suggests that an impression of vast spaces traversed remained on the Apostle’s mind; and that the third heaven, on which his sentence pauses, and which is a resting-place for his memory, was also a station, so to speak, in his rapture. This is the only supposition which does justice to the resumption in 2 Corinthians 12:3 of the deliberate and circumstantial language of 2 Corinthians 12:2. "And I know such a man-whether in the body or apart from the body (I know not) God knoweth-how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words that it is not lawful for a man to utter." This is a resumption, not a repetition. Paul is not elaborately telling the same story over again, but he is carrying it on, with the same full circumstance, the same grave asseveration, from the point at which he halted. The rapture had a second stage, under the same incomprehensible conditions, and in it the Christian man passed out and up from the third heaven into Paradise. Many of the Jews believed in a Paradise beneath the earth, the abode of the souls of the good while they awaited their perfecting at the Resurrection; {Luke 16:23, Luke 23:43} but obviously this cannot be the idea here. We must think rather of what the Apocalypse calls "the Paradise of God," {Revelation 2:7} where the tree of life grows, and where those who overcome have their reward. It is an abode of unimaginable blessedness, "far above all heavens," to use the Apostle’s own words elsewhere. {Ephesians 4:10} What visions he had, or what revelations, during that pause in the third heaven, Paul does not say; and at this supreme point of his rapture, m Paradise, the words he heard were words unspeakable, which it is not lawful for man to utter. Mortal ears might hear, but mortal lips might not repeat, sounds so mysterious and divine: it was not for man (ανθρωπω is qualitative) to utter them.

But why, we may ask, if this rapture has its meaning and value solely for the Apostle, should he refer to it here at all? Why should he make such solemn statements about an experience, the historical conditions of which, as he is careful to assure us, are incomprehensible, while its spiritual content is a secret? Is not such an experience literally nothing to us? No, unless Paul himself is nothing; for this experience was evidently a great thing to him. It was the most sacred privilege and honor he had ever known; it was among his strongest sources of inspiration; it had a powerful tendency to generate spiritual pride; and it had its accompaniment, and its counter-weight, in his sharpest trial. The world knows little of its greatest men; perhaps we very rarely know what are the great things in the lives even of the people who are round about us. Paul had kept silence about this sublime experience for fourteen years, and no man had ever guessed it; it had been a secret between the Lord and His disciple; and they only, who were in the secret, could rightly interpret all that depended upon it. There is a kind of profanity in forcing the heart to show itself too far, in compelling a man to speak about, even though he does not divulge, the things that it is not lawful to utter. The Corinthians had put this profane compulsion on the Apostle; but though he yields to it, it is in a way which keeps clear of the profanity. He tells what he dare tell in the third person, and then goes on: "On behalf of such a one will I glory, but on behalf of myself will I not glory, save in my infirmities." Removere debemus το ago a rebus magnis (Bengel): there are things too great to allow the intrusion of self. Paul does not choose to identify the poor Apostle whom the Corinthians and their misleading teachers used so badly with the man in Christ who had such inconceivable honor put on him by the

Lord; if he does boast on behalf of such a one, and magnify his sublime experiences, at all events he does not transfer his prerogatives to himself; he does not say, "I am that incomparably honored man; reverence in me a special favorite of Christ." On the contrary, where his own interest has to be forwarded, he will glory in nothing but his weaknesses. The one thing about which he is anxious is that men should not think too highly of him, nor go in their appreciation beyond what their experience of him as a man and a teacher justifies (2 Corinthians 12:6). He might, indeed, boast, reasonably enough; for the truth would suffice, without any foolish exaggeration; but he forbears, for the reason just stated. We are familiar with the danger of thinking too highly of ourselves; it is as real a danger, though probably a less considered one, to be too highly thought of by others. Paul dreaded it; so does every wise man. To be highly thought of, where the character is sincere and unpretentious, may be a protection, and even an inspiration: but to have a reputation, morally, that one does not deserve-to be counted good in respects in which one is really bad-is to have a frightful difficulty added to penitence and amendment. It puts one in a radically false position; it generates and fosters hypocrisy; it explains a vast mass of spiritual ineffectiveness. The man who is insincere enough to be puffed up by it is not far from judgment.

But to return to the text. Paul wishes to be humble; he is content that men should take him as they find him, infirmities and all. He has that about him, too, and not unconnected with these high experiences, the very purpose of which is to keep him humble. If the text is correct, he expresses himself with some embarrassment. "And by reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations-wherefore, 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." The repetition of the last word shows where the emphasis lies: Paul has a deep and constant sense of the danger of spiritual pride, and he knows that he would fall into it unless a strong counter-pressure were kept up upon him.

I do not feel called on to add another to the numberless disquisitions on Paul’s thorn in the flesh. The resources of imagination having been exhausted, people are returning to the obvious. The thorn in the flesh was something painful, which affected the Apostle’s body; it was something in its nature purely physical, not a solicitation to any kind of sin, such as sensuality or pride, else he would not have ceased to pray for its removal; it was something terribly humbling, if not humiliating-an affection which might well have excited the contempt and loathing of those Who beheld it; {Galatians 4:14, which probably refers to this subject} it had begun after, if not in consequence of, the rapture just described, and stood in a spiritual, if not a physical, relation to it; it was, if not chronic or periodic, at least recurrent; the Apostle knew that it would never leave him. What known malady, incident to human nature, fulfils all these conditions, it is not possible with perfect certainty to say. A considerable mass of competent opinion supports the idea that it must have been liability to epileptic seizures. Such an infirmity Paul might have suffered under in common with men so great as Julius Caesar and the first Napoleon, as Mahomet, King Alfred, and Peter the Great. But it does not quite satisfy the conditions. Epileptic attacks, if they occur with any frequency at all, invariably cause mental deterioration. Now, Paul distinctly suggests that the thorn was a very steady companion; and as his mind, in spite of it, grew year after year in the apprehension of the Christian revelation, so that his last thoughts are always his largest and best, the epileptic hypothesis has its difficulties like every other. Is it likely that a man who suffered pretty constantly from nervous convulsions of this kind wrote the Second Epistle to the Corinthians after fourteen years of them, or the Epistles to the Romans, Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians later still? There is, of course, no religious interest in affirming or denying any physical explanation of the matter whatever; but with our present data I do not think a certain explanation is within our reach.

The Apostle himself is not interested in it as a physical affection. He speaks of it because of its spiritual significance, and because of the wonderful spiritual experiences he has had in connection with it. It was given him, he says: but by whom? When we think of the purpose-to save him from spiritual pride-we instinctively answer, "God." And that, it can hardly be doubted, would have been the Apostle’s own answer. Yet he does not hesitate to call it in the same breath a messenger of Satan. The name is dictated by the inborn, ineradicable shrinking of the soul from pain; that agonizing, humiliating, annihilating thing, we feel at the bottom of our hearts, is not really of God, even when it does His work. In His perfect world pain shall be no more. It does not need science, but experience, to put these things together, and to understand at once the evil and the good of suffering. Paul, at first, like all men, found the evil overpowering. The pain, the weakness, the degradation of his malady, were intolerable. He could not understand that only a pressure so pitiless and humbling could preserve him from spiritual pride and a spiritual fall. We are all slow to learn anything like this. We think we can take warning, that a word will be enough, that at most the memory of a single pang will suffice to keep us safe. But pains remain with us, and the pressure is continuous and unrelieved, because the need of constraint and of discipline is ceaseless. The crooked branch will not bend in a new curve if it is only tied to it for half an hour. The sinful bias in our natures to pride, to sensuality, to falsehood, or whatever else-will not be cured by one sharp lesson. The commonest experience in human life is that the man whom sickness and pain have humbled for the moment, the very moment their constraint is lifted, resumes his old habit. He does not think so, but it is really the thorn that has been keeping him right; and when its sharpness is blunted, the edge is taken from his conscience too.

Paul besought the Lord, that is Christ, thrice, that this thing might depart from him. The Lord, we may be sure, had full sympathy with that prayer. He Himself had had His agony, and prayed the Father thrice that if it were possible the cup of pain might pass from Him. He prayed, indeed, in express submission to the Father’s will; the voice of nature was not allowed in Him to urge an unconditional peremptory request. Perhaps in Paul on this occasion-certainly often in most men-it is nature, the flesh and not the spirit, which prompts the prayer. But God is all the while guarding the spirit’s interest as the higher, and this explains the many real answers to prayer which seem to be refusals. A refusal is an answer, if it is so given that God and the soul thenceforth understand one another. It was thus that Paul was answered by Christ: "He hath said to me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for [My] strength is made perfect in weakness."

The first point to notice in this answer is the tense of the verb: "He hath said." The A.V with "He said" misses the point. The sentence is present as well as past; it is Christ’s continuous, as well as final, answer to Paul’s prayer. The Apostle has been made to understand that the thorn must remain in his flesh, but along with this he has received the assurance of art abiding love and help from the Lord. We remember, even by contrast, the stern answer made to Moses when he prayed that he might be permitted to cross Jordan and see the goodly land-"Let it suffice thee: speak no more unto Me of this matter." Paul also could no more ask for the removal of the thorn: it was the Lord’s will that he should submit to it for high spiritual ends, and to pray against it would now have been a kind of impiety. But it is no longer an unrelieved pain and humiliation; the Apostle is supported under it by that grace of Christ which finds in the need and abjectness of men the opportunity of showing in all perfection its own condescending strength. The collocation of "grace" and "strength" in the ninth verse is characteristic of the New Testament, and very significant. There are many to whom "grace" is a holy word with no particular meaning; "the grace of God," or "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ," is only a vague benignity, which may fairly enough be spoken of as a "smile." But grace, in the New Testament, is force: it is a heavenly strength bestowed on men for timely succor; it finds its opportunity in our extremity; when our weakness makes us incapable of doing anything, it gets full scope to work. This is the meaning of the last words-"strength is made perfect in weakness." The truth is quite general; it is an application of it to the case in hand if we translate as in the A.V (with some MSS.): "My strength is made perfect in [thy] weakness." It is enough, the Lord tells Paul, that he has this heavenly strength unceasingly bestowed upon him; the weakness which he has found so hard to bear-that distressing malady which humbled him and took his vigor away-is but the foil to it: it serves to magnify it, and to set it off; with that Paul should be content.

And he is content. That answer to his thrice-repeated prayer works a revolution in his heart; he looks at all that had troubled him-at all that he had deprecated-with new eyes. "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities-that is, glory rather than bemoan them or pray for their removal-that the power of Christ may spread its tabernacle over me." This compensation far outweighed the trial. He has ceased to speak now of the visions and revelations, perhaps he has ceased already to think of them; he is conscious only of the weakness and suffering from which he is never to escape, and of the grace of Christ which hovers over him, and out of weakness and suffering makes him strong. His very infirmities redound to the glory of the Lord, and so he chooses them, rather than his rapture into Paradise, as matter for boasting. "For this cause I am well content, on Christ’s behalf, in infirmities, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions and distresses; for when I am weak, then am I strong."

With this noble word Paul concludes his enforced "glorying." He was not happy in it; it was not like him; and it is a triumph of the Spirit of Christ in him that he gives it such a noble turn, and comes out of it so well. There is a tinge of irony in the first passage {2 Corinthians 11:21} in which he speaks of weakness, and fears that in comparison with his high-handed rivals at Corinth he will only have this to boast about; but as he enters into his reel experience, and tells us what he had borne for Christ, and what he had learned in pain and prayer about the laws of the spiritual life, all irony passes away; the pure heroic heart opens before us to its depths. The practical lessons of the last paragraphs are as obvious as they are important. That the greatest spiritual experiences are incommunicable; that even the best men are in danger of elation and pride; that the tendency of these sins is immensely strong, and can only be restrained by constant pressure; that pain, though one day to be abolished, is a means of discipline actually used by God; that it may be a plain duty to accept some suffering, or sickness, even a humbling and distressing one, as God’s will for our good, and not to pray more for its removal; that God’s grace is given to those who so accept His will, as a real reinforcement of their strength, nay, as a substitute, and far more, for the strength which they have not; that weakness, therefore, and helplessness, as foils to the present help of God, may actually be occasions of glorying to the Christian, -all these, and many more, are gathered up in this passionate Apologia of Paul.

Verses 11-21

Chapter 27


2 Corinthians 12:11-21 (R.V)

EXPOSITORS differ widely in characterising the three or four brief paragraphs into which this passage may be divided:

(1) 2 Corinthians 12:11-13;

(2) 2 Corinthians 12:14-15, and 2 Corinthians 12:16-18;

(3) 2 Corinthians 12:19-21.

What is clear is, that we feel in it the ground-swell of the storm that has raged through the last two chapters, and that it is not till the beginning of 2 Corinthians 13:1-14. that the Apostle finally escapes from this, and takes up an authoritative and decisive attitude to the Corinthians. When he does reach Corinth, it will not be to explain and justify his own conduct, either against rivals or those whom rivals have misled, but to take prompt and vigorous action against disorders in the life of the Church.

(1) A review of what he has just written leads to a burst of indignant remonstrance. "I have become foolish." The emphasis is on the verb, not on the adjective; it is the painful fact that the eleventh chapter of Second Corinthians is a thing that no wise man would have written if he had been left to himself and his wisdom. Paul, who was a wise man, felt this, and it stung him. He resented the compulsion which was put upon him by the ingratitude and faithlessness of the Corinthians. The situation ought to have been exactly reversed. When he was defamed by strangers, then they, who knew him, instead of hearkening to the calumniators, ought to have stood up in his defense. But they basely left him to defend himself, to plead his own cause, to become a fool by "glorying." This kind of compulsion should never be put upon a good man, especially a man to whom, under God, we ourselves have been deeply indebted. The services he has rendered constitute a claim on our loyalty, and it is a duty of affection to guard his character against disparagement and malice.

Paul, in his deep consciousness of being wronged, presses home the charge against the Corinthians. They had every reason, he tells them, to act as his advocates. When he was among them, he was in nothing inferior to the "superlative" Apostles-this is his last flout at the Judaist interlopers-nothing though he was. The signs that prove a man to be an apostle were wrought among them (the passive expression keeps his agency in the background) in all patience, by signs and wonders and mighty deeds. Their suspicions of him, their willingness to listen to insinuations against him, after such an experience, were unpardonable. He can only think of one "sign of the apostle" which was not wrought among them by his means, of one point in which he had made them inferior to the other Churches: he had not burdened them with his support. They were the spoilt children of the apostolic family; and he begs them, with bitter irony, to forgive him this wrong. If they had only been converted by a man who stood upon his rights!

"The signs of an apostle" are frequently, referred to in Paul’s Epistles, and are of various kinds. By far the most important, and the most frequently insisted on, is success in evangelistic work. He who converts men and founds Churches has the supreme and final attestation of apostleship, as Paul conceives it. It is to this he appeals in 1 Corinthians 9:2 & 2 Corinthians 3:1-3. In the passage before us Calvin makes "patience" a sign - primum signum nominat patientiam. Patience is certainly a characteristic Christian virtue, and it is magnificently exercised in the apostolic life; but it is not peculiarly apostolic. Patience in the passage before us, "every kind of patience," rather brings before our minds the conditions under which Paul did his apostolic work. Discouragements of every description, bad health, suspicion, dislike, contempt, moral apathy and moral license-the weight of all these pressed upon him heavily, but he bore up under them, and did not suffer them to break his spirit or to arrest his labors. His endurance was a match for them all, and the power of Christ that was in him broke forth in spite of them in apostolic signs. There were conversions, in the first place; but there were also what he calls here "signs [in a narrower sense], and wonders, and mighty deeds." This is an express claim, like that made in Acts 15:12, Romans 15:19, to have wrought what we call miracles. The three words represent miracles under three different aspects: they are "signs" (σημεῖα), as addressed to man’s intelligence, and conveying a spiritual meaning; they are "wonders" (τέρατα), as giving a shock to feeling, and moving nature in those depths which sleep through common experience, and they are "mighty works" or "powers" (δυνάμεις), as arguing in him who works them a more than human efficiencyd. But no doubt the main character they bore in the Apostle’s mind was that of χαρίσματα, or gifts of grace, which God ministered to the Church by His Spirit. It is natural for an unbeliever to misunderstand even New Testament miracles, because he wishes to conceive them, as it were, in vacuo, or in relation to the laws of nature; in the New Testament itself they are conceived in relation to the Holy Ghost. Even Jesus is said in the Gospels to have cast out devils by the Spirit of God; and when Paul wrought "signs and wonders and powers," it was in carrying out his apostolic work graced by the same Spirit. What things he had done in Corinth we have no means of knowing, but the Corinthians knew; and they knew that these things had no arbitrary or accidental character, but were the tokens of a Christian and an apostle.

(2) In the second paragraph Paul turns abruptly (ιδου) ("behold!") from the past to the future. "This is the third time I am ready to come to you, and I will not burden you." The first clause has the same ambiguity in Greek as in English; it is impossible to tell from the words alone whether he had been already twice, or only once, in Corinth. Other considerations decide, I think, that he had been twice; but of course these cannot affect the construction of this verse: for the third time he is in a state of readiness-this is all the words will yield. But when he makes the new visit, whether it be his third or only his second, one thing he has decided: he will act on the same principle as before, and decline to be a burden to them. He does not speak of it boastfully now, as in 2 Corinthians 11:10, for his adversaries have passed out of view, but in one of the most movingly tender passages in the whole Bible. "I will not lie on you like a benumbing weight, for I seek not yours, but you." It is not his own interest which brings him to Corinth again, but theirs; it is not avarice which impels him, but love. In a sense, indeed, love makes the greater claim of the two; it is far more to demand the heart than to ask for money. Yet the greater claim is the less selfish, indeed is the purely unselfish one; for it can only be really made by one who gives all that he demands. Paul’s own heart was pledged to the Corinthians; and when he said "I seek you," he did not mean that he sought to make a party of them, or a faction, in the interest of his own ambition, but that the one thing he cared for was the good of their souls. Nor in saying so does he claim to be doing anything unusual or extraordinary. It is only what becomes him as their father in Christ. {1 Corinthians 4:15} "I seek you; for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children." Filial duty, of course, is not denied here; Paul is simply bringing himself as the spiritual father of the Corinthians under the general rule of nature that "love descends rather than ascends." If this seems a hard saying to a child’s heart, it is at least true that it descends before it ascends. It all begins from God: in a family, it all begins from the parents. The primary duty of love is parental care; and nothing is more unnatural, though at a certain level it is common enough, than the desire of parents to make money out of their children as quickly and as plentifully as possible, without considering the ulterior interests of the children themselves. This kind of selfishness is very transparent, and is very naturally avenged by ingratitude, and the Apostle for his part renounces it. "I," he exclaims, with all the emphasis in his power-"I have more than a natural father’s love for you. I will with all gladness spend, yes, and be spent to the uttermost, for your souls! I will give what I have, yes, and all that I am, that you may be profited." And then he checks that rush of affection, and dams up the overflowing passion of his heart in the abrupt poignant question: "If I love you more abundantly, am I loved less?"

This is not the first passage in the Epistle, nor, near as we are to the end, is it the last, in which Paul shows us the true spirit of the Christian pastor. "Not yours, but you," is the motto of every minister who has learned of Christ; and the noble words of 2 Corinthians 12:15, "I will very gladly spend and be spent to the last for your souls," recall more nearly than any other words in Scripture the law by which our Lord Himself lived-not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many. Here, surely, is a sign of apostleship-an unmistakable mark of the man who is specially called to continue Christ’s work. That work cannot be done at all except in the spirit of Him who inaugurated it, and though love like Paul’s, and love like Christ’s, may be mocked and trampled on, it is the only power which has the right to speak in Christ’s name. The joy of sacrifice thrills through the Apostle’s words, and it is joy in the Holy Ghost; it is a fellowship with Christ in the very life of His life that lifts Paul, for the moment, to the heavenly places. This is the spirit in which wrong is to be met, and suspicion, calumny, and contempt; it is in this, if at all, that we can be more than conquerors. Nature says, "Stand upon your rights; vindicate your position; insist on having all that you conceive to be your due"; but love says, "Spend and be spent, and spare not till all is gone; life itself is not too much to give that love may triumph over wrong."

It is not possible to write long as Paul writes in these two verses (2 Corinthians 12:14-15). The tension is too great both for him and for his readers. With εστω δε-"But be it so"-he descends from this height. He writes in the first person, but he is plainly repeating what he assumes others will say. "Very well, then, let that pass," is the answer of his enemies to his friends when that passionate protestation is read. "He did not himself prove burdensome to us, but being crafty he brought us into his net by guile. He exploited the Church in his own interest by means of his agents." This charge the Apostle meets with a downright denial; he can appeal to the knowledge which the Corinthians themselves possess of the manner in which his agents have conducted themselves. He had no doubt had occasion, far oftener than we know, to communicate with so important and restless a Church; and he challenges the Corinthians to say that a single one of those whom he had sent had taken advantage of them. He instances-perhaps as the last of his deputies, who had but just returned from Corinth when he wrote this letter; perhaps as the one on whom scandal had chosen to fasten - his "partner" and "fellow-laborer toward them," Titus; and he refers to an unknown brother who had accompanied him. They cannot mean to say (μητι) that Titus took advantage of them? "Walked we not in the same Spirit?" A modern reader naturally makes "spirit" subjective, and takes it as equivalent to "the same moral temper or principle"; an early Christian reader would more probably think of the Holy Spirit as that which ruled in Paul and Titus alike. In any case the same Spirit led to the same conduct; they walked in the same self-denying path, and scrupulously abstained from burdening the Corinthians for their support.

(3) We feel the meanness of all this, and are glad when the Apostle finally turns his back on it. It is an indignity to be compelled even to allude to such things. And the worst is, that no care a man can take will prevent people from misunderstanding his indignant protest, and from assuming that he is really on his trial before them, and not improbably compromised. Paul’s mind is made up to leave the Corinthians no excuse for such misunderstanding and presumption. In 2 Corinthians 12:19 he reads their ignoble thought: "Ye have long been thinking"-i.e., all through the last two chapters, and, indeed, more or less all through the Epistle; see 2 Corinthians 3:1 -"that we are making our defense at your bar. Far from it: at God’s bar we speak in Christ." He will not endure, with his visit to Corinth close at hand, that there should be any misapprehension as to their relations. His responsibility as a Christian man is not to them, but to God; He is the Master to whom he stands or falls; it is He alone to whom he has to vindicate his life. The Corinthians had been seating themselves in imagination on the tribunal, and they are summarily set on the floor. But Paul does not wish to be rude or unkind. "You are not my judges, certainly" he seems to say, "but all I have said and done, beloved, all I say and do, is for your building up in Christian life. My heart is with you in it all, and I sincerely intend your good." We cannot sufficiently admire the combination in the Apostle, or rather the swift alternation, of all those intellectual and emotional qualities that balance each other in a strong living character. He can be at once trenchant and tender; inexorable in the maintenance of a principle, and infinitely sympathetic and considerate in his treatment of persons. We see all his qualities illustrated here.

Their edification is the governing thought on which the last verses of the chapter turn, and on which eventually the whole Epistle rests. {see 2 Corinthians 13:10} It is because he is interested in their edification that he thinks with misgivings of the journey in prospect. "I fear lest by any means when I come to find you not such as I would, and on my part be found of you not such as ye would." What these two fears imply is unfolded in due order in the remainder of the letter. The Corinthians, such as Paul would not have them, are depicted in 2 Corinthians 12:20-21; Paul, in a character in which the Corinthians would prefer not to see him, comes forward in 2 Corinthians 13:1-10. It is with the first only of these two fears, the bad condition of the Corinthian Church, that we are here concerned. This first fear has two grounds. The first is the prevalence of sins which may perhaps be summarized as sins of self-will. Strife, jealousy, passions, factions and low factious arts, back-bitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults: such is the catalogue. It illustrates what has been well described as "the carnality of religious contention." Almost all the sins here enumerated are directly connected with the existence of parties and party feeling in the Church. They are of a kind which has disgraced the Church all through its history, and the exceeding sinfulness of which is not yet recognized by the great mass of professing Christians. People do not consider that the Church, as a visible society, more or less naturalized in the world, is as capable as any other society of offering a career to ambition, or of furnishing a theatre for the talents and the energies of self-seeking men; and they have a vague idea that the willfulness, the intriguing and factious arts, the jealousy and conceit of men, are better things when put to the service of the Church than when employed in mere selfishness. But they are not. They are the very same, and they are peculiarly odious when enlisted in His service who was meek and lowly in heart, and who gave Himself for men. Paul’s first list of sins is only too life like, and the fear grounded on it is one which many a modern minister can share. The second list is made up of what might be called, in contrast with sins of self-will, sins of self-indulgence-"uncleanness, fornication, and lasciviousness that they wrought." Both together make up what the Apostle calls the works of the flesh. Both together are the direct opposite of those fruits of the spirit in which the true life of the Church consists. Paul writes as if he were more alarmed about the sins of the latter class. He puts μη ("lest") instead of μηπως ("lest by any means": 2 Corinthians 12:20), marking thus the climax, and something like the, certainty, of his sad apprehension. I fear, he says, "lest when I come again my God should humble me before you"-or, perhaps "in connection with you." Nothing could more bow down a true and loving heart like Paul’s than to see a Church that he had regarded as the seal of his apostleship-a congregation of men "washed, sanctified, and justified"-wallowing again in the mire of sensual sins. He had been proud of them, had boasted of them, had given thanks to God on their behalf: how it must have crushed him to think that his labor on them had come to this! Yet he writes instinctively "my God." This humiliation does not come to him without his Father; there is a divine dispensation in it, as far as he is concerned, and he submits to it as such. He dare not think of it as a personal insult; he dare not think of the sinners as if they had offended against him. He fears he will have to mourn over numbers of those who have before sinned, and who will not have repented of these sensualities before he reaches Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 5:2 of the First Epistle he sums up his condemnation of the moral laxity of the Church in the presence of such evils in the words: "Ye did not mourn." He himself will not be able to avoid mourning: his heart grows heavy within him as he thinks of what he must see before long. This, again, is the spirit of the true pastor. Selfish anger has nothing healing in it, nor has wounded pride; it is not for any man, however good or devoted, to feel that he is entitled to resent it, as a personal wrong, when men fall into sin. He is not entitled to resent it, no matter how much he may have spent, or how freely he may have spent himself, upon them; but he is bound to bewail it. He is bound to recognize in it, so far as he himself is free from responsibility, a dispensation of God intended to make him humble; and in all humility and love he is bound to plead with the lapsed, not his own cause, but God’s. This is the spirit in which Paul confronts the sad duties awaiting him at Corinth, and in this again we see "the signs of the apostle." The two catalogues of sins with which this chapter closes remind us, by way of contrast, of the two characteristic graces of Christianity: self-will or party spirit, in all its forms, is opposed to brotherly love, and self-indulgence, in all its forms, to personal purity. There is much in this Epistle which would be called by some people theological and transcendent; but no one knew better than Paul that, though Christianity must be capable of an intellectual construction, it is not an intellectual system in essence, but a new moral life. He was deeply concerned, as we have repeatedly seen, that the Corinthians should think right thoughts about Christ and the Gospel; but he was more than concerned, he was filled with grief, fear, and shame, when he thought of the vices of temper and of sensuality that prevailed among them. These went to the root of Christianity, and if they could not be destroyed it must perish. Let us turn our eyes from them to the purity and love that they obscure, and lift up our hearts to these as the best things to which God has called us in the fellowship of His Son.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/2-corinthians-12.html.
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