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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
2 Corinthians 12

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-21

Paul"s Self-vindication

2 Corinthians 11 , 2 Corinthians 12

It was difficult for some of the Corinthians to believe that Paul was an apostle. That comes of a man making himself too familiar with his people. Preachers should hardly ever be seen by some people; they cannot understand the mystery of reaction, they do not comprehend all the suggestiveness and blessedness of free, genial, generous intercourse. Some people can only understand a little of religion when it is written in polysyllables. It would be possible to destroy the faith of some men by destroying their superstition. If their religion were written in modern English they would not know it; because we have instead of "loves," "loveth"; instead of "hears," "heareth"; instead of "understands," "understandeth": it is in these archaic endings of words that many people find what small piety they have. They cannot follow apostolicity itself in its stoopings and condescensions and variations, and in its adaptation of immediate instruments to the accomplishment of the supreme purpose of the Christian ministry. Paul stoops to talk to such people: but even when Paul stoops his attitude is greater than the elevation of other men. In Paul"s self-vindication there is no egotism, no vanity, no taint of mere personal conceit; it is heroic individualism, a broad, generous projection of himself from the Cross and towards the Cross: a mysterious action not to be understood in mere letters. It will be interesting to be present when he holds conference with Corinthian doubters.

They assail his apostolicity. He first defends himself by his record of work. Having given an account of his pedigree, he leaves that, and he says,

"Are they ministers of Christ?" [then in a parenthesis—"(I speak as a fool)"—because I am talking to fools] "I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches." ( 2 Corinthians 11:23, 2 Corinthians 11:28)

Paul"s argument is this: Would any man undergo such sufferings and privations but for an impulse that must have come from eternity? Saith Hebrews , I will tell you what my wages are:

"Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was1stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness." ( 2 Corinthians 11:24-27)

These wages were regularly paid: nothing was begrudged: the remuneration was handed to him with a lavish generosity. What else could I be, Paul would continue, than an apostle, to have undergone all this discipline, pain, privation, and excommunication from the security and delights of civilised life? That argument will be hard to answer. While he was dealing with his pedigree it seemed as if some man might arise and say, My parents were born a hundred and fifty years before yours: but when he came to his record of work there was great silence in the Church. Suppose that an opportunity were given for a man to outrival this citation of labour, you can imagine the melancholy, suggestive, humiliating pause that would follow a challenge so broad and striking. We never know what this record is until we try to put our own record side by side with it Would any man know how far he has gone in the direction of religious progress and heavenly attainment? Let him read 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, let him write that record on one side of the page, on the other let him write what he himself has done.

We all suffer from occupying the position of mere critics: It is when we come to attempt the emulous work of rivalry that we find how feeble we are. A man shall sit and criticise an oratorio by Handel; whilst he criticises he seems to know something about the matter: now let him produce a composition of his own and put it into the hands of the musician whom he has criticised. There are those who have disputed the apostolicity and consequent authority of Paul: here is the man"s own record. Where is the record of his critics, then, his despisers? No apostolicity is to be tolerated for a moment that is not backed up, certified, and glorified by hard work. Yet the record must go farther, for even hard work is not enough. There are some men magnificent in work, who are contemptible in suffering. Give them enough to do, and they will do it with a strong, steady hand; they like work, they like publicity, they like motion: call upon them to give, to expend, to suffer, to see excisions completed upon patience, strength, property, friendship, and the like, then you see their true quality. We are Christians: how then does our record run? "Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one" ( 2 Corinthians 11:24). What line do we put down in juxtaposition with that? When did we receive forty stripes? That line must be a blank. "Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep" ( 2 Corinthians 11:25). How shall we match that record?—"beaten with rods," that must go; "stoned," that must go; "thrice I suffered shipwreck," that must go; "a night and a day have I been in the deep," that must go. Two blank lines. "In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren" ( 2 Corinthians 11:26). What perils have we ever been in for Christ"s sake? None. Three blank lines. "In weariness and painfulness"—the suffering that has got no words to express it adequately; a sense of depletion, exhaustion, utter nothingness—"in watchings often," till our eyes have been sore with looking, "in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness"—and all for Christ. If Christ were not in a man he could not undergo this discipline. Let the Church be judged by its works. Pay no heed to its articles of belief, regard not its mere ministry in words, do not look even at its works; go beyond and ask whether it has worked up to the point of pain, weariness, feebleness, extremity; ask whether it has suffered for its faith. I should say about any faith that it ought to be revered in the degree in which its devotees have suffered. This is true of the faiths of paganism, of the faiths of twilight thought. Only earnest men can nobly suffer, only souls that are charged with the inspiration of God can accept penalty, infliction, loss, and all manner of evil patiently, uncomplainingly.

But did the Apostle Paul receive his lot in life in a merely negative condition of mind? Did he say, We must not complain: this was promised or predicted, and therefore nothing has happened to us not of the usual course: we cannot murmur against such providences? The Apostle Paul got far beyond that; he wrote a sentence that has in it all the poetry of heroism, he said, "Yea, we exceedingly glory in tribulation also." He did not accept it, he gloried in it; his sufferings were his crown in forecast.

In writing his record Paul does not forget some of the more or less amusing circumstances that occurred in the course of so varied and tumultuous a life. There are circumstances that do not look amusing at the time, but as the days come and go, such circumstances show the underlying comedy. Paul says, Once through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped from the hands of the governor of the city of the Damascenes ( 2 Corinthians 11:32-33). What a fall in the nobility of the record! Beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, wearied, pained to agony, watching to blindness, hungered to starvation; and yet this man consented to escape, by getting into a basket and being let down like a load from a window. Paul makes no apology for this; he does not say, I know the contrast is very striking and startling: I ought not to have done it. You cannot tell what you ought to have done. Let us hear what you did in reality. Sometimes we have only a moment in which to think and to decide. Paul, the basket is ready, the window is open, danger is imminent! He does not say, I must take three days to think about what course I shall pursue. The Lord trains us by making extemporaneous demands upon us. He expects us sometimes to answer in a moment. You and I have done many things which we would not do again. I am not aware that Paul ever went anywhere else in a basket, or was let down by the wall, or escaped by the back-door. Yet it was well that he did this. If he had always been on the star-line he would have been out of our way wholly; but he tells us with the frankness of sincerity that he has been as weak as other men, and oftentimes has felt the weariness which is akin to despair.

But he will not rest his authority upon his hard work and his sufferings alone. He says—I will give you the spiritual aspect of my apostolicity, "I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord." There is an outside record, of action, of suffering, an obvious and public record, which everybody can read. We ourselves live a newspaper life. We are paragraphed into momentary publicity. Paul says, I will tell you something that nobody else could tell you, I will take you into my confidence, I will let you see a little of my subjective and most profoundly spiritual experience; I will come now from suffering, loss, and defeat to visions and revelations of the Lord. Now we shall enter into the sanctuary of the soul. Paul would not make these things public but in vindication of his apostolicity; nor would he vindicate his apostolicity but to acquire the kind of influence which he could most successfully employ in doing good. "I knew a man—." That is cold; that is whipping up recollection to supply an incident; the literal reading would be, "I know a man." There is a good deal of meaning in this change of tense:—I knew a man who has become a memory, a shadow, a thin outline on the horizon of the heaven. We do not want to hear about such outlines, we want to live in the present. Paul therefore said literally in his own grammar, I know a man in Christ: that man is living now, though the incident I am about to relate occurred fourteen years ago: and how it occurred I cannot tell; whether the man was in the body I do not know; whether he was out of the body I do not know. There are times when the body is nothing to us, and has no record in the fight, the rapture, the realised heaven. Blessed are the hours when a man can get rid of his body, the death-doomed flesh. We have had experiences of this happy disseverance, when we have been all soul, free emancipated spirit, and have had masonic entrance through the stars into the very glory of God. We shall come to understand this drag of a body better by-and-by, this cursed flesh. "I knew a man"—I know a man—"in Christ"—the larger Prayer of Manasseh , the truer, completer, tenderer man. The words "in Christ," must not be omitted from the poetry of the expression; the spirituality and divinity of the utterance, you will find in the words "in Christ." God knoweth whether he was in the body or out of the body. We are afraid of rapture, ecstasy, contemplation, that kind of spiritual absorption which leaves time and space and all the landmarks which indicate exactness of material position and relationship. Probably it is well that we should be on our guard against false rapture; that, however, ought not to exclude the possibility of lofty, pure contemplation; that sweet, tender, ineffable consciousness of nearness to the Cross and the Sufferer, the throne and the King, which constitute the very beginning and the truest enjoyment of heaven. "How that he was caught up into paradise"—the place of blessed spirits, the home of the white-robed and the free, the abiding place of those who have not known sin, or who having known it shall know it no more for ever, because they have lost the sin in losing the body—"and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter." The pedant would find here a striking contradiction in terms. The pedant is always in search of such small game; let him fill his bag with them, he may eat them all, and he will be the leaner for his feast. "Unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter,"—which it is not possible for a man to utter: incoherences, wave of music rolling on wave, billow interlapping with billow, shoutings, exclamations, whisperings hardly breaking silence, minor tones which children or child-angels might utter in a state of fear or reverent expectancy, and great thunderings that shook the sanctuary of the heavens: what the music said I cannot tell. It is poor music that can be shut up in the prison of words. Music takes words as a starting point; music leaves the point of articulate origin and flies away, talks all languages. Paul says "Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities." ( 2 Corinthians 12:5.) And yet he was talking all the time about himself. But a man has many selves. He has a past self, a dead self, a blessed self, a mean, sneaking, infamous, detestable self, and sometimes a heroic and majestic self. Here the pedant would be at home again. If the pedant can be at home anywhere do not begrudge him a lodging. "For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me" ( 2 Corinthians 12:6). I will not have my reputation founded on things that cannot be tested: in other words, If the part of my life that can be tested is not real, solid, criticism-proof, then I will not ask you to accept any ghostly pretensions I may have to offer: judge the internal by the external: where you cannot follow me in my ecstasies follow me in my endurances: if you give me credit for having been and having suffered all that I have just detailed, then you will have no difficulty in following me into the mystic region that you may hear what I have passed through in my passage into the eternal sanctuary.

"And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the Revelation , there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure" ( 2 Corinthians 12:7).

A "thorn" seems a very slight thing; but the word "thorn" is not the word which the Apostle used,—There was given to me a stake in the flesh, a great beam sharpened at one end was set upon me and driven in, until my body was impaled. The Apostle Paul had a body that was hardly manageable. All his writings contain subtle references to this fact. We speak of Paul"s raptures and ecstasies, and we say if we were only like Paul, what we would be and do in relation to the age in which we live. No man had such a fight of it as the Apostle Paul. He was all fire. His blood was ablaze night and day. He dared hardly look in some directions. This is to be found out by a careful and critical perusal of his writings. He says, I find a law in my members warring against the law of the spirit; he says O, wretched man that I Amos , who will cut off this dead carcase; it will damn me; is there no knife sharp enough to cut this body? He says, I keep myself under, I strike myself in the eyes, lest having preached to others I myself should be a castaway. Every morning Paul had a controversy to settle with his body; every night he had a battle to fight with his flesh; all the day long the devil sprang upon his passions, and sought to drive him to hell. There have been spiritualisers who have found various interpretations of this image of the thorn or the stake in the flesh. It can only be understood by reading the whole of the Pauline experiences as subtly and indicatively written in the Epistles themselves. Some have said that the Apostle suffered in his eyes. All this seems to me to be frivolous and trifling. The Lord gave him work enough at home to do, and because be battled well himself he battled well with the world. Men who have never been in hell are not fit to speak of heaven. Beware of your little dainty epicurean confectionery preachers, who have never been scorched in perdition. The greatest souls are they who have been their three days in hell as well as their three days in heaven.

What became of this fray? "For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me." That was a mean prayer. Yet now and then we must be mean even in our supplications, because we are still in the flesh, and we are still human. Paul the majestic, the royal, once uttered this mean petition—"that it might depart from me." What was the answer? The answer was greater than the prayer. God"s answers always humble our petitions by their excess of donation, inspiration, and blessing:—And the Lord said unto me, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." It is better to wrestle under the inspiration of the grace of God than to live a merely negative life, of having no temptation, and no thorn in the flesh, and no difficulty in the life. Yet we want to pray God day by day that we may have nothing to do. Our prayer would seem to be run into this mean form; Lord, kill the devil; take away temptation: let me know no more of the solicitude that plagues my life; but give me perfect immunity from all the disasters and assaults and perils that have hitherto beset my struggling life. That is meanness. The great bold heroic prayer is—Lord give me grace to fight this also; in thy power I can trample down a thousand; I am but a little one, but if thou wilt fight in me, I shall put ten thousand to flight, I shall burn the gates of the city of the enemy, and come back laden with spoil taken from the hand of the foe; give me more suffering, if by it I can do better work; let the controversy increase in urgency, if by thy grace I can conquer the temptation and become mellow, tender, richer in all spiritual experience, and in all religious and sympathetic utterance. But we cannot begin with that prayer: such prayers are to be grown up to; the next thing after such prayers is music, triumph, heaven.

Now the Apostle passes out of the negative condition altogether, and says: "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ"s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong" ( 2 Corinthians 12:10). I have again found myself in a paradox. You Corinthians and you Galatians will always think me paradoxical:—I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God—it is not a flesh life at all: and now when I am weak, then am I strong; when I have nothing, I have all things. To the pedant, these are paradoxes, literal contradictions, fine food for the dainty stomach of ill-favoured and ill-natured criticism: but in the higher ranges of experience they are the commonplaces of the spiritual life; for now the Christian is as low as earth, and now high as heaven; now midnight is midday, and now midday is midnight.

Then the Apostle takes himself to task and says,—

"I am become a fool 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. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds. For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches?" ( 2 Corinthians 12:11-13).

He turns upon the Corinthians now. When a man has treated himself in a right way his back-stroke upon the foe is like the stroke of a battering-ram. Let me see, as if the Apostle would say, wherein did I get wrong: I know it: I myself was not burdensome to you; I took no salary, I took nothing from you; I did not ask you to give me of your carnal things in return for my spiritual things—"forgive me this wrong." What a man he was! How many his moods! A man of a thousand faces, a man of a thousand tones of expression. He comes to this, that at last he sees where he got wrong. He says, I took nothing from you, I gave you my soul; and you gave me nothing—"forgive me this wrong." "I seek not yours, but you," and therefore yours. What a statesmanlike conception! "I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you the less I be loved." There the Apostle parts company with us. But such deeds have been done by our elder brother, the Apostle Paul. We have not yet begun that course of high athletics. The more I love you, the less I be loved. I have laid down my very soul for you, yet you never gave me a crumb from your tables. I was wrong in not asking for it—forgive me this wrong.

Note

"The particular nature of this Epistle, as an appeal to facts in favour of his own Apostolic authority, leads to the mention of many interesting features of St. Paul"s life. His summary, in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, of the hardships and dangers through which he had gone, proves to us how little the history in the Acts is to be regarded as a complete account of what he did and suffered. Of the particular facts stated in the following words, "Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one; thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep,"—we know only of one, the beating by the magistrates at Philippi, from the Acts. The daily burden of "the care of all the churches" seems to imply a wide and constant range of communication, by visits, messengers, and letters, of which we have found it reasonable to assume examples in his intercourse with the Church of Corinth. The mention of "visions and revelations of the Lord," and of the "thorn (or rather stake) in the flesh," side by side, is peculiarly characteristic both of the mind and of the experiences of St. Paul. As an instance of the visions, he alludes to a trance which had befallen him fourteen years before, in which he had been caught up into paradise, and had heard unspeakable words. Whether this vision may be identified with any that is recorded in the Acts must depend on chronological considerations: but the very expressions of St. Paul in this place would rather lead us not to think of an occasion in which words that could be reported were spoken. We observe that he speaks with the deepest reverence of the privilege thus granted to him; but he distinctly declines to ground anything upon it as regards other men. Let them judge him, he says, not by any such pretensions, but by facts which were cognizable to them ( 2 Corinthians 12:1-6). And he would not, even inwardly with himself, glory in visions and revelations without remembering how the Lord had guarded him from being puffed up by them. A stake in the flesh (σκόλοψ τή σαρκί) was given him, a messenger of Satan to buffet him, lest he should be exalted above measure. The different interpretations which have prevailed of this σκόλοψ have a certain historical significance, (1) Roman Catholic divines have inclined to understand by it strong sensual temptation. (2) Luther and his followers take it to mean temptations to unbelief. But neither of these would be "infirmities" in which St. Paul could "glory." (3) It is almost the unanimous opinion of modern divines—and the authority of the ancient fathers on the whole is in favour of it—that the σκόλοψ represents some vexatious bodily infirmity (see especially Stanley in loco). It is plainly what St. Paul refers to in Galatians 4:14 : "My temptation in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected." This infirmity distressed him so much that he besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from him. But the Lord answered, "My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness." We are to understand therefore the affliction as remaining; but Paul is more than resigned under it, he even glories in it as a means of displaying more purely the power of Christ in him. That we are to understand the Apostle, in accordance with this passage, as labouring under some degree of ill-health, is clear enough. But we must remember that his constitution was at least strong enough, as a matter of fact, to carry him through the hardships and anxieties and toils which he himself describes to us, and to sustain the pressure of the long imprisonment at Cæsarea and at Rome."—Smith"s Dictionary of the Bible.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/2-corinthians-12.html. 1885-95.

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Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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