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Sermon Bible Commentary
2 Corinthians 12

 

 

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Verse 1

2 Corinthians 12:1

Visions and Revelations.

The words carry us at once to an age of miracle. They place us in the midst of a time when the eye and the ear were each occasionally opened to sights and sounds not of this earth, when the ordinary perceptions were in abeyance, and the soul, if it did not, as some have thought, actually abandon the body, was the subject of impressions not resulting from terrestrial objects, but stamped upon its consciousness by a preternatural exercise of power. Such probably was the condition in which Ezekiel saw the dry bones in the valley become instinct with fresh life. And so with the event in St. Paul's career to which the text refers. The Apostle's authority had been studiously depreciated by some of his converts, and he would vindicate himself from their derogatory insinuations. He would not dwell upon what he had done, but upon those things rather which God had done to him. "It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory in my own sufferings; I will pass to what testifies to my apostleship, but involves no idea of personal merit. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord."

I. The more we contemplate the portrait of St. Paul as depicted in the New Testament, the more, I think, we are driven back upon the inquiry, What was the source of that life of stupendous toil and faith and suffering? (1) You must give sufficient importance to his own personal sight of the face of Jesus Christ. In St. Luke's narrative of St. Paul's conversion we are told only that he heard a voice; but, as St. Paul himself twenty-eight years after relates the event, Christ appeared unto him. Now we know something from the Gospel narratives of the power of the sight of Jesus Christ. Yet Jesus was only as a Man among men. Who can measure therefore the power of the vision of His face seen through the splendour of the Shechinah of His presence? (2) The second source of St. Paul's energy and self-devotion we take to have been that recorded in the text. "I knew a man," he writes, "about fourteen years ago, caught up by the power of Christ to the third heaven; I knew such a man," he adds, "caught up into paradise who heard unspeakable words which it is not possible to utter." Here lay one main secret of St. Paul's intense unquenchable zeal: the vision of the face of Jesus Christ, the vision of the eternal world. Out of that double vision grew an unequalled love, an irresistible desire unto God, a disregard of earthly suffering; out of these revelations grew one overmastering passion to spend and be spent for Christ here, to be with Christ for ever hereafter.

II. We may hence gather the cause of our own comparative coldness, our own shrinking from the least cross, our own aversion to self-sacrifice and self-denial. The explanation of it all lies in the vagueness of our spiritual perceptions. There can be no vigorous, strong, masculine Christianity without a distinct vision of the everlasting. Heaven cannot grow dim and minute without earth waxing larger to the eye. We must have a clear vision of the King in His beauty and of the land that is very far off.

J. R. Woodford, Penny Pulpit, New Series, No. 702.

References: 2 Corinthians 12:2.—J. Thain Davidson, The City Youth, p. 199. 2 Corinthians 12:2, 2 Corinthians 12:3.—Brookfield, Sermons, p. 13.


Verses 2-4

2 Corinthians 12:2-4

St. Paul's Vision of Paradise.

I. It is not difficult to conceive the impossibility of conveying any adequate impression of the component elements of heaven to minds encumbered with the grossness of mortal nature, an impossibility resembling that of communicating problems of astronomy to a cradled infant, of describing the combination of colours in a sunset to one born blind, or of imparting to the deaf the enchantment of harmony. But while the words might consistently be rendered "impossible to utter," it would seem, from the entire suppression of any attempt to describe what he had seen and heard, and from the obvious reserve maintained in Scripture upon the precise nature of the heavenly blessedness, and from the studiously figurative language in which it is always removed, as it were, beyond the reach of close and irreverent investigation—from all these considerations it would seem that it was not only difficult, but inexpedient, to blazon these celestial secrets.

II. So far from conjectures about heaven being discouraged by this reserve in Scripture and this emblematic way of painting it, does it not rather go to encourage conjecture by not tying us down to one limited and defined notion? There can be no better proof of the attractiveness, the blessedness, of what St. Paul witnessed, than the abiding effect it had upon himself. He had garnered up in his heart the ecstatic secret, as a mother garners up in her heart the memory of a departed child. Always and everywhere that vision haunted him. His soul was not distracted, but stimulated, by the never-ceasing desire to recover the rapturous privilege which for a mysterious moment had been in his possession. Piety, a perpetual sense of relation to God and to another state of being; charity, a perpetual sense of relation to men in this present world; hard labour, the outcome of both—these were the most prominent characteristics of his life. The manly, cheerful, humble cultivation of these virtues would go very far towards gaining for us that heavenly-mindedness which is the nearest approach to St. Paul's singular privilege of which, perhaps, we are at present capable.

W. H. Brookfield, Sermons, p. 13.


References: 2 Corinthians 12:4.—H. W. Beecher, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xviii., p. 404. 2 Corinthians 12:5.—Ibid., vol. xxi., p. 162.


Verse 7

2 Corinthians 12:7

The Gospel of the Body.

A good life of St. Paul would be the best possible exponent of Christian experience. I do not mean an external biography—for that we have—but a full transcript of his thoughts and feelings. But we have this in a greater degree than we suppose. These epistles of his are not theological treatises, but genuine letters from one man to other men, full of personal feeling and experience, 2nd not impersonal generalisations of truth; they show how the man Paul took in the Gospel, and how it worked in and through him.

I. This experience of the thorn in the flesh is both interesting and valuable, or would be, if we could come at it. But it has been buried under such a mass of comment and conjecture that the simple lessons it contains are hard to reach. The main object seems to have been to discover what the secret nature of the thorn was. The strife is typical of much study of the Bible—infinite scrutiny of the form without much thought of the end. Now it matters little what the thorn in the flesh was; but how it pierced the Apostle, how he bore it, and how it affected him are the real questions. If the real significance of the thorn in the flesh were put in a general way, it would be physical evil a condition of spiritual strength.

II. Consider the moral effect of bodily infirmity. It cuts up our conceit and pride. It wrought in this way in St. Paul. Nothing strikes such a blow at self as an experience of physical infirmity or suffering. Pain is a great humbler, weakness a still greater. Bodily infirmity teaches a man to go carefully in this world of mischance, this world from which chaos is not yet wholly expunged; it co-ordinates him to an uncertain world. Physical infirmity reveals to a man the fact that he is not himself a source of power and the more general truth that the power of the world is outside of him; in other words, it teaches him that he is a dependent being.

III. An experience of physical infirmity gives one a certain wholesome contempt of material things. We have hardly any more imperative command than to secure for the body its highest possible vigour and health; the gospel of the body is yet to be heard and heeded, but this gospel will go no further than to require such care and treatment of the body that it shall best serve the uses of the mind. It is worthy of the greatest care, but only that it may be the most supple and ready servant of our real self. I will think well of the body, but not too well. Hence this experience of physical weakness and infirmity is left in order to help us keep a due balance between flesh and spirit. There are great advantages in not being allowed to feel at home in the body. An animal life antagonises a moral life. When we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. Man does not live by bread alone. Hunger may feed him; blindness may give him light; pain may bring peace; the weakness of the body may be the strength of the spirit. For all this finite order and encasement is a minister to the life which is eternal.

T. T. Munger, The Life, p. 87.


References: 2 Corinthians 12:7.—Homiletic Quarterly, vol. iii., p. 213; G. Matheson, Moments on the Mount, p. 60.


Verses 7-9

2 Corinthians 12:7-9

The Thorn in the Flesh.

I. The first lesson which is suggested by these words is this: that the thorn in the flesh comes for a specific end. Of course it does not come by chance; nothing does. It comes by God's appointment or permission. But more than this, God does not send it out of mere wilfulness or caprice; He sends it for a certain purpose, and a purpose which we may in many cases find out. Let us look at St. Paul's case. I believe that to many an earnest-minded man the thorn in the flesh or the crook in the lot never comes in a form so painful as the form in which it came to Paul: the form of something which diminishes or destroys his usefulness, that keeps him from serving as he would his generation and his Saviour, that constrains noble powers or the makings of noble powers to rust sadly and uselessly away. St. Paul's thorn was given lest he should be exalted above measure.

II. It is beautiful, it is touching, it brings the tear to the eye, to hear St. Paul telling himself about his thorn in the flesh, and how much he needed it to keep him down, and how humbly he desired to submit to God's heavy hand. But think how differently we should have felt if anybody else had said the same things about Paul. There is all the difference in the world between talking as Paul does in the text about ourselves and about any one else. When trial comes to ourselves let us humbly try to find out the lesson God is teaching us by it; but let us not presume to say why the trial has come to any other man.

III. See what the Apostle did about his thorn in the flesh. See what God did. Every day, I doubt not, when the thorn was first sent would the earnest supplication go up from his heart that this heavy burden might be taken from him; and who shall say that his prayer was not answered, nobly, fully, sublimely answered? There are two ways of helping a man burdened with what he has to do or bear. The one is to give him less to do or bear, to take the burden off the back; the other way is to strengthen him to do or bear all that is sent to him, to strengthen the back to bear the burden. In brief, you may give less work, or you may give more strength. And it was in this way, which even we can see is the better and nobler way, that the wise and almighty Saviour thought it best to answer His servant's prayer. "My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." And we do not need to go far for proof how completely each promise was fulfilled. How thoroughly resigned Paul was; how sanctified to him must that thorn have been; how strengthened his heart must have been with an unearthly strength when he could honestly write such words as follow his account of his Redeemer's promise. The thorn was there, piercing as deep as ever, marring his usefulness, making him seem weak and contemptible to the stranger; but he liked to have to feel from hour to hour that he must be always going anew to God for help, and so he wrote, not perhaps without a natural tear, "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me."

A. K. H. B., The Graver Thoughts of a Country Parson, p. 34.


References: 2 Corinthians 12:7-9.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xviii., No. 1084; E. J. Hardy, Faint yet Pursuing, p. 39; Homilist, 2nd series, vol. iv., p. 149; Homiletic Quarterly, vol. ii., p. 234.


Verse 8-9

2 Corinthians 12:8-9

Strength in Weakness.

I. We have here the instinctive shrinking from that which tortured the flesh, which takes refuge in prayer.

II. We have, next, the insight into the source of strength for, and the purpose of, the thorn that could not be taken away.

III. Lastly, there is the calm final acquiescence in the loving necessity of continued sorrow.

A. Maclaren, The Unchanging Christ, p. 159.


Reference: 2 Corinthians 12:8-10.—F. W. Robertson, Lectures on Corinthians, p. 446.



Verse 9

2 Corinthians 12:9

The Quietness of True Power.

Paul speaks in these verses of his own weakness and his thorn in the flesh. He says that he glories in his infirmity, and that in his weakness God had manifested His strength, as though he had been the empty channel which God filled. He teaches us in these words a lesson which we have great need to learn, and it is the quietness of true power.

I. All true power is constructive power. What is the power of Christ? To renew men's lives; to give the new heart; to produce new virtues. The destructive ministry even of evil is not necessarily a constructive ministry of good. You may destroy evil habits; you cannot give a new heart.

II. Quiet power is a wise power. Everything depends upon adaptation. A sentence may save a soul; a word fitly spoken may never be forgotten. That is always true power, the quiet word, the quiet manner, the spirit that knows that atmosphere is everything.

III. Quiet power is a beautiful power. There is a power that we must obey, but there is no beauty in it, nothing attractive in it. But there is another power that is beautiful. Such a power is that which we exercise at home. The sceptre is full of jewels that are rich in loveliness, held in a mother's hand.

IV. Quiet power is a Christlike power. We read again and again in the New Testament that all power is given to Christ. Yet it seems to me as if the light broke upon the world without men knowing it. When Christ was there, everything began to change; the atmosphere changed. So it is with the Christian man: "In quietness and confidence shall be your strength."

V. Quiet power is lasting. It is so in all the aspects of life—in the prophetic or in the warning and reproving aspect.

VI. Quiet power is a terrible power.

VII. Quiet power is the Spirit's power: "Ye shall receive power after the Holy Ghost is come upon you."

W. M. Statham, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxv., p. 99.


I. "My grace is sufficient for thee." With his infirmity hindering him, the great Apostle was to go forth among the Gentiles. Day by day there was to be in him this inward struggle. Christ said to him, "My grace is sufficient for thee. Thou mayest fail, but it shall never fail. By suffering thou shalt be raised, and taught, and purified. Fear not, then: My grace is sufficient for thee. I know thee, I know thy trials, I know Myself, better than thou canst."

II. But we must not for a moment limit our thoughts of His dealings with us to any such purpose as this: merely to compensate us for trials, merely to hold us up through our way, merely to minister to us grace sufficient for us. God has not put the meanest Christian into His world and into His Church only to be held up, only to be rescued from falling, only to escape the wrath to come; but He has put every one of us here to serve and glorify Him, to contribute an active share to the great testimony which shall rise, and is ever rising, to Him, to His faithfulness, His purity, His righteousness, His glory, as from all His works, so in the highest and noblest degree from His Church, the highest and noblest of His works. "My grace is sufficient to enable thee for the work which I have set thee to do, sufficient to enable thee, in spite of the trial, yes and by means of the trial, to bring forth fruit to My glory." "My strength is made perfect in weakness." It is His purpose with all His people that they should work for Him in life and life's duties, not in their own strength, but in His; that their bearing up in their lifelong conflict and then issuing forth into glorious victory should be seen and felt at every step to be not of themselves, but of Him. And for this purpose it is that He sends to them hindrances, trials, infirmities, thorns in their way, that their own pride, and strength, and stoutness of heart, and firmness of resolve may be broken down, that they may not walk in a light of their own kindling and congratulate themselves on the brightness of their path, but may toil through darkness and disappointment, through briers and through tears, to the sunshine of the everlasting hills, where the Sun of righteousness may light them to the work of life.

H. Alford, Quebec Chapel Sermons, vol. vii., p. 211.


I. After the fervours of the first love are abated, and after the sweet freshness has passed from the actings and strivings of the new-born soul, there often comes a coldness and a pause. The young soul, new to the ways of grace, does not understand, is bewildered, discouraged, in danger of falling into a practical unbelief. But the Lord says, "My grace is sufficient for thee." Your gospel is not any past experience nor any grand deliverance once for all. It is a present potency which will control all other powers, a present wisdom which will make a path of safety through all perplexities, a present love which will enfold and shelter you even if you stand amid a thousand griefs and fears.

II. A little farther on we meet with one whose beginning has long gone by. You had a calm and blissful time then; but now there has come a chilling and weakening change—in your present mood it may seem almost a desolating change. The quickest and best way of recovery is the way of the text. The Lord is saying to you also, "My grace is sufficient for thee." Take hold of that, and you are safe. Keep fast hold of that, acting in everything like one who believes it true, and ere long the health and joy of other days will come back, and the roots of your faith will grip the soil again.

III. The softening shadow of the text will come over the soul that is in trouble. Let every sufferer, whether by the body, or the mind, or the circumstances, hear for himself and gauge all his trouble while he hears; then let him apply the sure word of promise to its lengths, and breadths, and depths, and heights; then let him carry it home to the aged, the sick, the feeble, and to all whom it may concern, as the word of a God who cannot lie, as the assurance of a Saviour who cannot but pity and help, as the title to a legacy of which they are all made heirs, if they will only claim and inherit, as a shelter for every path, an assuagement for every sorrow, a sweet soul-secret for life and for death to every trusting soul, however troubled: "My grace is sufficient for thee."

A. Raleigh, Quiet Resting Places, p. 201


References: 2 Corinthians 12:9.—J. Vaughan, Sermons, 6th series, p. 13, Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxii., No. 1287; Ibid., Morning by Morning, p. 309; G. Calthrop, Pulpit Recollections, p. 162; A. Reed, Christian World Pulpit, vol. i., p. 489; G. Brooks, Five Hundred Outlines, p. 337; Preacher's Monthly, vol. iii., p. 350; Obbard, Plain Sermons, p. 164; A. Macleod, Days of Heaven upon Earth, p. 78; S. Macnaughton, Real Religion and Real Life, p. 108.


Verse 10

2 Corinthians 12:10

Strength in Weakness.

I. What was it that caused the heart of St. Paul to overflow in this now familiar paradox? It was some special personal temptation of a very painful kind, which he calls a thorn in the flesh. He was attacked by some kind of trial so severe that he speaks of it as a messenger of Satan, and besought the Lord not once, but thrice, that it might depart from him. His prayer was answered, though in a different manner from that which he anticipated. It was answered in substance. His infirmity remained, but he was taught that, so far from being the weaker for it, he might become the stronger; and still more, the power of the Master would "come out," as we say, all the more prominently in consequence of the weakness of His servant. The more painful and obvious the deficiencies under which St. Paul might labour personally, the more clear it would become that any triumphs achieved by him were due, not to himself, but to Christ. His weakness, as we may express it, would be a foil to Christ's strength.

II. It is indeed a universal law that strength is made perfect in weakness; that strength is brought out into strongest relief when it appears in a naturally weak agent. The law has infinite illustrations, and they are very beautiful. For instance, the most' timid bird will show courage when its young ones are threatened with danger. Here it is the instinct of parental affection which brings strength out of weakness. And, to take a higher illustration, what is more interesting than to mark how many of the greatest commanders in war, by land and sea, have been men whose constitution seemed always on the point of breaking down? Here it is patriotism or professional pride which makes strength perfect in weakness; but when we come to spiritual dangers and conflicts, there really is no power in heaven or in earth that can give us permanently the victory but the power of Christ from above working in us here below. We must come to feel that Christ is absolutely essential to us; that at the foot of His cross and the foot of His throne in heaven is the only strength which can carry any one of us through life on earth to life in heaven.

H. M. Butler, Harrow Sermons, p. 365.


Strength out of Weakness.

The true position of the Church of God in the world is that of weakness, and it is through this very weakness that she manifests her power. When the Christian is most sensible of his own weakness and most distrustful of his own strength, then the power of Christ rests upon him. The Saviour fills none but the hungry, and strengthens none but the weak.

I. A sense of weakness has a natural tendency to make us strong, because it puts us on our guard against temptation. We are never more in danger of falling into the snares of the devil than when we flatter ourselves that we are most secure.

II. A sense of weakness is calculated to give us strength, because it obliges us to lean upon the Saviour. Self-dependence is a broken reed. It may serve a good turn, perhaps, when no great pressure is to be sustained, but when trials and afflictions come, with their crushing weight, we must have underneath us the everlasting arms. The more we let go confidence in ourselves, the more abundant help shall we receive from God.

III. A sense of weakness has a natural tendency to make us strong by rendering us earnest and persevering in prayer. When good old Bishop Latimer was describing the way in which his father trained him as a yeoman's son, he said, "I had my bows bought me according to my age and strength: as I increased in them, so my bows were made bigger and bigger." Thus boys grow into crossbow-men, and, by a like increase in the weight of their trials, Christians become veterans in the hosts of the Lord.

J. N. Norton, Every Sunday, p. 385.


Strength in Weakness.

God's answer to Paul's prayer lays down a general law. God does not merely promise to perfect Paul's strength in that particular weakness: He states the general truth, a truth not peculiar to the spiritual life, though appearing there in its noblest aspect, that strength is perfected in weakness.

I. Strength perfected in weakness. We know that the converse is true: that weakness is perfected in strength; for both our reading and our experience show us that the greatest manifestations of weakness are constantly seen in those whom the world deems the strongest. On the other hand, illustrations are equally abundant of strength perfected in weakness. They are all about us in our ordinary life. The consciousness of infirmity often makes its subject so cautious, and puts him under such careful discipline, that he accomplishes more than another who is free from infirmity.

II. Look at the truth on its religious side. Then it comes into even stronger relief, because in the Christian economy weakness is assumed to be an universal condition, and dependence is therefore the universal law of the Christian life. There it is invariably true that real strength comes only out of that weakness which, distrustful of itself, gives itself up to God. There it is invariably true that God's strength shines through human infirmity, and often selects for its best and richest expressions the poorest, weakest, most burdened, of mankind.

III. In the text there is no encouragement to cherish weakness. Weakness is not commended as a good thing in itself. The object of Christian training is to make men strong; and the Psalmist tells us that God's children go from strength to strength. But weakness is a universal fact in human nature. Our Lord covers all humanity with the statement that the flesh is weak, and the text does tell us to recognise the fact and to provide against it by taking Another's strength. The thing which it does commend is the permission of conscious weakness to have Another's strength push up through itself and pervade and transform it, a

"Holy strength whose ground

Is in the heavenly land."

M. R. Vincent, The Covenant of Peace, p. 96.


References: 2 Corinthians 12:10.—P. T. Forsyth, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xiii., p. 85; Preacher's Monthly, vol. viii., p. 7. 2 Corinthians 12:11.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxv., No. 1458; J. H. Newman, Sermons on Subjects of the Day, p. 14.


Verse 14

2 Corinthians 12:14

The Property Right we are to get in Souls.

I. God evidently means to make every community valuable to every other, and so far at least every man to every other. We see this on a magnificent scale in the articles of commerce. Here we find the nations all at work for each other in so many different climes and localities, preparing one for another articles of comfort, sustenance, and ornament, and then commerce, intervening, makes the exchanges, so that every people is receiving back to itself supplies that the whole human race, we may almost say, has been at work as producers to contribute.

II. Let us look a little into this matter of property and see how it comes. We get a property in things by putting our industry into them by ways of use, culture, and improvement. This makes our title, and then the ownership is bought or sold as by title. Just so when a Christian benefactor enters good into a soul: when he takes it away from the wildness and disorder of nature by the prayers and faithful labours he expends upon it, the necessary result is that he gets a property in it, feels it to be his, values it as being his. And how great and blessed a property it is to have, we can only see by a careful computation of the values by which he measures it. (1) First, as he has come to look himself on the eternal in everything, he has a clear perception of souls as being the most real of all existences—more real than lands and gold and a vastly higher property, because they are eternal, and the title, once gained, is only consummated by death, not taken away. (2) Next, finding this or that human spirit or soul in a condition of darkness and disease and fatal damage, he begins forthwith to find an object in it and an inspiring hope to be realised in its necessity. He takes it thus upon himself, draws near to it, hovers round it in love and prayer and gracious words, and more gracious example, to regain it to truth and to God. (3) Then, again, as we get a property in other men by the power we exert in them, how much greater the property obtained by that kind of power which is supernaturally, transformingly beneficent, that which subdues enmity, illuminates darkness, fructifies sterility, changes discord to harmony, war to peace, and raises a spirit to be a temple of God's indwelling life. (4) Furthermore, when one has gained another to God and a holy life, there is a most dear, everlasting relationship established between them, one leading, so to speak, the other towards eternity, and the other beholding in him the benefactor by whose work and example he is consciously exalted for ever, and this gracious relationship will give them an eternally mutual property in each other. (5) The salvation of men is thus seen to be a work that ought to engage every Christian, and a work that, to be fitly done, must be heartily and energetically done.

H. Bushnell, Sermons on Living Subjects, p. 148.


Reference: 2 Corinthians 12:15.—J. Armstrong, Parochial Sermons, p. 259.




 


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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:4". "Sermon Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/sbc/2-corinthians-12.html.

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Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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