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The revelations vouchsafed to him (2 Corinthians 12:1-6). The counteracting "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). One more apology for glorying (2 Corinthians 12:11, 2 Corinthians 12:12). His disinterestedness (2 Corinthians 12:13-15). Indignant refutation of the charge that he had made gain of them through the agency of subordinates (2 Corinthians 12:16-18). Caution and warnings (2 Corinthians 12:19-21.
2 Corinthians 12:1
It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. This rendering follows the best-attested reading; but it is at least doubtful whether, instead of δεῖ or δὲ, the ironic δὴ of Κ, Μ, and the Greek Fathers is not the true reading. In mere vowel variations, especially in passages where the meaning does not lie on the surface, the diplomatic (external) evidence is less important. If St. Paul wrote δὴ, it means, "of course it is not expedient for me to boast." I will come; for I will come; if the reading of D is correct. In that case it is hardly possible to define the counter currents of feeling which caused the use of the conjunction. Visions and revelations. The word used for "visions" means presentations perceived in a state which is neither sleeping nor waking, but which are regarded as objective; "revelations" are the truths apprehended as a result of the visions. Optasia, for "visions," only occurs elsewhere in Luke 1:22; Luke 24:23; Acts 26:19 (comp. Galatians 2:2).
2 Corinthians 12:2
I knew; rather, I know. A man. St. Paul speaks in this indirect way of himself (see 2 Corinthians 12:5, 2 Corinthians 12:7). In Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30). To St. Paul every true Christian was a man whose personal life was lost in the life of Christ. Above fourteen years ago. The note of time is very vague. If we are at all able to identify the vision alluded to, it must have been the vision in the temple, referred to in Acts 22:17, which was, roughly speaking, "about fourteen years" before this time. The vision on the road to Damascus had occurred about twenty years earlier than the date of this Epistle. Whether in the body, etc. A powerful description of the absorption of all conscious bodily modes of apprehension. In their comments on. these verses, many commentators enter into speculations which seem to me to be so entirely arbitrary and futile that I shall not even allude to them. St. Paul's bodily and mental state during this vision is familiar to all who know the history of Oriental and mediaeval mysticism. Caught up (Ezekiel 11:24; Acts 8:39; Revelation 4:1, Revelation 4:2). Into the third heaven. It is most unlikely that St. Paul is here in any way referring to the Jewish hagadoth about seven heavens. The expression is purely general, and even the rabbis did not expect to be taken au pied de la lettre. Hence all speculations about first, second, and third heavens are idle and useless. Even as late as the Clementine writings in the middle of the second century, an attempt is made, in reference to this passage, to disparage St. Paul by sneering at visions as a medium of revelation, on the ground that they may spring from self-deception; and this rapture of the "bald hook-nosed Galilean" to the third heaven is also sneered at in the 'Philopatris' of the pseudo-Lucian. Yet how modest and simple is St. Paul's awestruck reference to this event, when compared, not only with the lying details of Mohammed's visit to heaven, but even with the visions of St. Theresa or Swedenborg!
2 Corinthians 12:4
Into Paradise. Here, again, we encounter long speculations as to whether Paradise is the same as the third heaven; whether St.,Paul is referring to two visions or two parts of one vision. Such questions are clearly insoluble, and I leave them where I find them. We shall never understand this passage otherwise than in the dim and vague outline in which St. Paul has purposely left it. All that we can know from the New Testament about Paradise must be learnt from this verse and Luk 23:1-56 :63 and Revelation 2:7, and it is extremely little. Unspeakable words. A figure of speech called an oxymoron. Utterances (or "things") incapable of utterance. Not lawful for a man to utter. How futile, then, must be the attempt to guess what they were, or on what subject!
2 Corinthians 12:5
Of such a one. These are legitimate subjects of "boast," because they are heavenly privileges, not earthly grounds of superiority. Except in my infirmities (2 Corinthians 11:30).
2 Corinthians 12:6
I forbear; literally, I spare; i.e. I refrain from boasting. Should think of me; literally, that no man should estimate concerning me beyond what he sees me (to be), or hears at all from my own lips. If he were to tell them more of his revelations, he might encourage them to think more of him than he deserves or wishes.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
The thorn in the flesh.
2 Corinthians 12:7
Lest I should be exalted above measure; literally, that I may not be over exalted. It was necessary to show St. Paul that he only held the treasure in an earthen vessel. There was given me. Even God's afflictions are meant for gifts. A thorn (skolops). The more usual meaning is, as Hesychius says, "a sharp stake" ('Sudes,' Tert.). Hence the word skolopizo, I impale or crucify. St. Paul's agony was an impalement or crucifixion of all sensual impulses and earthly ambitions. In the flesh. There have been endless conjectures as to the exact nature of this painful and most humbling physical affliction. It is only by placing side by side a great many separate passages that we are almost irresistibly led to the conclusion which is now most generally adopted, namely, that it was acute and disfiguring ophthalmia, originating in the blinding glare of the light which flashed round him at Damascus, and accompanied, as that most humiliating disease usually is, by occasional cerebral excitement. It would be impossible here to enter into the whole inquiry, for which! refer to my 'Life of St. Paul,' 1:214-226. The messenger of Satan; rather, an angel of Satan. By way of comment, see Matthew 25:41; Luke 13:16; Job 2:7; Revelation 12:7, Revelation 12:9. To buffet me. The verb is derived from kolaphos, a slap on the face, and would be suitable to such a disfigurement as ophthalmia (2 Corinthians 10:10).
2 Corinthians 12:8
For this thing. In reference to this or "to him," the angel of Satan. The Lord. That is, Christ (1 Corinthians 1:3). Thrice (comp. Matthew 26:44).
2 Corinthians 12:9
And he said unto me. The original is much more forcible: "And he has said to me." Is sufficient for thee. A similar phrase, though in a very different context, occurs in Deuteronomy 3:26. My strength is made perfect in weakness. The verse contains a paradox, which yet describes the best history of the world. The paradox becomes more suggestive if, with א, A, B, D, F, G, we omit "my." May rest upon me; literally, may tabernacle over me. The compound verb occurs here alone, but the simple verb and the substantive occur in similar meanings in John 1:14; Revelation 7:15; Revelation 21:3.
2 Corinthians 12:10
I take pleasure in; I am content to bear them cheerfully (2 Corinthians 7:4; Romans 5:3). Strong; rather, powerful, mighty. The resemblance to Philo ('Vit. Mos.,' Opp., 1:613, "Your weakness is might") is probably accidental (see 1 Corinthians 15:54; Colossians 3:4).
2 Corinthians 12:11
A fool (see 2 Corinthians 11:16). For I ought. The "I" is emphatic. You compelled me to become senseless in boasting of myself to you, whereas I ought to have been commended by you. To have been commended. The verb gives one more side allusion, not without bitterness, to the commendatory epistles of which his adversaries boasted (2Co 3:1; 2 Corinthians 5:12; 2 Corinthians 10:12-18). The very chiefest apostles. The same strange compound, "out and out apostles," is used as in 2 Corinthians 11:5; comp. Galatians 2:6.
2 Corinthians 12:12
The signs of an apostle. St. Paul always claimed to have attested his mission by spiritual and miraculous gifts (Romans 15:19; Acts 15:12).
2 Corinthians 12:13
I was not burdensome. The same word as in 2 Corinthians 11:9. Forgive me this wrong. There is an exquisite dignity and pathos mixed with the irony of this remark.
2 Corinthians 12:14
The third time I am ready to come to you. He had been ready twice before, though the second time his actual visit had been prevented by the scandals in their Church. That the visit which he now contemplates is a third visit, and that there was an unrecorded second visit, is a needless and improbable inference from this passage. Be burdensome (see 2 Corinthians 12:13). Not yours, but you (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
2 Corinthians 12:15
Spend and be spent; rather, spend and be outspent, or spent to the uttermost (Philippians 2:17).
2 Corinthians 12:16
But be it so, I did not burden you. The "I" is emphatic. It is shocking to think that, even after Paul has so triumphantly cleared himself from the disgraceful charge of trying to make gain out of the Corinthians, he should still be obliged to meet the slanderous innuendo that, even if he had not personally tried to get anything out of them, still he had done so indirectly through the agency of Titus. Being crafty, I caught you with guile. He is here quoting the sneer of his enemies (see what he has already said in 2 Corinthians 1:12; 2 Corinthians 7:2). The word used for "being" means "being by my very nature."
2 Corinthians 12:17
Did I make a gain of you, etc.? The same verb as in 2 Corinthians 2:11. It means" to overreach," "to take unfair advantages."
2 Corinthians 12:18
Titus. This refers to the first visit of Titus. He was now on the eve of a second visit with two others (2 Corinthians 8:6, 2 Corinthians 8:18, 2 Corinthians 8:22). A brother; rather, the brother. Who it was is entirely unknown. Perhaps Tychicus (Titus 3:12). In the same Spirit; namely, in the Spirit of God.
2 Corinthians 12:19
Again, think you that we excuse ourselves unto you? The best reading is not palin, again, but palai, long ago. This word with the present is an elegant classical idiom, and means, "You have, perhaps, been imagining all this time that I am pleading with you by way of self-defence. Do not think it! You are no judges of mine. My only object is to speak before God in Christ, not to defend myself since I need no defence so far as you are concerned—but to help in building you up, by removing the falsehoods that alienate you from me."
2 Corinthians 12:20
Such as ye would not (see 1 Corinthians 4:21). Debates. "Discords," "quarrels." Strifes. "Party intrigues," "factious and emulous rivalries" (Romans 2:8). Backbiting. Detractions, talkings against one another. Swellings. Inflated conceit pompous egotism (1 Corinthians 4:6, 1 Corinthians 4:18, 1 Corinthians 4:19; Colossians 2:18). Tumults. Disorderly excitement.
2 Corinthians 12:21
Humble me among you; rather, in my relation to you. Many which have sinned already, and have not repented; rather, who have sinned before and did not repent. Many had sinned (1 Corinthians 6:12-20); some only had repented.
2 Corinthians 12:1-5 - Apostolic piety and psychology.
"It is not expedient," etc. These verses present two subjects of thought.
I. APOSTOLIC PSYCHOLOGY. The words reveal certain ideas which Paul had concerning the human mind. He had the idea:
1. That whilst here it is capable of existing separate from the body. "Whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell." If he had been certain that the soul could not exist whilst here apart from the body, would he have spoken thus? And who is not conscious of the mind having experiences in which the body does not participate? Paul speaks of himself as entering regions far away.
(1) The "third heaven." The Bible speaks of three heavens.
(a) The atmospheric, There the clouds travel and perform their functions.
(b) The starry. There the sun, moon, and stars appear.
(c) The heavens that lie beyond the heavenly orbs; where God and his holy angels are supposed to have their special residence. Up to this" third heaven" Paul was caught.
(2) Paradise. "Caught up into Paradise." The word here denotes some place in the universe distinguished in beauty and fruitfulness. Paul regarded it possible for the soul to go away into those distant regions of supernal brightness and beauty. Who has not been conscious of being borne far away from the body on the wing of thought?
2. That whilst here it is capable of receiving extraordinary revelations apart from the body. "Heard unspeakable words." Things of the soul may be unutterable either from necessity or from impropriety. The deepest things of the heart are unutterable in any language. Perhaps what Paul saw and heard in the spirit was neither possible nor proper to communicate. There are but few of us who have not received impressions of distant things. We are often caught away to distant scenes, and see and hear extraordinary things.
3. That whilst here it may exist apart from the body and the man not know it. "Whether in the body, I cannot tell." He was so charged with spiritual things that he had lost all consciousness of matter and his relations to it. The man whose soul is flooded with the higher elements of being does not know for the time whether he is "in the body" or "out of the body."
4. That wherever or however it exists it constitutes the man. "I knew a man in Christ." That which had these wonderful revelations he regarded as the man. To the apostle the body was the costume of the man, which he put on at birth and took off at death. In fact, he regarded the body as his not him, the soul as himself.
II. APOSTOLIC PIETY. There are three things concerning piety here.
1. Humility. That the man of whom Paul here speaks is himself scarcely admits of a doubt. Why should he speak of himself in the third person? It is because of that modesty of nature which is ever the characteristic of a truly great soul. Humility is an essential attribute of piety.
2. Christism. "A man in Christ." To be in Christ is to live in his ideas, character, spirit, as the atmosphere of being. He who lives in the spirit of Christ becomes a man.
3. Transport. His soul was borne away in ecstasy. The time when the revelation occurred is specified—"fourteen years ago." Strange that he did not speak of it before. Piety has its hours of ravishments, ecstasies, and transfigurations.
2 Corinthians 12:6-10 - Soul schooling.
"For though," etc. These words teach us several things concerning soul discipline.
I. THAT THE EXERCISE OF SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE IS EXPEDIENT FOR THE BEST OF MEN. Paul required it. He says, "Lest I should be exalted above measure."
1. Pride is a great spiritual evil. This is implied in the discipline with which the apostle was now visited. "To be exalted above measure [or, 'overmuch']" is, of course, to be proud, and to be proud is to be in a position inimical to soul progress.
2. Good men have sometimes great temptations to pride. Paul's temptation seems to have arisen from the "abundance of the revelation" of which he speaks.
II. THAT THE MODE OF SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE IS SOMETIMES VERY PAINFUL. Paul was visited with a "thorn in the flesh." What the thorn was is a question for speculation; our object is practical. Two things deserve notice here.
1. That suffering stands connected with Satan. This painful dispensation was a "messenger from Satan." The great original sinner is the father of suffering.
2. Both suffering and Satan are under the direction of God. He uses them as his instruments for good. Satan himself is the servant of the Holy One.
III. THAT THE MEANS OF SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE ARE SOMETIMES MISUNDERSTOOD. Paul prays to be delivered from that "thorn in the flesh" which was sent for his good, and he does so frequently—"thrice." Notice:
1. The ignorance which sometimes marks our prayers. We often pray against our own interests. There are some blessings which are positively promised by God, such as pardon for sin, etc., for which we may pray incessantly; and there are others which we may esteem desirable, but which are not promised. These we must seek in submission to his will.
2. The kindness of God in not always answering our prayers. He knows what is best. The great Father may refuse the cry of his children for toys here, but he will give them estates in the great hereafter.
IV. THAT THE SUPPORTS UNDER SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE ARE ALWAYS ABUNDANT. "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." Observe:
1. The nature of the support. "Strength." What matters the weight of the burden it the strength is equal to bear it with ease?
2. The principle of the support. "Grace." It comes, not from merit, but from grace free and unbounded.
3. The influence of the support. "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." "Rest upon me." Spread over me like a tent to screen me from the scorching sun. "I glory in my infirmities." The cup may be bitter, but it has curative virtues. Tempests may toss, but those storms will purify the atmosphere round the heart and bear us away from scenes on which our hearts are set. All prayer is answered when the mind of the suppliant is brought into cordial submission to the Divine will.
2 Corinthians 12:11-21 - Paul's state of mind concerning his past and prospective connection with the Church at Corinth.
"I am become a fool in glorying," etc. These verses throw light upon Paul's state of mind, both in relation to his past and prospective connection with the Corinthian Church.
I. HIS STATE OF MIND CONCERNING HIS PAST CONNECTION WITH THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH.
1. He remembers the ill treatment which forced him to speak with apparent boastfulness of himself. "I am become a fool [I am become foolish] in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing." Dean Plumptre's remarks tend to illustrate Paul's state of mind. "The verse opens with a somewhat thrilling abruptness, 'I am become insane—it was you who compelled me.' The words are partly ironical, partly speak of an impatient consciousness, that what he had been saying would seem to give colour to the opprobrious epithets that had been flung at him. The passage on which we now enter, and of which we may think as begun after a pause, is remarkable for the production in a compressed form of most of the topics, each with its characteristic phrase, on which he had before dwelt. The violence of the storm is over, but the sky is not yet clear, and we still hear the mutterings of the receding thunder. He remembers once more that he has been called insane, that he has been taunted with commending himself, that he has been treated as 'nothing' in comparison with those apostles extraordinary, who were setting themselves up as his rivals. 'I,' he says, with an emphatic stress on the pronoun, 'ought to have had no need for this painful self-assertion. You ought to have acknowledged my labour and nay love for you.'"
2. He remembers the work which he had done amongst them, and which raised him above all the apostles. "Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds." Paul possessed supernatural power and wrought supernatural results in their midst. Of this they must have been aware and could not deny. Referring to his ministry there he says elsewhere, "My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and. of power" (1 Corinthians 2:4). In this respect he was, therefore, not only not behind "the very chiefest apostles," such as Peter, James, and John, but immeasurably superior to the false teachers, his traducers. Can a man who was conscious of such power as this be charged with egotism in proclaiming it in the presence of his detractors? Does he become "a fool in glorying"? Nay, nay, a wise man.
3. He remembers that for his labours amongst them he had not sought any temporal assistance. "For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other Churches, except it be that I myself was not burdensome to you? forgive me this wrong." Probably it had been insinuated by his traducers that Paul cared less for the Churches at Corinth than for those at Macedonia, because he had maintained his independence and sought no gifts. He seems to intimate that this was some disadvantage to them, and he asks their forgiveness. And, indeed, it seems to me it is a spiritual disadvantage to any Church not to contribute to the support of its minister; for there is more good in giving than in receiving.
II. HIS STATE OF MIND CONCERNING HIS PROSPECTIVE CONNECTION WITH THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH.
1. Here are loving resolves. "Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours, but you." We have no record of a second visit, but this does not disprove its existence; for no doubt there is more omitted of Paul's history than recorded. He resolves that in this third visit he would not be burdensome to them, but pursue the same conduct of independency towards them as he had done all along, taking nothing from them, but giving to them. "I seek not yours, but you." Act as a father generally acts towards his "children," "lay up" for them, not they for him, and gladly spend and be spent for them. And all this, whether they love him or not. What noble generosity breathes in all these resolves!
2. Here are painful memories. "I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile." This, again, is ironical. You say that, although I made no demand on your purses for myself, I want a collection for the "saints," and that out of that collection I will craftily take what I want. He seems to fling back upon them their accusation of his being crafty and catching them "with guile." "Did I make a gain of you by any of them whom I sent unto you? I desired Titus, and with him I sent a brother. Did Titus make a gain of you? walked we not in the same spirit? walked we not in the same steps?" Nay, neither they nor he had ever sponged on them, but had maintained their high independency. In saying this he deprecates the idea that he was amenable to them for his conduct, but to God only. "Again, think ye that we excuse ourselves unto you? we speak before God in Christ: but we do all things, dearly beloved, for your edifying." Thus, in the prospect of visiting Corinth once more, most painful memories of his traducers arose.
3. Here are anxious apprehensions. "For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not." His tender nature seemed to shrink at the supposition of the old evils still rampant there. "Lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults." He was too brave a man to dread perils, or toils, or death. "None of these things moved" him, but from such evils as "strifes," "envyings," "wraths," "backbitings," "whisperings," "swellings," "tumults," "uncleanness," "fornication," "lasciviousness," his pure and pious nature shrank with horror. The great thing to be dreaded is sin. It is the "abominable thing," the soul destroying devil of humanity.
1. Do not judge any minister by the opinions of his brethren. Paul was the best and the most useful of men, but the opinion of his brethren was that he was the worst and the most pernicious.
2. Do not cease in your endeavours to benefit men because they calumniate you. The worst men require your services most, the "whole need no physician."
3. Do not sponge upon your congregation. Do not seek theirs, but them. Do not study how to increase your pew rents, swell your collections and offertories, but how to increase the spiritual intelligence, freedom, and true blessedness of the people.
4. Do not cower before anything but sin. Sin is the Apollyon of the universe.
HOMILIES BY C. LIPSCOMB
2 Corinthians 12:1-6 - Supernatural communications as evidences of his apostleship.
The old question as to his apostolic authority, which had recently been revived in a most exciting form, was not yet disposed of, and he must now discuss it in another aspect. So far as external circumstances were concerned, had not the prophetic declaration to Ananias been fulfilled?—"I will show him how great things he must suffer for my Name's sake." And, furthermore, he had proved that his own state of mind, the inward being of his soul, had corresponded with his call to suffer. The flesh had been subdued. Years of growth had brought him to a stage of experience that allowed him to speak of glorying in his infirmities. But he would now turn to another branch of experiences, viz. "visions and revelations of the Lord." Glorious as these exaltations were, they would see that, while they were exceptional in certain respects, yet they fell in with the providential discipline of his life, and opened the way for a keener sense of his infirmities by "a thorn in the flesh" All along St. Paul has been painfully aware that his enemies were using these infirmities to his official disparagement. Painfully, we say, for it is obvious that he was sensitive to the disadvantages under which he appeared before the public. "Humble," "rude in speech," "bodily presence weak," "speech contemptible," were things that had some foundation in fact. Of course, his adversaries exaggerated them, but the apostle could not escape instinctive feeling, and at times acute feeling, touching this matter. This, however, was only one source of depression. A fuller account of his sufferings, physical and mental, than he had ever given bad just now been presented, and the conclusion of it was that his bodily disadvantages as a speaker, his low repute as a public teacher, his constant endurance of pain and solicitude, had resulted in his realizing the fact that this very weakness was his strength. Could "visions and revelations" be entrusted to him—such visions and revelations—and he not be humbled by Divine direction? The more glorious the revelation, the greater the necessity for him to be reminded, and most painfully reminded, that the treasure was committed to an "earthen vessel." Witness the following: a man fourteen years ago—the memory of it still vividly present as a reality of today—such a man, whether in the body or out of the body it was impossible to tell, elevated to, the third heaven, and hearing "unspeakable words not lawful for a man to utter." "Fourteen years ago" the fact now first divulged, and yet the fact alone; the secret disclosures still a secret and personal to the man alone; and the sanctity such that it would be profanation to make the contents of the communication known. "Caught up to the third heaven, caught up into Paradise," face to face with the Lord Jesus in his mediatorial glory; and there, the senses laid to rest and the body forgotten and the spirit opened to receive instruction and inspiration, the man taught what he was to be and what he was to do as the servant on earth of his Divine Master. Of this man, as a man in Christ, he would boast; of himself in the flesh and subject to its infirmities, be would not boast save of his weakness. Under grace, what a debtor was he to these humiliations! Intellectual pride and vanity, spiritual pride and vanity, pride and vanity as a Jew to whom the God of the fathers had manifested himself—how could these be kept down except by mortifications of the flesh? If, nevertheless, he were to boast of these revelations, he should do it truthfully. Suppose, then, that he should make this boast; who would be able to transfer himself into the proper attitude of a listener? It would not be weakness, but power, the observer would see. "I forbear," and I shrink from it, lest the contrast between this power and my visible weakness, this glory and my present humiliation, be too great for any man to bear.—L.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 - Need of humility add the means appointed to secure it.
If the Lord Jesus passed from the baptism in the Jordan, and the dovelike descent of the Holy Ghost upon him, to the solitude of the wilderness and the assaults of the tempter; if he came down from the mount of transfiguration to witness the failure of the disciples to heal the lunatic boy, and to give expression to his sorrow in the words, "O faithless and perverse generation!" etc.—it is not surprising that an apostle should be sorely tried after his exaltation. New endowments must have new tests. New and larger grace must be immediately put off probation, since there are many probations in this one probation that have eternal issues. "Lest I"—this man in Christ, who fourteen years ago was prepared by special revelation for the toil and trial of his Gentile apostleship—"lest I should be exalted above measure;" and what was the danger? "The abundance of the revelations." Against that danger he must be fortified. If new endowments and new graces are instantly put on trial, and the conditions of life's general probation changed, then, indeed, a new check to guard against abuse of increased gifts must not be lacking. The man is not precisely the same man as before, nor is he in the same world that he previously occupied. Accessions of outward advantages, such as wealth and social position, are full of risks, but accessions of inward power are far more perilous. To preserve St. Paul from self-glorification, there was given him "a thorn in the flesh." First of all, the revelations were as to the fact itself to be kept a secret, and this was a means of humility, but the thorn in the flesh was added. What it was we know not, but it was a bodily infirmity that caused him much suffering. "This is significant. It is of the very nature of thorns to be felt rather than seen, and to appear trifling evils to all but those directly stung by them" (Dr. Bellows). It was "a messenger of Satan," though this does not imply that it was not under God s direction. The idea is that this "angel of Satan" was an impaling stake that produced severe and continued pain, and the reason therefore is twice stated, "lest I should be exalted above measure." So, then, it was not as an apostle, but as the apostle to the Gentiles, that he was specially afflicted. Pain is instinctively resisted as an enemy to the activity, comfort, and pleasure of life. Naturally, therefore, St. Paul felt that it would interfere with his energy and happiness, and, of course, the Satanic side of the torture would be uppermost in his thought. The evil in pain is what we see first. If this were not realized, it could not be an affliction. Hence he prayed thrice to the Lord that it might depart from him. But his prayer was denied. At the same time, the promise was given—a promise worth far more than the removal of the pain—"My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." The thorn was to continue—a lifelong suffering in addition to his other infirmities was to be fastened upon him, a special and grievous suffering. Yet, while it had to remain a sad memorial, not of his exaltation, but of human frailty in connection with great endowments, there was an assurance direct and specific of sustaining grace. Along with that a most important truth was taught him, namely, that the perfection of strength is attained through the consciousness of our utter weakness. First, then, the evil of pain; next, the good of pain under the agency of God's grace;—this is the method of providence and grace, for the two are one in the Divine purpose. Alas! had the prayer of those sensitive nerves of his been literally answered, what a loser would he and we have been! How much of his power would have vanished with the pain! How many thoughts and emotions that have cheered the afflicted and inspired the weak to be heroic, would have been unknown! Such Epistles as the apostle wrote (to say nothing of his other services to the world) could never have been written under the ordinary experience of the ills of life. All men have thorns in the flesh, for there is no perfect health, no human body free from ailments. But in St. Paul's case the thorn was a superaddition to existing infirmities. Nor is it difficult for us to see how this particular infirmity, sanctified by the Spirit, was specially adapted to guard him at a most exposed point. Inasmuch as he was the object of a peculiar and violent opposition, he was singularly liable to the temptation of over asserting himself and his merits, the more so as his enemies took delight in taunting him with his personal defects as to manner and appearance. The safeguard was provided where it was most wanted. Such, in fact, was his own view of the matter: "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." "My infirmities," he argues, "instead of being the hindrance they would be if left to themselves, are helpers, since they are the occasions of grace, and this grace rests upon me, i.e. abides continually. The thought is precious; it must be repeated. "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities," etc.; for the power of Christ had been imparted to him with such fulness as to transform pain into pleasure so far as his spiritual nature was concerned. The body continued to suffer, the humiliations were increased, but his soul was filled with Christ as the Christ of his pains and sorrows, and thus he had the victory, not only over physical misery, but over all pride and vanity that might have sprung up "through the abundance of the revelations." Glorious words are these: "When I am weak, then am I strong." Notice the clear view St. Paul has of the Divine hand in his thorn in the flesh. If he is perfectly assured of the abundance of the revelations, if he can locate the scene in Paradise, if he realizes the sanctity of these disclosures in the "unspeakable words," he is just as certain that the thorn "was given" him. He knew it was a "thorn," and he knew whence it came. He acknowledged God in it, and, in this feeling, prayed thrice for its removal. Christians often fail at this point. They doubt at times whether their afflictions come from God. Some Christians cannot be induced to believe that their sufferings are sent from above, and they see in them nothing more than evil casualties. But if they fail to recognize God in the sorrow, they will not find him in the joy of his blessed promise, "My grace is sufficient for thee." It was not merely the "them" that St. Paul had to endure. This was a source of pain, and it aggravated, doubtless, his other physical infirmities, and, in turn, was augmented by them. But we must not forget the state of mind such an affliction naturally produced—the surprise that it should follow such wonderful signs of God's favour as had been vouchsafed in the "abundance of the revelations," the temptation to a rebellious spirit and the occasion for unbelief it would furnish. A literal answer to his prayer was refused; a spiritual answer was granted. The "grace" bestowed was "sufficient," not only to bear the pain as a peculiar addition to his "infirmities" already existing, but to enable him to "glory" in it; and the providence of it was specially manifested in the power it had given him to be patient, forbearing, humble, in the late trouble with the Corinthians. O Christians, who are called to a lifelong discipline in the school of suffering, think of the measure implied in the sufficient grace! Sufficient for what? Sufficient, not only to glory in pain and infirmity, but to glory "most gladly."—L.
2 Corinthians 12:11-15 - Recurrence to the former argument.
The intense feeling of St. Paul indicates itself by not continuing on one unvarying level. From the climax just reached he reverts to what had been previously discussed in 2 Corinthians 10:1-18. and 11. These reverberations are very characteristic of the man as a thinker, and they show how closely, in him, temperament was allied with intellect. If aroused, he never became artificial or unnatural, but was then most true to his organization. In the verses before us he resumes his ironical vein: "I am become a fool in glorying;" but not of his own accord, for "ye have compelled me." The disaffected party at Corinth had not respected his just claims, had not "commended" him, and they had failed in this matter when he had demonstrated that he was "in nothing behind the very chiefest of the apostles" the same idea expressed in 2 Corinthians 11:5, adding in this instance, "though I be nothing." Was he thinking of the abundant revelations with which he could not have been entrusted save on the condition of a thorn in the flesh? Only a brief utterance, yet very sincere—"though I be nothing." It was safe for such a man in his impaled situation to dramatize the "fool," but he hastens to serious work and mentions that "the signs of an apostle" had been wrought among them. His language is, full and earnest; "truly," "in all patience," "signs and wonders and mighty deeds," no lack, no irritating haste, no deception, number and variety and extraordinary power all provided for. Despite of the accumulation, the magnitude, the unimpeachable quality of these Divine evidences, God among you of a truth, Christ honouring his servant and his servant's work, ye Corinthians, or some of you, have not "commended" me! In what respect were ye inferior to other Churches? Look at Macedonia, look at Asia; wherein were you less favoured than they? They commended me; what have you done to exemplify your sense of my apostleship? I remember but one thing in which ye were "inferior"—and the irony is keen now—I remember that I preached the gospel gratuitously, so as not to be "burdensome to you;" and this is your acknowledgment, this your commendation of my course! What a mistake my disinterestedness was! What a "fool" in my goodness! "Forgive me this wrong!" Despite of it all, I am not weaned from Corinth. "The third time I am ready to come to you." Though my self-denying conduct has been used to bring me into contempt, I shall repeat it without any abatement, for "I will not be burdensome to you." And now his heart swells as he says, "I seek not yours, but you"—words that he bequeathed to the admiration of ages; for was he not their spiritual father? If, at the bidding of natural instinct, children were not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children, then it became him to provide for his spiritual children. But was this all that his love had to promise? Nay; what means he had or might have should not only be freely used in their behalf, but he would give his faculties, his heart, his whole self, to advance their well being. "Signs of an apostle" had been wrought at Corinth, "wonders and mighty deeds," but the signs of a sublime moral manhood rise before us when he declares, "I will very gladly spend and be spent for you." Will this avail? "If I love you more abundantly, am I loved the less?"—L.
2 Corinthians 12:16-19 - Forestalling false criticism.
What limit is there to the carping skill of envy and hatred! Some of this Judaizing party might say that, under cover of disinterestedness, he had acted cunningly in the matter of the collection for the poor saints at Jerusalem. Was this so? Did the deputies make a gain of you? Did Titus abuse his position? One spirit, Christ's spirit, animated us, for we all "walked in the same steps." Think you that this has been said for self-justification? Do we excuse ourselves? Fears were oppressing him, fears that he would mention presently. Can it all be in vain? Assurances of fatherly regard, assurances of a willingness, ay, of a gladness, in giving all he had and all he was, even life itself, to their service and interest; would they pass for nought? And were there both history and prophecy in the melancholy winds, "The more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved"? The fervent appeal, the protracted argument, the action and reaction, the irony and the profound sincerity, the grieved tenderness, the sad ingratitude, the memory of noble self-sacrifice, gather into the climax, "We speak before God in Christ." There, at that bar of judgment, he makes the solemn avowal, "We do all things, dearly beloved, for your edifying." Once more he would conciliate, nor should this long and impassioned outburst come to a close without calling God in Christ to witness his deep-felt affection for these ungrateful Corinthians.—L.
2 Corinthians 12:20, 2 Corinthians 12:21 - Expression of his fears.
Why had he just spoken with so much earnestness? Why had St. Paul brought facts to their notice which he had never used in addressing his Churches? Why had he referred to that extraordinary event in his career, when he had been ushered into the secret chambers of Paradise and permitted to hear things which were not to be told? Why a revelation to be unrevealed? It was to teach the rebellious and evil disposed among the Corinthians that he was Christ's apostle to them, and, as such, charged with maintaining the order, peace, and purity of the Churches entrusted to his oversight. Very tenderly had he appealed to the Corinthians, and now, having called God, even God in Christ, to witness the depth and sincerity of his love for them, he would entreat them not to drive him to extreme measures. To exercise stern authority gave him no pleasure. The greatest thing in an apostle was love, and he wished to restore harmony and prosperity to the Church by means of forbearance and affectionate counsel. Therefore he had pleaded so fervently; therefore he had condescended to boasting; therefore he had told them more of his infirmities than his enemies knew; therefore he had gloried in those things which these very men used to alienate his own spiritual children by putting contempt on him and his office. Fears he had, lest when he should come to Corinth, he should not find them such as he wished, and fears too that he would have to act in an apostolic way not agreeable to them, so that on their meeting together each party would be disappointed in the other. Hope he had, and so he speaks doubtingly. But the fatherly heart is overloaded with apprehensions and "lest" is thrice employed, for he would not conceal these apprehensions. What a dark list of vices and sins is spread out in the last two verses! If he should have to confront these evils, he will not find them such as he would and they will find him such as they would not. First comes the catalogue of moral evils such as originated in the factious spirit so rife in Corinth, viz. strife, jealousy, wraths, factions, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults. These things would require discipline. But, moreover, he feared the sensual wickedness which had such a hold on Corinth. For he might have to deal with gross offenders, men who had committed sins of "uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness," and had not repented. Such a state of things would grieve him. Disappointed and afflicted by a blight like this falling on his labours in the ministry of the gospel, he tells them, "My God will humble me among you." To avoid these distressing results, to restore peace and spiritual prosperity to a Church rent by faction and disgraced by immorality, he had written and laboured and prayed. If all failed, "my God will humble me among you."—L.
HOMILIES BY J.R. THOMSON
2 Corinthians 12:2 - "A man in Christ."
When we consider what man is, and who Christ is, the conjunction seems wonderful indeed. Yet, when apprehended, this union appears one fraught with richest blessings for him who is the inferior and dependent member. The thought was one familiar to the apostle; himself "a man in Christ," he spoke of others who were "in Christ before" himself, and he designated Christian societies, "Churches in Christ Jesus."
I. THE NATURE OF THE UNION THUS DESCRIBED.
1. The Christian is grafted "in Christ" as a graft in a tree, joined to him as a branch to a vine. The union is thus a vital union, and is to the Christian the means and the occasion of spiritual life.
2. The Christian is accepted "in Christ," i.e. in the Beloved. For Christ's sake the Christian is received into Divine favour. The Saviour is in this capacity a Representative, a Mediator, an Advocate.
3. The Christian is incorporated "in Christ" as the member in the body, and has a new function to discharge in consequence of this relationship.
4. The Christian is hidden "in Christ" as the traveller in the cleft of the rock, as the voyager in the ark, when "the Lord shut him in."
5. The Christian dwells "in Christ" as in a house, a home appointed for him by Divine wisdom and goodness.
II. THE IMPORTANCE AND ADVANTAGES OF THIS UNION.
1. As is apparent from considering the position of those who are out of Christ. For such, where is safety, where is a law of life, where is a prospect for immortality? For to be out of Christ is to be without God, and so without hope.
2. From considering what in this life they possess who have Christ and are in him. Whilst, so far as the bodily life is concerned, they are in the world, they are in spirit in the Lord, and thus partake a higher nature and existence than belong to earth and to time.
3. From considering the imperishable character of this union. To be "in Christ" now is to be "with Christ" forever. To those who are in him there is no condemnation now, and from him there shall be no separation hereafter. The visions which Paul beheld, and the declarations he heard when he was caught up into the third heaven, were to him, and may be to us, an earnest and promise of immortal union. Therefore "Abide in him."—T.
2 Corinthians 12:5 - Glorying in weaknesses.
It is not to be wondered at that Paul boasted; the wonder is that, instead of boasting of the extraordinary visions he had experienced, the extraordinary commission he had received, the extraordinary success which had followed his labours, he boasted of what other men would have concealed or have lamented—his own infirmities, disadvantages, and troubles.
I. THE WEAKNESSES IN WHICH THE APOSTLE GLORIED.
1. His own bodily infirmity was especially present to his thoughts, when using this language. Whatever this was, whether general ill health or some special malady, as of the eyes, it was naturally distressing to himself, as it prevented him from doing his work with the ease and pleasure which he might have experienced had he possessed health and vigour of body.
2. The contempt he met with from some amongst whom he laboured was to Paul no cause of mortification, but cause of rejoicing. Let men despise him; if he was able to serve and please his Master, that was enough.
3. The hardships and privations and persecutions he endured in the fulfilment of his ministry were matter of glorying. In these he took pleasure, contrary as such a fact was to ordinary human experience.
II. THE GROUND OF THE APOSTLE'S GLORYING IN HIS WEAKNESSES.
1. There can be no doubt that the deepest ground lay in Paul's sympathy with his Divine Lord. The humiliation and obedience unto death of the Lord Jesus in order to secure man's salvation became a new source of inspiration, in the direction both of human action and of human suffering, and Paul was crucified with Christ unto the world. He bore about with him in the body the marks of the Lord Jesus, and of this he justly boasted.
2. Personal weakness was the occasion of the reception of new and spiritual strength. For Christ made his own grace sufficient when his servant's strength was gone. And by a sublime paradox the apostle learned that when he was weak, then was he strong. And thus the very infirmities which seemed to disqualify for service became the occasion of the communication of such spiritual power and aid as rendered the apostle more efficient and successful in the service of the Lord.—T.
2 Corinthians 12:9 - Sufficient grace.
Perhaps there is no verse in Scripture which has brought more strength and comfort to the hearts of Christ's people than this. The explanation of its preciousness and its power is to be sought first in the spiritual, the revealed truth which it communicates, and secondly in the fact that it is the record of personal experience. There is an instinctive persuasion in the human mind that the experience which has been realized by one is possible to another. The grace which was actually bestowed upon Paul does not seem inaccessible to the feeble, the tempted, the overburdened Christian who cries to Heaven for help.
I. THE NEED FOR THIS SUFFICIENCY.
1. The manifold duties, the severe temptations, the wried sorrows and troubles, incidental to the Christian life. There are difficulties and trials common to the Christian with all men, but there are others peculiar to him, arising from the higher view he takes of life, both as a personal discipline and as an opportunity for serving and glorifying God.
2. The conscious insufficiency of human resources. This, indeed, accounts for the universal practice of prayer, frequent or occasional, deliberate or spontaneous. Men feel their utter helplessness in the presence of the demands of life, and therefore they call upon God. Much more keenly does the follower of the Lord Jesus realize his need of a higher than human aid. Conscious that only Divine grace has reconciled him to God, he daily acknowledges his dependence upon the same grace for the maintenance of his spiritual life and usefulness.
II. THE GROUND OF THIS SUFFICIENCY.
1. The divinity of the Saviour. Can we imagine any other than Christ using this language, "My grace is sufficient"? It is becoming, it is possible, only to him who possesses Divine resources, who is spiritually present with all his people.
2. Christ's mediatorial position. This involves the possession and the disposal of whatsoever is necessary for the spiritual welfare of those whom the Lord Jesus saves. Accepted as our Representative, he has received gifts for men; and it is in the fulfilment of his mediatorial office that he imparts to each individual disciple and friend the specially needed grace.
3. The spiritual dispensation over which the Lord Jesus presides. He is Head over all things unto his Church. He distributes to every man severally as he will. His Spirit is the Spirit of truth, of holiness, of power.
III. THE EVIDENCE OF THIS SUFFICIENCY.
1. The personal experience of Paul as recorded in this passage. He tells us here, not only what Christ promised, but what he performed. He was perfectly satisfied with the course he had taken. He did not find His own personal weakness and insufficiency a barrier to his efficiency and usefulness. What he lacked, his Lord supplied.
2. The recorded experience of all who have trusted to the same Divine Source of all-sufficiency. There is no discordant note in the song of grateful, affectionate adoration which fills the Church of the Redeemer. All his people have known their own demerits, their own powerlessness, and all have known the sufficiency of their Lord. And every Christian has reason to acknowledge—
"And when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with the God Man prevail."
2 Corinthians 12:12 - Signs of apostleship.
The evidences of deep feeling, which are manifest throughout this Epistle, are very prominent in this passage. There were special reasons why a sensitive man like Paul should lay to heart the treatment with which he met from the Corinthians. Considering what he had done among them and for them, he felt it hard that empty pretenders should be preferred to himself. And he was convinced that, in disregarding his authority, these members of the Corinthian congregation whom he had in view were doing injustice to his ministry among them. For all the proofs of a Divine commission had been exhibited in his ministry in their city. He appeals to—
I. MIRACULOUS EVIDENCES OF APOSTLESHIP. Upon due occasion the apostle did not hesitate to bring forward and adduce as proofs of his commission the supernatural gifts which had been bestowed upon him. How could he have publicly made such a claim as this in an authentic letter, unless the Corinthians, friendly and inimical, were ready to witness to the truth of his language? It would not be fanciful to discriminate among the terms which Paul in this passage applies to these miraculous evidences. Observe that they are designated:
1. Powers, as pointing to the heavenly and Divine source to which they must needs be traced. Whether exercised in controlling nature, in healing disease, or in inflicting punishment, they bore upon their very presence the evidences that they were of superhuman origin.
2. Wonders, as fitted and indeed intended to awaken the interest, the inquiry, the amazement, of all beholders. Wonder may be useful in leading to such reflection, such emotion, as may surpass itself in value.
3. Signs, as indicating the authority of those at whose prayer or command these marvels were wrought "among" the Corinthians.
II. THE MORAL EVIDENCE OF APOSTLESHIP. Nowhere in the New Testament is the portent placed above the spiritual. Christ's mighty works answered their purpose when they prompted the exclamation and inquiry, "What manner of man is this!" And in Paul's character there was seen an evidence of apostleship far more convincing and far more instructive than the most marvellous deeds which he performed. He justly claims to have exhibited patience, both in his continuing to work for the Corinthians and to interest himself in them notwithstanding their ingratitude, and in his tender and brotherly treatment of them with a view to their restoration to entire sympathy with himself.—T.
2 Corinthians 12:15 - Ministerial devotion.
Paul rejoices and boasts that, however the Corinthians may misunderstand him, he cannot be accused of having acted towards them in a mercenary spirit. Disinterestedness at all events he must claim, and they must concede. They are the debtors, not he. He is the parent who lays up for the children. This he does cheerfully, and is resolved that he will do in the future as in the past. His determination is to spend and to be spent for their souls.
I. A SINCERE PROFESSION. Had Paul been a stranger to his correspondents he could not have used such language as this. But he was well known to them, having lived and laboured in Corinth, working with his own hands for his maintenance, and putting forth every effort for the spiritual enlightenment and salvation of the citizens.
1. The minister of Christ spends for the enrichment of his people's souls. He has "treasure," though in earthen vessels. He has "the true riches" committed to his keeping. His sire is to bestow the choicest and most precious blessings upon the spiritually necessitous. All he has he longs to part with.
2. The minister of Christ is willing to be spent for his people's souls. Labour often involves suffering. Bodily powers may be exhausted; even the mind itself may give way under the strain of a toilsome, emotional, prolonged ministry. The missionary may sink beneath the burden of climate, of unrequited toil, of persecution. Every faithful minister must lay his account, not only with effort, but with self-denial and self-sacrifice.
II. AN ARDENT APPEAL. The Revisers adopt a rendering of the latter part of this verse which harmonizes with what we may well believe to have been the sentiment of the apostle.
1. Paul has proved the abundance of his love; and every true minister, animated by the love of Christ and by pity for souls, has shown himself to be a true lover and friend of his fellow men.
2. Shall it, then, be the ease that those whom the Christian minister loves, and whose welfare he seeks, shall be indifferent and ungrateful? It is sometimes so; the very faithfulness and earnestness of the minister may occasion the aversion of those who desire that he should "prophesy smooth things," and leave them to their sinful pursuits and pleasures uninterrupted. Yet the affection and devotion of spiritual workers deserve a very different return.—T.
2 Corinthians 12:19 - Edification.
The strain in which this portion of the Epistle is written may, the writer is conscious, mislead some readers. It displays a good deal of personal feeling; it reproaches those who have not shown themselves amenable to rightful influence and authority; it reveals a wounded heart. Some readers may misinterpret these signs and infer that the apostle regards himself as on his defence, as excusing and vindicating himself, as asking that the best construction possible may be forbearing]y put upon his conduct. But all this is erroneous. Paul's one great aim is, not his own vindication, but, on the contrary, the edification of those to whom his Epistle is addressed.
I. IN WHAT DOES EDIFICATION CONSIST?
1. It has respect to those who are already built upon the one Foundation—Christ. The minister of Christ, like other workmen, must begin at the beginning. When men receive the gospel, then, and only then, are they in a position to be "edified."
2. It consists in the building up of the Christian character in the case of individuals. The resemblance to Christ is what is mainly to be sought.
3. And in the formation of solid and serviceable Christian societies, all of which are parts of the holy temple which is being reared to the glory of God.
II. BY WHAT MEANS IS EDIFICATION PROMOTED?
1. The means divinely appointed and approved are moral and spiritual. All employment of mechanical or political agency to secure such an end is to be condemned, as both inappropriate and useless.
2. Personal agency is that which the New Testament exemplifies and which experience approves. Living spirits, full of love and sympathy, are divinely qualified to engage in such a work as this.
3. The presentation of truth, the addressing of language of encouragement and promise, of admonition and rebuke,—these are emphatically the scriptural methods of edification. Of all these abundant and very instructive examples may be found in this very Epistle.
III. WHAT PURPOSES DOES EDIFICATION SUBSERVE?
1. The welfare, the highest spiritual development and happiness, of those who are edified.
2. The impression thus made upon the world by the presence in the midst of it of a Divine temple reared with human souls.
3. The honour and glory of the heavenly Architect himself.—T.
HOMILIES BY E. HURNDALL
2 Corinthians 12:1-4 - Apostolic experiences in heaven.
I. THE APOSTLE HAD A HEAVENLY EXPERIENCE DURING HIS EARTHLY LIFE. His earthly experience was, vary largely, dark and sorrowful; but amidst the darkness appears this brilliant flash of heavenly light.
1. He gives us this experience as an actual fact, and as such we must receive it. It was a reality to him. He records it that it may come before us as a reality, not as a mere fancy or illusion.
2. It furnished him with an opportunity of contrasting man's treatment and God's. In the closing verses of the preceding chapter we have a catalogue of Paul's tribulations, many of these occasioned by human perversity and enmity. Men treated Paul evilly; God gave him this special and marvellous heavenly experience!
II. THE CHARACTER OF THIS EXPERIENCE.
1. A real entrance into the heavenly world. Paul has no doubt about this. His only doubt is whether he was in the body at the time. He most distinctly conveys that there was a removal of his spirit into another sphere; he is not sure whether his body accompanied his spirit. There could not have been a doubt as to whether he was "in the body" if his experience had been a mere trance or any special influence brought to bear upon his mind. There was a removal, but whether of body and spirit, or of spirit alone, the apostle cannot declare. We may note the apostolic belief that conscious life is possible to us when we are "out of the body." The apostle did not know whether his experience was of this order, but he evidently recognizes this order of experience as possible. We may note further that the apostle regarded heaven or paradise as a place as well as a state. "Third heaven" and "paradise" seem to be used synonymously—"third heaven" indicating the realm in which God's glory is pre-eminently manifested. The rabbins taught the existence of seven heavens, but it is not probable that Paul refers to their notions.
2. An entrance effected by God. It was not by the apostle's merit or power; it was by a Divine act—he was "caught up." Admittance to the heavenly world is in the hands of God; if we enter, then God must effect the entrance for us. Christ, the Way, is given to us by God.
3. Astonishing visions. Paul saw much (2 Corinthians 12:1).
4. Wonderful revelations. He heard much. "Unspeakable words," understood by him, but not to be repeated on earth. Possibly they would not have been intelligible to any who had not participated in the heavenly experience. Our curiosity craves to know what Paul saw and heard, but our needs do not demand it. We have the speakable words of the gospel, which, rightly received, will prepare us to hear by and by the "unspeakable words" of heaven and to behold the heavenly glories.
III. THE OBJECT OF THIS EXPERIENCE.
1. To encourage the apostle in his many labours and sufferings. Christ took his disciples up into the mountain and was transfigured before them; then he brought them down into the world of men to toil and to endure.
2. To quicken his faith in the unseen. Great natures doing great works have often great trials of faith. A big devil always comes against a big Christian.
3. To speed him onward to the final rest of God's people. He was a much loved child; the Father showed him special favour.
4. That others to whom the experience should be recounted might participate in the benefit. The experience was for us as well as for the apostle. From us its special features are largely hidden; but it is revealed to us, and this knowledge may well encourage us in the earthly service, quicken our faith, and hasten our footsteps towards the glories beyond the veil.
A general lesson may be learnt from the event that those who have special trials and sorrows experience also special comforts and helps.—H.
2 Corinthians 12:7 - The thorn in the flesh.
I. WHAT WAS IT?
1. In itself. There have been almost infinite conjectures. As to the figure: some prefer a "goad for the flesh," a sharpened stake; others, a rankling thorn; others, a stake on which offenders were impaled or the cross to which they were fastened. As to the reality: evil suggestions; fiery darts of Satan; some prominent adversary; some painful bodily affection, weak eyesight, defective speech, carnal cravings; whilst a bold imaginationist has had the temerity to suggest a termagant wife! Possibly the precise nature of the affliction is concealed that no one may say, "Ah, that is not my trouble." It was very grievous to the apostle whatever its precise nature.
2. As Satan was concerned in it. Paul recognized Satan's hand (see Job 2:7; Luke 13:16). It was used of Satan to annoy, pain, depress, and harass Paul, and with the hope that it would hinder his great work. Satanic malice rejoiced in the anticipation that it might prove the last straw upon the camel's back. Paul interfered much with the devil's kingdom; it is no wonder that the devil sought to interfere with him. Satan can afford to leave some people alone; but if we faithfully attack his kingdom and his rule we may expect reprisals. Yet Satan is but a fool after all, and constantly overreaches himself. One has well said, "The devil drives but a poor trade by the persecution of the saints—he tears the nest, but the bird escapes; he cracks the shell, but loses the kernel."
3. As allowed by God. God's hand was in it as well as Satan's. This is so with all our tribulations; in one aspect they are messengers of Satan, in the other messengers of God. All depends upon which message we listen to. Paul's thorn in the flesh was God's teacher of humility. There was danger that the extraordinary revelations made to the apostle might foster pride. Human nature is intensely susceptible to this temptation. Those who enjoy remarkable favours often experience remarkable affliction. The ship in the high wind needs plenty of ballast. When we build high we must also build low—the lofty building requires a deep foundation. It is well for us that God is not merely indulgent. God will not allow us to become spoilt children.
II. THE APOSTLE'S RESTLESSNESS UNDER THE AFFLICTION. Paul was very human. He would not have been so could he have borne this additional trouble with indifference. Remember his other troubles. If this special affliction seemed likely to hinder his lifework, how keenly would he feel it! 'Tis hard to dance in chains. Heavy labour tries the healthy; how exceedingly burdensome to the sick! Yet he did not grumble, or make himself a nuisance, or find fault with God, or sit down in despair. It was said of him once, "Behold, he prayeth;" it may be said of him again.
III. HIS PRAYER.
1. In his distress he betook himself to the mercy seat. Like Hezekiah, he spread the matter before the Lord. Affliction should drive us to, not from, God. And we should come to pray, not to complain. The throne of grace is sometimes turned into a bar of judgment, at which men arraign God. When some strange experience comes upon us we should ask concerning it in the audience chamber.
2. He prayed to the Lord Jesus. This seems evident from 2 Corinthians 12:9, "that the strength of Christ may rest upon me." The servant's difficulties may well be submitted to the Master. Christ had directly appointed the apostle; to Christ, therefore, Paul brings his seeming hindrance. Whilst usually we pray to the Father in the Name of Christ, we may at other times pray to Christ himself.
3. He prayed with importunity. There was no mistaking his earnestness. As Christ in Gethsemane prayed "the third time," so thrice did this Christ-like apostle knock at heaven's gate. He went on knocking until he got a response. Many in prayer want nothing, ask nothing, get nothing. Some are so polite that they dread lest they should disturb God, and knock so lightly and daintily that it would require a microphone to make the sound audible. Others ring and run away. The apostle stood at the gate till he was answered. Such holy boldness delights God instead of affronting him.
4. He prayed definitely.
(1) For "this thing." Some pray foreverything in general, and therefore get nothing in particular.
(2) That it might depart. Here, perhaps, he went too far. If our troubles were sent away, our best friends might be sent away. The counterpart of "a thorn in the flesh" may be "grace in the spirit." It is a good thing that it does not rest with us to send away or to retain; we should often send away the good and draw to ourselves the injurious and evil.
IV. THE ANSWER.
1. A true answer, yet not what was looked for. (2 Corinthians 12:9.) Such a prayer, offered in such a manner, was certain of a response, but not of the response anticipated. God often answers our prayers by not answering them. We get what we want, not what we wish. We dictate our prayer; God dictates the answer. Generally we do not ask enough—the apostle did not; to take away the thorn was small compared with sanctifying its presence. To eject the devil's messenger was poor compared with transforming it into a ministering spirit.
2. A lesson of faith. Paul's faith must transcend his feeling. He must lay hold of Christ with more tenacious grasp; he must believe that Christ can use this trouble for high purposes. Perhaps as he looked to Christ with stronger faith he could realize that, as great purposes were accomplished by the many thorns in the flesh of Christ (he was crowned with thorns), so the one thorn in his flesh should not prove unfruitful. Grapes might be gathered from this thorn.
3. A definite assurance. There was a basis for the faith demanded, as there always is. "My grace is sufficient for thee" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Christ engages to bear him through; can he believe this? The Lord's resources are boundless; they are our resources when strong faith binds us to their possessor. My "grace" may mean my "love," which secures all things needful for my servants; or the aid of the Holy Spirit, which will prove sufficient forevery exigency.
4. In intimation of purpose. There was no mistake, in sending or allowing the" thorn in the flesh." Prayer becomes blasphemous when it proceeds upon the assumption that God has made a blunder! The thorn in the flesh was the stem upon which the flower of the Divine glory was to blossom. The "messenger of Satan" would be made a herald proclaiming the power of Christ. The apostle's flesh was to be a battle field on which Christ would triumph.
V. THE ISSUE. A new thought has been given to Paul—Christ's glory will be enhanced. At once he begins to glory in this infirmity, "Most gladly" (2 Corinthians 12:9), or most sweetly; it became a delight of the highest kind. What he wanted to lose he now wants to keep. With the thorn in the flesh he can become, as he could not without it, the dwelling place of the power of Christ. It is enough if through his humiliation Christ may be exalted, if through his suffering Christ may be glorified. Many are more than content with being resigned under suffering; to submit they think is a mark of highest grace. But the apostle is far beyond this. He can "take pleasure" (2 Corinthians 12:10) in troubles, because through his troubles the power of Christ is more strikingly and impressively exhibited.—H.
2 Corinthians 12:11 - Much, yet nothing.
I. THE APOSTLE'S CLAIM. A large claim, put strongly. Paul claimed to be on a perfect equality with the leading apostles. Unwillingly he referred to this matter, which might look like self-glorification; but when the occasion came, his utterance was full and unmistakable. There is nothing derogatory in magnifying our office, the evil lies in magnifying ourselves in it. It is not conceitedness but righteousness to assert for ourselves what God has already asserted for us. Paul felt that he must not lightly esteem, or allow others to lightly esteem, a high office conferred upon him by God, and. an office in which God had signally witnessed to his efforts. Paul speaks about "the signs" of an apostle; the interesting question arises—What were these signs? We may note the following:—
1. Knowledge of the gospel derived by immediate revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:12).
2. Being specially under the influence and teaching of the Divine Spirit, so as to be able to announce truth with authority (1Co 2:10-13; 1 Corinthians 12:8, 1 Corinthians 12:29; 1 Corinthians 14:37).
3. External manifestations of Divine favour sanctioning claim to the apostleship.
4. Continued faithfulness to the gospel (Galatians 1:8, Galatians 1:9).
5. Success in preaching the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:2).
6. Power of communicating the Holy Ghost by imposition of hands (Acts 8:18).
7. Power of working miracles (2 Corinthians 12:12; Romans 15:18, Romans 15:19).
8. Holiness of life (2 Corinthians 6:4). Such of these as could be exhibited to the Corinthians, had been, and there was one respect in which his readers would scarcely contest Paul's claim, and to this with his accustomed dexterity the apostle refers. If founding great Churches was a mark of great apostleship, what an apostle Paul must have been to found such a Church as the Corinthian (2 Corinthians 12:13)! This was a perfectly sound argument, but it was an argumentum ad hominem of a singularly happy character. There was only one thing lacking, and here the apostle blends irony with pathos—"I myself was not a burden to you: forgive me this wrong" (2 Corinthians 12:13). For reasons given elsewhere in the Epistle, he had resolved not to derive any part of his temporal support from them. They might esteem this a slight. Had they lived in later days they would have counted it a virtue!
II. THE APOSTLE'S ACKNOWLEDGMENT. Paul's humility is marvellous. Yet it was not one whit greater than it ought to have been. The "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7) has accomplished a gracious work. Paul has at the same time the clearest view of the Divine power and glory, and of his own insignificance and impotence. He does not take to himself for a moment what was not of himself. Note in 2 Corinthians 12:12 he says, not "I wrought," but "were wrought"—he distinguishes between God and Paul! We have a beautiful insight into the apostle's mind. He has risen too high to deck himself in plumes stolen from his Lord. Though divinely endowed, strikingly witnessed to in his labours, beyond question the pre-eminent apostle, he says, "I am nothing." We wonder not that God used such a man. We magnify God's grace in him. Truly the promise had been amply fulfilled, "My grace is sufficient for thee" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Our pride is our folly—it drives God out and lets the devil in. We cannot be great because we will be so great. The bag is full of wind, so that it cannot be filled.
1. Humility becomes us. It became Paul. If he had so lowly an estimate of himself, how little should we think of ourselves! Even if we are "great men," we are very small men compared with him.
2. Humility is reasonable. It is not fiction, but fact, to say that we are nothing. Pride is based on a lie.
3. Humility is generally associated with large usefulness.—H.
2 Corinthians 12:15 - Self-expenditure.
I. A SPLENDID ILLUSTRATION OF CHRISTIAN SERVICE. The apostle is carried beyond the thought of giving some time, or strength, or property, for his beloved Corinthians; he expresses his perfect willingness to give himself. He will not count it a grief, but a gladness, to expend himself for them. Whilst many find great difficulty in giving a little for others, the apostle seems to find none in giving all. Here we have:
1. Whole-souled devotion. Nothing can transcend the apostle's offer. And the voluntariness and the joy of the devotion place it in the first rank of excellence.
2. Earnest desire for welfare. The love of Paul for the Corinthians could not have been more forcibly expressed. Men gauge our love for them by what we are willing to give up for them; when we are willing to give up ourselves for them, they cannot but be convinced of our sincerity.
3. Indication of the importance of Christian work. For nothing else in the world would Paul have willingly spent himself. But Christian service more than justified the self-sacrifice. In his judgment nothing could compare with it for a moment. We may remember that in all departments of life we can render Christian service; spheres of labour become insignificant and mean only when Christian service is excluded from them.
4. A striking imitation of Christ. Paul has caught his Master's spirit. His Lord laid down his life for him; he will now lay down his life for his Lord. Christ "gave himself." The Lord's servant is most fitted to do his Lord's work when he is most like his Lord.
5. A secret of success. When we labour for Christ in such a spirt as this we are certain to prosper. Failure is the child of half heartedness and selfishness. Christ honour an entire consecration to his service.
II. SELF-EXPENDING CHRISTIAN SERVICE PROMPTED BY A HIGH MOTIVE. The apostle was willing to spend himself for the souls of the Corinthians—"and be spent for your souls" (New Version). In this labour he was seeking at the same time the highest glory of God and Christ, and the truest welfare of men. These objects unite in Christian service, which aims pre-eminently to do good to the souls of men. The saving and perfecting of souls redounds supremely to the glory of the Divine Being, whilst it secures the highest good for humanity. So dominated was the apostle by the desire to do good to the souls of men, that what is usually a very strong motive for action, viz. the love of others for us, was quite swept away. He declares that he will expend himself for the Corinthians, though this strongest indication of his love to them should produce a decreasing love for him on their part. The disinterested character of true Christian service is here very strikingly displayed. It was by such self-expenditure as that of Paul's that early Christianity won its triumphs; it is for such self-expenditure that later Christianity pathetically calls. God is always thoroughly in earnest, but men are not. When men become so then "the arm of the Lord is revealed."—H.
HOMILIES BY D. FRASER
2 Corinthians 12:2 - "A man in Christ."
St. Paul spoke of himself. Once he had been out of Christ, though in a legal fashion very religious. But he gave up his legality when he found Christ. He looked to him for help, fled to him for defence, and thenceforward lived in him as a new creature. It is the best short description of every believer.
I. CHOSEN IN CHRIST. (Ephesians 1:4.) We put this first, because this must come first in the Divine order and in the very nature of things. But man does not begin with any knowledge of this as affecting himself. He grounds his faith, not on the secret purpose, but on the revealed good will of God to all in the gospel. It is after he has believed that he learns gratefully to trace his own calling and salvation, in common with that of all his fellow believers, to the gracious choice and purpose of God. Then, as the seventeenth Article of the Church of England expresses it, "The godly consideration of predestination and our election in Christ is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ."
II. FREELY GRACED IN THE BELOVED. (Ephesians 1:6.) The man in Christ is embraced in the favour with which God regards his beloved Son. He has redemption and reconciliation to God, unsearchable riches, spiritual blessings in heavenly places, and continual freedom of access to the Father in heaven.
III. CREATED ANEW IN CHRIST JESUS. (Ephesians 2:10.) God begins this work, as of old, by causing light to shine out of darkness; then he introduces a new order, peace and fertile life, and this is wrought on and in every genuine Christian. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation." And therefore he does what is right, not by a continual strain and effort against nature, but spontaneously and naturally, because he has a clean heart and a right spirit.
IV. ESTABLISHED IN CHRIST. (2 Corinthians 1:21.) He who comes to Christ under the drawing grace of the Spirit of God abides in him by the same Spirit, so as to imbibe his wisdom, experience his support, and learn what consolation there is in him, and what comfort of love. So God confirms and establishes his people in Christ, making good to them his promises, anointing them, sealing them, and giving "the earnest of the Spirit" in their hearts. This is much more than being settled in one's religious opinions and habits. It is the staying of the mind on Christ. And usually it is reached through conflicts and sufferings that compel the soul to grapple more firmly the reality of Christ and the security of Divine promises in him, just as trees rocked by the winds strike their roots the more widely and deeply into the ground (see 1 Peter 5:10).
V. APPROVED IN CHRIST. (Romans 16:10.) Establishment relates to faith, knowledge, and comfort; approval refers to service. Labour for the Lord ought to be rendered in the Lord, i.e. in virtue of union with him, and by the power derived from such union. But as there are gradations of faith and love among true Christians, so also there are degrees of diligence and thoroughness in service; and some servants are more approved than others, and shall have a more full reward. Oh to serve so as to have our Master's smile upon us now, and to be openly accepted of him at his coming as good and faithful servants!
VI. PERFECT IN CHRIST JESUS: COMPLETE IN HIM. (Colossians 1:28; Colossians 2:10.) There is all-perfect resource in our Lord. But all have not attained. There are babes in Christ, not perfect or mature; let them go on to fuller stature and strength. It is an object to be desired and. worked for, that every believing man may be presented perfect in Christ Jesus, i.e. ripe and mature, not crude or ill-developed in the Christian character.
VII. ASLEEP IN JESUS. (1 Corinthians 15:18; 1Th 4:14, 1 Thessalonians 4:18.) If we are Christ's, death is ours. It cannot do us hurt or separate us from the love of God. For a man who is in Christ, the whole state of death is brightened by the love and faithfulness of the Lord. Blessed are the dead who die in him. Sweetly sleep the laborers who, when their day's work for Jesus is ended, fall asleep in him.
"Oh, never doleful dream again
Shall break the happy slumber when
'He giveth his beloved sleep.'"
2 Corinthians 12:7-9 - An instructive experience.
Like all true saints, Paul was modest about his own experience. He did not write down his heavenly rapture and what followed it, till fourteen years had passed, and then he wrote it only because he felt compelled to prove to the Corinthians that even "in visions and revelations of the Lord" he surpassed the false apostles as much as in labours and sufferings for Christ. Never did Christian tell an experience more useful and strengthening to the Church.
I. AFFLICTION THE ANTIDOTE TO PRIDE. We do not speak so much of the natural pride of men over personal advantages of body or mind, over rank or riches, as of that subtle pride which is apt to creep into the heart after a great influx of spiritual light and joy. One may be exalted overmuch on account of the clearer vision of heavenly things or the near access to the Lord which he has enjoyed. But there comes a timely affliction or rebuke, not merely to correct pride if it is indulged, but to anticipate and prevent its rising. "Lest I should be exalted." The wise man accepts this as a kindness from God. "There was given to me a thorn in the flesh."
II. PRAYER THE ANTIDOTE TO DESPONDENCY. "I besought the Lord thrice." When one is cast down, worldly wise friends can only bid him cheer up, cast off dull care, etc. But the resource of the Christian is to pray to the God of his life. And prayer must be repeated. The Saviour prayed thrice before the angel from heaven appeared to strengthen him. Paul prayed thrice before the answer of grace and peace fell upon his fainting soul.
III. CHRIST'S GRACE THAT SWEETENS ALL. He knows well the piercing of thorns, the fiery darts, and the "blast of the terrible ones," and he can have compassion. He did not, indeed, see fit to relieve his servant Paul at once of his distress, but assured him of compensative grace and sustaining strength; and so the apparent evil was turned into a blessing, the pain and sorrow into joy. Be of good comfort, O believers! Against your own felt weakness set Christ's strength; and against all malice of Satan and his messengers set Christ's sufficient grace.—F.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
2 Corinthians 12:1 - Visions and revelations
"I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord." The apostle had been dwelling on his personal experiences. He had been compelled by the evil things that were said of him to refer to his own life, conduct, and sufferings for Christ's sake, in self-vindication. He would, however, not have spoken one word about these things if the honour of Christ had not been bound up with his claim to apostleship. He had now said everything that needed to be said about himself; and it was every way pleasanter and healthier to turn away from his own doings and sufferings, and to fix his heart and his thoughts upon what God had done for him. Upon the Divine visions and revelations given to him he in great part rested his apostolic claim. To him an apostle was, just what a prophet of the olden time had been, a man who had direct and personal communications with the Lord Jesus, and received instructions immediately from him. For such instances in St. Paul's career, see Acts 9:4-6; Acts 16:9; Acts 18:9; Acts 22:18; Acts 23:1-35. Acts 23:11; Acts 27:23; Galatians 2:2; and the scenes recorded in the chapter now before us. This claim to direct revelation the enemies of St. Paul denied, and laughed to scorn his pretensions as the indications of insanity. Dean Plumptre tells us that "in the Clementine Homilie's—a kind of controversial romance representing the later views of the Ebionite or Judaizing party, in which most recent critics have recognized a thinly veiled attempt to present the characteristic features of St. Paul under the pretence of an attack on Simon Magus, just as the writer of a political novel in modern times might draw the portraits of his rivals under fictitious names—we find stress laid on the alleged claims of Simon to have had communications from the Lord through visions and dreams and outward revelations; and this claim is contrasted with that of Peter, who had personally followed Christ during his ministry on earth. What was said then, in the form of this elaborate attack, may well have been said before by the more malignant advocates of the same party. The charge of insanity was one easy to make, and of all charges, perhaps, the most difficult to refute by one who gloried in the facts which were alleged as its foundation—who did see visions and did 'speak with tongues' in the ecstasy of adoring rapture." Compare the expression, "whether we be beside ourselves," in 2 Corinthians 5:13. When the particular visions came to which reference is made in the passage before us cannot certainly be known. St. Paul only aids us by referring to the time as "about fourteen years ago." The suggestion we prefer is that they were granted during the time of his fainting after the stoning at Lystra, and were the Divine comfortings of that hour of sorest peril and distress (Acts 14:19).
I. VISIONS AND REVELATIONS ARE AGENCIES WHICH GOD HAS ALWAYS USED. They do not belong to any one age. We have no right to say that they are limited to ancient times. There have always been the true and the counterfeit; but the true should not be missed or denied because the false have been found out. There are good gold coins, or men would not trouble to make spurious sovereigns. Fanaticism deludes its victims into imaginary visions, but souls that are kin with God, and open to him, can receive communications from him. Illustrate from all ages, e.g. Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Joseph, aged Simeon, Zacharias, etc. So in the Christian age we find visions granted to Cornelius, Philip, Peter, and John, as well as Paul, and traces of prophets, such as Agabus, and even of prophetesses. St. Paul's visions were probably of the nature of a trance; the mind being absorbed in contemplation may be prepared to receive Divine revealings. It is right to subject all claims to visions to careful scrutiny, and the things communicated to men at such times must be tested by their harmony with the written revelation; but we need not refuse to recognize the truth that God has direct relations to souls now as certainly as in past ages. Both truth and duty may still be directly revealed.
II. THEY COME TO CERTAIN PREPARED INDIVIDUALS. Not to masses, not to Churches, not to meetings. The vision is for individuals, who are thus made agents in the communication to men of the Divine thought and will. F.W. Robertson says, "To comprehend the visions we must comprehend the man. For God gives visions at his own will, and according to certain and fixed laws. He does not inspire every one. He does not reveal his mysteries to men of selfish, or hard, or phlegmatic temperaments. He gives preternatural communications to those whom he prepares beforehand by a peculiar spiritual sensitiveness. There are, physically, certain sensitivenesses to sound and colour that qualify men to become gifted musicians and painters; so, spiritually, there are certain strong original susceptibilities (I say original, as derived from God, the origin of all), and on these God bestows strange gifts and sights, deep feelings not to be uttered in human language, and immeasurable by the ordinary standard. Such a man was St. Paul—a very wondrous nature, the Jewish nature in all its strength. We know that the Jewish temperament fitted men to be the organs of a revelation. Its fervour, its moral sense, its veneration, its indomitable will, all adapted the highest sons of the nation for receiving hidden truths and communicating them to others."
III. THEY COME ON PARTICULAR OCCASIONS. By the law of Divine economy, only when they are the precise thing demanded, the only agency that will efficiently meet the case.
IV. THEY COME IN GRACIOUSLY ADAPTED FORMS. Heard voices sometimes, at other times dreams, ocular visions, symbols, trances, and mental panoramas. Close by showing that, because the modern mode is direct to souls, immediate to the shaping of men's thoughts, and not through symbols, or dreams, or visions, we need not lose the conviction that, upon due occasions still, God gives to some amongst us insight and revelation of his truth.—R.T.
2 Corinthians 12:7 - Satan's messenger; or, the thorn in the flesh.
It would be a grave mistake to make this description of St. Paul's affliction the basis of any argument for the personality or agency of Satan. He does but use the familiar Jewish figure of speech, which may or may not embody for him any doctrine concerning Satan The figure is most strikingly used in the introduction to the Book of Job; but the following other passages illustrate how familiar it was to the Jewish mind: Luke 13:16; Acts 10:38; 1Co 5:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:18; 1 Timothy 1:20. "These are enough to prove that, while men referred special forms of suffering of mind and body, chiefly the former, to the agency of demons, they were prepared to recognize the agency of Satan in almost every form of bodily calamity." No single description of Satan can cover the entire Scripture representation of him, but one aspect presented by it has not been duly considered. He is sometimes regarded as the agent, or executor, of the Divine purpose in physical calamity, and even in moral testings through temptation. We may think of an angel of temptation as well as of an angel of death. We may not even think of Satan as m any sense acting independently. He, too, comes fully within the Divine rulings and overrulings. What the nature of the apostle's affliction or temptation was cannot be certainly known from his descriptions of it. Many explanations have been suggested. Lightfoot summarizes them thus:
(1) a bodily ailment of some kind:
(2) some opposition encountered from his enemies, or suffering endured;
(3) carnal longings;
(4) spiritual trials, doubtings, etc.
Archdeacon Farrar thinks the "thorn" must have been some physical malady, and suggests epilepsy, of which he says, "It is painful; it is recurrent; it opposes an immense difficulty to all exertion; it may at any time cause a temporary suspension of work; it is intensely humiliating to the person who suffers from it; it exercises a repellent effect on those who witness its distressing manifestations." But he adds that there can be no doubt that St. Paul also suffered from ophthalmia, and that this disease fulfils in every particular the conditions of the problem. Dean Plumptre favours the idea of corporeal rather than mental suffering, and says, "Nor need we be surprised that this infirmity—neuralgia of the head and face or inflammation of the eyes, perhaps in some measure the after consequences of the blindness at Damascus—should be described as 'a messenger of Satan.'" Another suggestion has been made which is fresh and interesting, and worthy of very patient consideration. Professor Lias writes, "Our last alternative must be some defect of character, calculated to interfere with St. Paul's success as a minister of Jesus Christ. And the defect which falls in best with what we know of St. Paul is an infirmity of temper. There seems little doubt that he gave way to an outbreak of this kind when before the Sanhedrim, though he set himself right at once by a prompt apology (Acts 23:2-5). A similar idea is suggested by St. Paul's unwillingness to go to Corinth until the points in dispute between him and a considerable portion of the Corinthian Church were in a fair way of being settled. In fact, his conduct was precisely the reverse of that of a person who felt himself endowed with great tact, persuasiveness, and command of temper. Such a man would trust little to messages and letters, much to his own presence and personal influence. St. Paul, on the contrary, feared to visit Corinth until there was a reasonable prospect of avoiding all altercation. In fact, he could not trust himself there. He 'feared that God would humble him among them' (2 Corinthians 12:21). He desired above all things to avoid the necessity of 'using sharpness,' very possibly because he feared that, when once compelled to assume a tone of severity, his language might exceed the bounds of Christian love. The supposition falls in with what we know of the apostle before his conversion (Acts 7:58; Acts 9:1). It is confirmed by his stern language to Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:10), with which we may compare the much milder language used by St. Peter on a far more awful occasion (Acts 5:3, Acts 5:9). The quarrel between St. Paul and St. Barnabas makes the supposition infinitely more probable. The passage, Galatians 4:13, Galatians 4:14, may be interpreted of the deep personal affection which the apostle felt he had inspired in spite of his occasional irritability of manner. The expression (Galatians 4:20), that he 'desired to be present with them, and to change his voice,' would seem to point in the same direction. And if we add to these considerations the fact, which the experience of God's saints in all ages has conclusively established, of the difficulty of subduing an infirmity of temper, as well as the pain, remorse, and humiliation such an infirmity is wont to cause to those who groan under it, we may be inclined to believe that not the least probable hypothesis concerning the 'thorn,' or 'stake,' in the flesh is, that the loving heart of the apostle bewailed as his sorest trial the misfortune that by impatience in word he had often wounded those for whom he would willingly have given his life." What. ever the form of the trial may have been, we note—
I. ST. PAUL'S THOUGHTS ABOUT IT. These may be unfolded and illustrated generally, in relation
(1) to Christian culture;
(2) to Christian work, and especially
(3) in relation to peril of spiritual pride.
St. Paul saw clearly that the humiliation came "through the abundance of the revelations;" and "lest he should be puffed up beyond measure."
II. ST. PAUL'S LESSON LEARNED FROM IT. It was mainly this—that the mission of suffering may be continuous through life. It may be the point of God's dealing with us that he does not sanctify us by sudden, occasional, and severe afflictions, but by calling us to bear a lifelong burden of disability or frailty. Troubles of this kind cannot be removed in response to prayer, because to remove them would be to check the sanctifying process. God, in sending a temporary affliction, may have a temporary end in view, and so, when that end is duly reached, the affliction may be removed. But if the work of our sanctification is, in the Divine wisdom, to be wrought by a continuous life pressure, then the response to our prayer can only be this: "My grace is sufficient for thee." Dean Stanley points out that "St. Paul's sufferings were to him what the mysterious agony that used at times to seize on Alfred, in the midst of feast and revel, had been to the saintly and heroic king, a discipline working for his perfection."—R.T.
2 Corinthians 12:9 - Sufficient grace.
The following incident from John Bunyan's experience may serve to introduce this subject. One evening, as Bunyan was in a meeting of Christian people, full of sadness and terror, suddenly there "brake in" upon him with great power, and three times together, the words, "My grace is sufficient for thee; my grace is sufficient for thee; my grace is sufficient for thee." And "Oh, methought," says he, "that every word was a mighty word unto me; as 'my,' and 'grace,' and 'sufficient,' and 'for thee,' they were then, and sometimes are still, far bigger than others be." The great practical question for us, in our endeavour to live the godly life, is not—What have we to bear? but—What strength have we for the bearing? God's hell) never comes first to a man in his circumstances, but always first in him. The grace given is grace helping him in the circumstances. So the Christian often knows that he is helped when those around him can see no signs of the helping. God's promise from the olden time is this, "As thy day so shall thy strength be." In all our relations with human trouble, our attention is directed to the removal of the trouble itself or the change of the circumstances which occasioned the trouble. We move the pain wearied sufferer into a position of greater ease. We soften and smoothe the pillow for the aching head. We offer temporary help to the man distressed in business. But God does not promise any man that he will alter his circumstances or altogether relieve him from his trouble. The economy of life is arranged, in the Divine wisdom, for the greatest good of the greatest number, and consequently some of those circumstances which bring trouble to Christian hearts cannot be altered without involving injury to others. God "strengthens with strength in the soul." To him body and circumstance are secondary things; souls are of the first importance, and bodies and circumstances gain their importance by their influence on souls. Inward strength to bear is a far higher provision than any mere mastery of the ills and troubles of the life. A man is never lost until he has lost heart. But if God supplies inward strength we never shall lose heart, and so we never shall be lost. Outwardly a man may be tossed about, worn, wearied, lost, wounded, almost broken, and yet inwardly he may be kept in perfect peace; his mind may be stayed on God; he may be "strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might." We may say of this "sufficient grace" that it is—
I. ADAPTED. We are to conceive of the grace of God, not as a great mass, a quantity of which is duly measured out to meet our need, but rather as a treasury of various kinds and various colours, from which may be obtained just those threads that will match our circumstances and repair the disasters into which we have fallen.
II. TIMELY. Here we require to distinguish between what we think to be timely and what God thinks to be timely, remembering that God never delays, but is never hurried. He waits for the moment of extremity. "When the tale of bricks is doubled, then comes Moses." And it should also be shown that we may not look for some particular grace and help today, which God knows will only be required tomorrow. The very charm of "sufficient grace" is that it is precisely the thing "for the occasion." Those who are looking for kinds of grace for which they have no immediate and pressing needs will be in danger of missing the gracious provisions which their Lord is ever making for them. The way between earth and heaven is a ladder—Jacob saw it—and the angels came up and down it. We cannot reach the top by looking up; only by putting our feet up one round after another. And God is willing to be ever close beside us, holding us with his hand and strengthening us for each uplifted step.
III. ABUNDANT. That is assured in the fact that it is the grace of God, who is able to do exceedingly abundantly for us above all that we ask or think. The man with "sufficient grace" is efficient to all work, whether it be bearing or doing. He is nowhere alone; grace is with him.—R.T.
2 Corinthians 12:9 - Glorying in infirmities.
In introduction should be given some high and noble instances of triumph over disease, pain, or disability, in doing philanthropic and Christian work; e.g. Baxter, Robert Hall, H. Martyn, C. Pattison, F.W. Robertson, etc. Show that, while bodily strength may be consecrated to God's service, it is also true that physical weakness may serve him, and a man's very frailty glorify his Lord. This may be further opened out by showing how—
I. IT BEARS UPON HUMILITY. The grace which is the necessary completion and final adornment of Christian character. The grace which puts on Christian fruitage all the bloom. Humility is won by the pressure of God's hand upon us.
II. IT NOURISHES DEPENDENCE ON GOD. "When I am weak, then am I strong." This is the Christian paradox. Such dependence is not easy; it is one of the things to which experience of failure and frailty alone can bring us. He is fitted for life and for heaven who from his deep heart says, "I cannot, but God can."
III. IT CULTIVATES CHARACTER. We know that physical weakness bears directly and continuously upon temper, disposition, and virtue. Afflictions never test us, never bear upon the whole culture of character, as does continuous pain or frailty. "As the outward man perishes, the inward man is renewed day by day."
IV. IT KEEPS A MAN OPEN TO GOD. By its constant reminder of the need of God. The frail man proves the preciousness of prayer. F.W. Robertson most forcibly says of prayer, "The true value of prayer is not this—to bend the eternal will to ours, but this—to bend our wills to it." Frail, ever-suffering Paul laboured "more abundantly than they all," and astonishing still is the soul-work that can be gotten out of feeble men and women—with God's grace.—R.T.
2 Corinthians 12:16 - Caught with guile.
"Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile? This expression occasions serious difficulty to the exegete. It may be that St. Paul is referring to the accusation made against him that, being a crafty man, he had caught the Corinthians with guile. He repudiates altogether such a charge, and pleads, as o, sufficient proof of his guilelessness, that no man could say he had ever used his official position to make personal gains. Archdeacon Farrar says, "Being confessedly one who strove for peace and unity, who endeavoured to meet all men half way, who was ready to be all things to all men if by any means he might save some, he has more than once to vindicate his character from those charges of insincerity, craftiness, dishonesty, guile, man pleasing, and flattery which are, perhaps, summed up in the general depreciation which he so indignantly rebuts, that 'he walked according to the flesh,' or in other words, that his motives were not spiritual, but low and selfish." He paraphrases the sentence taken as our text thus: "But stop! though I did not burden you, yet 'being a cunning person, I caught you with guile.' Under the pretext of a collection I got money out of you by my confederates! I ask you, is that a fact?" A possible insinuation of the Corinthians is hereby anticipated and refuted; and we need not treat the statement of the text as any acknowledgment by St. Paul that he had adopted any guileful schemes. No man could have been more thoroughly genuine, more honorably straightforward. The subject for our consideration may be treated under three divisions.
I. THE IDEA OF "CAUGHT WITH GUILE" THAT IS INADMISSIBLE IN CHRISTIAN WORK.
1. Anything approaching to "doing evil that good may come" is inadmissible.
2. So is any altering or qualifying the fundamental truths, claims, and duties of the gospel.
3. So is any kind of action that is immoral, or of which the morality is even doubtful. Illustrate by some of the guileful principles enunciated by the Jesuit fathers, and so mercilessly exposed by Pascal in the 'Provincial Letters.' Sincerity and simplicity are first virtues in Christian workers; both the man and his labours must be such as can be searched through and through. Guile, as the world understands the term, must not be once known among us, as becometh saints.
II. THE IDEA OF "CAUGHT WITH GUILE" THAT IS ADMISSIBLE IN CHRISTIAN WORK. In the sense of adaptation to capacity it is an essential feature of Christian service. This may sometimes appear to the onlooker as guile. In teaching children or uneducated people, truth has to be simplified, to be set in figure and parable, and broken up into parts and pieces, and such guilefulness St. Paul recognizes as valuable. He fed the people with "milk" when he knew that they were unlit to receive "strong meat" of truth. Our Lord himself was guileful in this good sense, for at the close of his intercourse with his disciples he said, "I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now." It may also be shown that there is a "quick wittedness" and skilful seizing of opportunities, which are gifts finding honourable spheres in the Christian Church.
III. THE IDEA OF "CAUGHT WITH GUILE" THAT NOBLE-MINDED MEN SHRINK FROM EMPLOYING. Such are the various sensational devices of modern revivalism. The masses are to be caught with the guile of trumpet, and drum, and dress, and excited meetings. We need not say that such things are inadmissible, because they are not morally wrong. But where there is a full sympathy with the Divine Lord, who "did not strive, nor cry, nor cause his voice to be heard in the streets," all such guilefulnesses cannot but be painful. Anything approaching to an advertising of the gospel or the preachers of the gospel grieves the sensitive feeling of all who know that the gospel needs no such introductions, but is itself God's power unto salvation to every one that believes. Our "yea" had better be simple "yea;" with no blast of trumpet or roll of drum let us tell men of the life there is for all in Christ our living Saviour; and let our only guile be adaptation.—R.T.
2 Corinthians 12:21 - The humbling of God's ministers.
"I fear… lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you." "There is something almost plaintive in the tone in which the apostle speaks of the sin of his disciples as the only real humiliation, which he has to fear." The following points will be readily worked out and illustrated according to the experiences of the preacher:—
I. SUCH HUMBLINGS COME FROM SEEMING FAILURES. Compare our Lord's distressful reproach of Capernaum and other towns on the shores of the lake of Galilee. See also St. Paul's trouble over the failure of the Galatians from their primitive faith: "O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?" etc.
II. SUCH HUMBLINGS COME FROM STRIFE AND DIVISIONS. As illustrated in the Corinthian Church (see 1 Corinthians it.). Such strife may arise from
(1) false teaching;
(2) masterful individuals, who make parties;
(4) exercise of necessary Church discipline.
III. SUCH HUMBLINGS COME FROM INDIVIDUAL BACKSLIDINGS. There is no sadder phase of experience for Christian ministers than the spiritual and moral failure of their converts, and of those whom they have most fully trusted in Christian life and work. So often men fall into temptation and are overcome in their middle life. When ministers look for the ripest fruitage, then there is blight and death; wealth, pleasure, vice, smite and kill the soul, and the pastor weeps over the toil of life that seems to have been all in vain. St. Paul spoke of the Corinthians as "his glory and joy;" and the things which he goes on to mention in this verse put shame on his work, for the gospel call is "not unto uncleanness, but unto holiness." And ministers spend their strength for nought if those who believe are not "careful to maintain good works."—R.T.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17