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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
2 Corinthians 11

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-6

Chapter 24

GODLY JEALOUSY.

2 Corinthians 11:1-6 (R.V)

ALL through the tenth chapter there is a conflict in the Apostle’s mind. He is repeatedly, as it were, on the verge of doing something, from which he as often draws back. He does not like to boast-he does not like to speak of himself at all-but the tactics of his enemies, and the faithlessness of the Corinthians, are making it inevitable. In 2 Corinthians 11:1-33. he takes the plunge. He adopts the policy of his adversaries, and proceeds to enlarge on his services to the Church: but with magnificent irony, he first assumes the mask of a fool. It is not the genuine Paul who figures here; it is Paul playing a part to which he has been compelled against his will, acting in a character which is as remote as possible from his own. It is the character native and proper to the other side; and when Paul, with due deprecation, assumes it for the nonce, he not only preserves his modesty and his self-respect, but lets his opponents see what he thinks of them. He plays the fool for the occasion, and of set purpose; they do it always, and without knowing it, like men to the manner born.

But it is the Corinthians who are directly addressed. "Would that ye could bear with me in a little foolishness: nay indeed bear with me." In the last clause, ανεχεσθε may be either imperative (as the Revised Version gives it in the text,) or indicative (as in the margin: "but indeed ye do bear with me"). The use of αλλα rather favors the last; and it would be quite in keeping with the extremely ironical tone of the passage to render it so. Even in the First Epistle, Paul had reflected on the self-conceit of the Corinthians: "We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ." That self-conceit led them to think lightly of him, but not just to east him off; they still tolerated him as a feeble sort of person: "Ye do indeed bear with me." But whichever alternative be preferred, the irony passes swiftly into the dead earnest of the second verse: "For I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy: for I espoused you to one husband, that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ."

This is the ground on which Paul claims their forbearance, even when he indulges in a little "folly." If he is guilty of what seems to them extravagance, it is the extravagance of jealousy-i.e., of love tormented by fear. Nor is it any selfish jealousy, of which he ought to be ashamed. He is not anxious about his private or personal interests in the Church. He is not humiliated and provoked because his former pupils have come to their spiritual majority, and asserted their independence of their master. These are common dangers and common sins; and every minister needs to be on his guard against them. Paul’s jealousy over the Corinthians was "a jealousy of God": God had put it into his heart, and what it had in view was God’s interest in them. It distressed him to think, not that his personal influence at Corinth was on the wane, but that the work which God had done in their souls was in danger of being frustrated, the inheritance He had acquired in them of being lost. Nothing but God’s interest had been in the Apostle’s mind from the beginning. "I betrothed you," he says, "to one husband"-the emphasis lies on one- "that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ."

It is the Church collectively which is represented by the pure virgin, and it ought to be observed that this is the constant use in Scripture, alike in the Old Testament and the New. It is Israel as a whole which is married to the Lord; it is the Christian Church as a whole (or a Church collectively, as here) which is the Bride, the Lamb’s wife. To individualize the figure, and speak of Christ as the Bridegroom of the soul, is not Scriptural, and almost always misleads. It introduces the language and the associations of natural affection into a region where they are entirely out of place; we have no terms of endearment here, and should have none, but high thoughts of the simplicity, the purity, and the glory of the Church. Glory is especially suggested by the idea of "presenting" the Church to Christ. The presentation takes place when Christ comes again to be glorified in His saints; that great day shines unceasingly in the Apostle’s heart, and all he does is done in its light. The infinite issues of fidelity and infidelity to the Lord, as that day makes them manifest, are ever present to his spirit; and it is this which gives such divine intensity to his feelings wherever the conduct of Christians is concerned. He sees everything, not as dull eyes see it now, but as Christ in His glory will show it then. And it takes nothing less than this to keep the soul absolutely pure and loyal to the Lord.

The Apostle explains in the third verse the nature of his alarm. "I fear," he says, "lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve in his craftiness, your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity" (and the purity) "which is toward Christ." The whole figure is very expressive. "Simplicity" means singleness of mind; the heart of the "pure virgin" is undivided; she ought not to have, and will not have, a thought for any but the "one man" to whom she is betrothed. "Purity" again is, as it were, one species of "simplicity"; it is "simplicity" as shown in the keeping of the whole nature unspotted for the Lord. What Paul dreads is the spiritual seduction of the Church, the winning away of her heart from absolute loyalty to Christ. The serpent beguiled Eve by his craftiness; he took advantage of her unsuspecting innocence to wile her away from her simple belief in God and obedience to Him. When she took into her mind the suspicions he raised, her "simplicity" was gone, and her "purity" followed. The serpent’s agents - the servants of Satan, as Paul calls them in 2 Corinthians 11:15 -are at work in Corinth; and he fears that their craftiness may seduce the Church from its first simple loyalty to Christ. It is natural for us to take απλοτης and αγνοτης in a pure ethical sense, but it is by no means certain that this is all that is meant; indeed, if καὶ τῆς ἁγνότητος be a gloss, as seems not improbable, απλοτης may well have a different application. "The simplicity which is toward Christ," from which he fears lest by any means "their minds" or "thoughts" be corrupted, will rather be their whole-hearted acceptance of Christ as Paul conceived of Him and preached Him, their unreserved, unquestioning surrender to that form of doctrine {τύπον διδαχῆς, Romans 6:17} to which they had been delivered. This, of course, in Paul’s mind, involved the other-there is no separation of doctrine and practice for him; but it makes a theological rather than an ethical interest the predominant one; and this interpretation, it seems to me, coheres best with what follows, and with the whole preoccupation of the Apostle in this passage. The people whose influence he feared were not unbelievers, nor were they immoral; they professed to be Christians, and indeed better Christians than Paul; but their whole conception of the Gospel was at variance with his; if they made way at Corinth, his work would be undone. The Gospel which he preached would no longer have that unsuspicious acceptance; the Christ whom he proclaimed would no longer have that unwavering loyalty; instead of simplicity and purity, the heart of the "pure virgin" would be possessed by misgivings, hesitations, perhaps by outright infidelity; his hope of presenting her to Christ on the great day would be gone.

This is what we are led to by 2 Corinthians 11:4, one of the most vexed passages in the New Testament. The text of the last word is uncertain: some read the imperfect ανειχεσθε; others, including our Revisers, the present ανεχεσθε. The latter is the better attested, and suits best the connection of thought. The interpretations may be divided into two classes. First, there are those which assume that the suppositions made in this verse are not true. This is evidently the intention in our Authorized Version. It renders, "For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him." But-we must interpolate-nothing of this sort has really taken place; for Paul counts himself not a whit inferior to the very chiefest Apostles. No one-not even Peter or James or John-could have imparted anything to the Corinthians which Paul had failed to impart; and hence their spiritual seduction, no matter how or by whom accomplished, was perfectly unreasonable and gratuitous. This interpretation, with variations in detail which need not be pursued, is represented by many of the best expositors, from Chrysostom to Meyer. "If," says Chrysostom in his paraphrase, "if we had omitted anything that should have been said, and they had made up the omission, we do not forbid you to attend to them. But if everything has been perfectly done on our part, and no blank left, how did they" (the Apostle’s adversaries) "get hold of you?" This is the broad result of many discussions; and it is usual-though not invariable - for those who read the passage thus to take των υπερλιαν αποστολων in a complimentary, not a contemptuous, sense, and to refer it, as Chrysostom expressly does, to the three pillars of the primitive Church.

The objections to this interpretation are obvious enough. There is first the grammatical objection, that a hypothetical sentence, with the present indicative in the protasis ( εἰ ... κηρύσσει, εἰ ... λαμβάνετε), and the present indicative in the apodosis ( ἀνέχεσθε), can by no plausibility of argument be made to mean, "If the interloper were preaching another Jesus you would be right to bear with him." Even if the imperfect is the true reading, which is improbable, this translation is unjustified. But there is a logical as well as a grammatical objection. The use of γαρ ("for") surely implies that in the sentence which it introduces we are to find the reason for what precedes. Paul is afraid, he has told us, lest the Church should be seduced from the one husband to whom he has betrothed her. But he can never mean to explain a real fear by making a number of imaginary suppositions; and so we must find in the hypothetical clauses here the real grounds of his alarm. People had come to Corinth ο ερχομενος is no doubt collective, and characterizes the troublers of the Church as intruders, not native to it, but separable from it-doing all the things here supposed. Paul has espoused the Church to One Husband; they preach another Jesus. Not, of course, a distinct Person, but certainly a distinct conception of the same Person. Paul’s Christ was the Son of God. the Lord of Glory. He who by His death on the cross became Universal Redeemer, and by His ascension Universal Lord-the end of the Law, the giver of the Spirit; it would be another Jesus if the intruders preached only the Son of David, or the Carpenter of Nazareth, or the King of Israel. According to the conception of Christ, too, would be "the spirit" which accompanied this preaching, the characteristic temper and power of the religion it proclaimed. The spirit ministered by Paul in his apostolic work was one of power, and love, and, above all things, liberty; it emancipated the soul from weakness, from scruples, from moral inability, from slavery to sin and law; but the spirit generated by the Judaising ministry, the characteristic temper of the religion it proclaimed, was servile and cowardly. It was a spirit of bondage tending always to fear. [Romans 8:15] Their whole gospel-to give their preaching a name it did not deserve [Galatians 1:6-9] -was something entirely unlike Paul’s both in its ideas and in its spiritual fruits. Unlike-yes, and immeasurably inferior, and yet in spite of this the Corinthians put up with it well enough. This is the plain fact ( ἀνέχεσθε) which the Apostle plainly states. He had to plead for their toleration, but they had no difficulty in tolerating men who by a spurious gospel, an unspiritual conception of Christ, and an unworthy incapacity for understanding freedom, were undermining his work, and seducing their souls. No wonder he was jealous, and angry, and scornful, when he saw the true Christian religion, which has all time and all nations for its inheritance, in danger of being degraded into a narrow Jewish sectarianism; the kingdom of the Spirit lost in a society in which race gave a prerogative, and carnal ordinances were revived; and, worse still, Christ the Son of God, the Universal reconciler, known only "after the flesh," and appropriated to a race, instead of being exalted as Lord of all, in whom there is no room for Greek or Jew, barbarian or Scythian, bond or free. The Corinthians bore with this nobly ( καλῶς); but he who had begotten them in the true Gospel had to beg them to bear with him.

There is only one difficulty in this interpretation, and that is not a serious one: it is the connection of 2 Corinthians 11:5 with what precedes. Those who connect it immediately with 2 Corinthians 11:4 are obliged to supply something: for example, "But you ought not to bear with them, for I consider that I am in nothing behind the very chiefest apostles." I have no doubt at all that οι υπερλιαν αποστολοι-the superlative apostles-are not Peter, James, and John, but the teachers aimed at in 2 Corinthians 11:4, the ψευδαποστολοι of 2 Corinthians 11:13; it is with them, and not with the Twelve or the eminent Three, that Paul is comparing himself. But even so, I agree with Weizsacker that the connection for the γαρ in 2 Corinthians 11:5 must be sought further back-as far back, indeed, as 2 Corinthians 11:1. "You bear well enough with them, and so you may well bear with me, as I beg you to do; for I consider," etc. This is effective enough, and brings us back again to the main subject. If there is a point in which Paul is willing to concede his inferiority to these superlative apostles, it is the nonessential one of utterance. He grants that he is rude in speech - not rhetorically gifted or trained-a plain, blunt man who speaks right on. But he is not rude in knowledge: in every respect he has made that manifest, among all men, toward them. The last clause is hardly intelligible, and the text is insecure. The reading φανερωσαντες is that of all the critical editors; the object may either be indefinite (his competence in point of knowledge), or, more precisely, την γνωσιν itself, supplied from the previous clause. In no point whatever, under no circumstances, has Paul ever failed to exhibit to the Corinthians the whole truth of God in the Gospel. This it is which makes him scornful even when he thinks of the men whom the Corinthians are preferring to himself.

When we look from the details of this passage to its scope, some reflections are suggested, which have their application still.

(1) Our conception of the Person of Christ determines our conception of the whole Christian religion. What we have to proclaim to men as gospel - what we have to offer to them as the characteristic temper and virtue of the life which the Gospel originates-depends on the answer we give to Jesus’ own question, "Whom say ye that I am?" A Christ who is simply human cannot be to men what a Christ is who is truly divine. The Gospel identified with Him cannot be the s me; the spirit of the society which gathers round Him cannot be the same. It is futile to ask whether such a gospel and such a spirit can fairly be called Christian; they are in point of fact quite other things from the Gospel and the Spirit which are historically associated with the name. It is plain from this passage that the Apostle attached the utmost importance to his conceptions of the Person and Work of the Lord: ought not this to give pause to those who evacuate his theology of many of its distinctive ideas-especially that of the Preexistence of Christ-on the plea that they are merely theologoumena of an individual Christian, and that to discard them leaves the Gospel unaffected? Certainly this was not what he thought. Another Jesus meant another spirit, another gospel to use modern words, another religion and another religious consciousness; and any other, the Apostle was perfectly sure, came short of the grandeur of the truth. The spirit of the passage is the same with that in Galatians 1:6 ft., where he erects the Gospel he has preached as the standard of absolute religious truth. "Though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema. As we have said before, so say I now again, If any man preacheth unto you any gospel other than that which ye received, let him be anathema."

(2) "The simplicity that is toward Christ" the simple acceptance of the truth about Him, an undivided loyalty of heart to Him-may be corrupted by influences originating within, as well as without, the Church. The infidelity which is subtlest, and most to be dreaded, is not the gross materialism or atheism which will not so much as hear the name of God or Christ; but that which uses all sacred names, speaking readily of Jesus, the Spirit, and the Gospel, but meaning something else, and something less, than these words meant in apostolic lips. This it was which alarmed the jealous love of Paul; this it is, in its insidious influence, which constitutes one of the most real perils of Christianity at the present time. The Jew in the first century, who reduced the Person and Work of Christ to the scale of his national prejudices, and the theologian in the nineteenth, who discounts apostolic ideas when they do not suit the presuppositions of his philosophy, are open to the same suspicion, if they do not fall under the same condemnation. True thoughts about Christ-in spite of all the smart sayings about theological subtleties which have nothing to do with piety-are essential to the very existence of the Christian religion.

(3) There is no comparison between the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ His Son and any other religion. The science of comparative religion is interesting as a science; but a Christian may be excused for finding the religious use of it tiresome. There is nothing true in any of the religions which is not already in his possession. He never finds a moral idea, a law of the spiritual life, a word of God, in any of them, to which he cannot immediately offer a parallel, far more simple and penetrating, from the revelation of Christ. He has no interest in disparaging the light by which millions of his fellow-creatures have walked, generation after generation, in the mysterious providence of God; but he sees no reason for pretending that that light-which Scripture calls darkness and the shadow of death-can bear comparison with the radiance in which he lives. "If," he might say, misapplying the fourth verse-"if they brought us another savior, another spirit, another gospel, we might be religiously interested in them; but, as it is, we have everything already, and they, in comparison, have nothing." The same remark applies to "theosophy," "spiritualism," and other "gospels." It will be time to take them seriously when they utter one wise or true word on God or the soul which is not an echo of something in the old familiar Scriptures.


Verses 7-29

Chapter 25

FOOLISH BOASTING.

2 Corinthians 11:7-29 (R.V)

THE connection of 2 Corinthians 11:7 with what precedes is not at once clear. The Apostle has expressed his conviction that he is in nothing inferior to "the superlative apostles" so greatly honored by the Corinthians. Why, then, is he so differently treated? A rudeness in speech he is willing to concede, but that can hardly be the explanation, considering his fullness of knowledge. Then another idea strikes him, and he puts it, interrogatively, as an alternative. Can it be that he did wrong-humbling himself that they might be exalted-in preaching to them the Gospel of God for naught, i.e., in declining to accept support from them while he evangelized in Corinth? Do they appreciate the interlopers more highly than Paul, because they exact a price for their gospel, while he preached his for nothing? This, of course, is bitterly ironical; but it is not gratuitous. The background of fact which prompted the Apostle’s question was no doubt this-that his adversaries had misinterpreted his conduct. A true apostle, they said, had a right to be maintained by the Church; The Lord Himself has ordained that they who preach the Gospel should live by the Gospel; but he claims no maintenance, and by that very fact betrays a bad conscience. He dare not make the claim which every true apostle makes without the least misgiving.

It would be hard to imagine anything more malignant in its wickedness than this: Paul’s refusal to claim support from those to whom he preached is one of the most purely and characteristically Christian of all his actions. He felt himself, by the grace of Christ, a debtor to all men; he owed them the Gospel; it was as if he were defrauding them if he did not tell them of the love of God in His Son. He felt himself in immense sympathy with the spirit of the Gospel; it was the free gift of God to the world, and as far as it depended on him its absolute freeness would not be obscured by the merest suspicion of a price to be paid. He knew that in foregoing his maintenance he was resigning a right secured to him by Christ; [1 Corinthians 9:14] humbling himself, as he puts it here, that others might be spiritually exalted; but he had the joy of preaching the Gospel in the spirit of the Gospel-of entering, in Christ’s service, into the self-sacrificing joy of his Lord; and he valued this above all earthly reward. To accuse such a man. on such grounds, of having a bad conscience, and of being afraid to live by his work, because he knew it was not what it pretended to be, was to sound the depths of baseness. It gave Paul in some measure the Master’s experience, when the Pharisees said, "He casteth out devils by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils." It is really the prince of the devils, the accuser of the brethren, who speaks in all such malignant insinuations; it is the most diabolical thing any one can do-the nearest approach to sinning against the Holy Ghost-when he sets himself to find out bad motives for good actions.

As we shall see further on, Paul’s enemies made more specific charges: they hinted that he made his own out of the Corinthians indirectly, and that he could indemnify himself, for this abstinence, from the collection (2 Corinthians 12:16-18, 2 Corinthians 8:8; 2 Corinthians 8:9.). Perhaps this is why he describes his actual conduct at Corinth in such vigorous language (2 Corinthians 11:7-11), before saying anything at all of his motives. "I preached to you the Gospel of God," he says, "for nothing." He calls it "the Gospel of God" with intentional fullness and solemnity; the genuine Gospel, he means-not another, which is no gospel at all, but a subversion of the truth. He robbed other Churches, and took wages from them, in order to minister to the Corinthians. There is a mingling of ideas in the strong words here used. The English reader thinks of Paul’s doing less than justice to other Churches that he might do more than justice to the Corinthians; but though this is true, it is not all. Both "robbed" ( ἐσ λησα) and "wages" ( ὀψώνιον), as Bengel has pointed out, are military words, and it is difficult to resist the impression that Paul used them as such; he did not come to Corinth to be dependent on any one, but in the course of a triumphant progress, in which he devoted the spoils of his earlier victories for Christ to a new campaign in Achaia. Nay, even When he was with them and was "in want" (what a ray of light that one word ὑστερηθείς lets into his circumstances!), he did not throw himself like a benumbing weight on any one; what his own labors failed to supply, the brethren (perhaps Silas and Timothy) made good when they came from Macedonia. This has been his practice, and will continue to be so. He swears by the truth of Christ that is in him, that no man shall ever stop his mouth, so far as boasting of this independence is concerned, in the regions of Achaia. Why? His tender heart dismisses the one painful supposition which could possibly arise. "Because I love you not? God knoweth." Love is wounded when its proffered gifts are rejected with scorn, and when their rejection means that it is rejected; but that was not the situation here. Paul can appeal to Him who knows the heart in proof of the sincerity with which he loves the Corinthians.

His fixed purpose to be indebted to no one in Achaia has another object in view. What that is he explains in the twelfth verse. Strange to say, this verse, like 2 Corinthians 11:4, has received two precisely opposite interpretations.

(1) Some start with the idea that Paul’s adversaries at Corinth were persons who took no support from the Church, and boasted of their disinterestedness in this respect. The "occasion" which they desired was an occasion of any sort for disparaging and discrediting Paul; and they felt they would have such an occasion if Paul accepted support from the Church, and so put himself in a position of inferiority to them. But Paul persists in his self-denying policy, with the object of depriving them of the opportunity they seek, and at the same time of proving them-in this very point of disinterestedness-to be in exactly the same position as himself. But surely, throughout both Epistles, a contrast is implied, in this very point, between Paul and his opponents: the tacit assumption is always that his line of conduct is singular, and is not to be made a rule. And in the face of 2 Corinthians 11:20 it is too much to assume that it was the rule of his Judaising opponents in Corinth.

(2) Others start with the idea, which seems to me indubitably right, that these opponents did accept support from the Church. But even on this assumption opinions diverge.

(a) Some argue that Paul pursued his policy of abstinence partly to deprive them of any opportunity of disparaging him, and partly to compel them to adopt it themselves ("that they may be found even as we"). I can hardly imagine this being taken seriously. Why should Paul have wanted to lift these preachers of a false gospel to a level with himself in point of generosity? To coerce them into a reluctant self-denial could be no possible object to him either of wish or hope. Hence there seems only

(b) the other alternative open, which makes the last clause-"that wherein they boast, they may be found even as we"-depend, not upon "what I do, that I will do," but upon "them that desire occasion." What the adversaries desired was, not occasion to disparage Paul in general, but occasion of being on an equality with him in the matter in which they gloried-viz., their apostolic claims. They felt the advantage which Paul’s disinterestedness gave him with the Corinthians; they had not themselves the generosity needed to imitate it; it was not enough to assail it with covert slanders, [2 Corinthians 12:16-18] or to say that he was afraid to claim an apostle’s due; it would have been all they wanted had he resigned it. Then they could have said that in that in which they boasted-apostolic dignity-they were precisely on a level with him. But not to mention the spiritual motives for his conduct, which have been already explained, and were independent of all relation to his opponents, Paul was too capable a strategist to surrender such a position to the enemy. It would never be by action of his that he and they found themselves on the same ground.

At the very mention of such an equality his heart rises within him. "Found even as we! Why, such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, fashioning themselves into apostles of Christ." Here, at last, the irony is cast aside, and Paul calls a spade a spade. The conception of apostleship in the New Testament is not that dogmatic traditional one, which limits the name to the Twelve, or to the Twelve and the Apostle of the Gentiles; as we see from passages like 2 Corinthians 8:23, Acts 14:4; Acts 14:14, it had a much larger application. What Paul means when he calls his opponents false apostles is not that persons in their position could have no right to the name; but that persons with their character, their aims, and their methods, would only deceive others when they used it. It ought to cover something quite different from what it actually did cover in them. He explains himself further when he calls them "deceitful workers." That they were active he does not deny; but the true end of their activity was not declared. As far as the word itself goes, the "deceit" which they used may have been intended to cloak either their personal or their proselytizing views. After what we have read in 2 Corinthians 10:12-18, the latter seems, preferable. The Judaising preachers had shown their hand in Galatia, demanding openly that Paul’s converts should be circumcised, and keep the law of Moses as a whole; but their experience there had made them cautious, and when they came to Corinth they proceeded more diplomatically. They tried to sap the Pauline Gospel, partly by preaching "another Jesus," partly by calling in question the legitimacy of Paul’s vocation. They said nothing openly of what was the inevitable and intended issue of all this-the bringing of spiritual Gentile Christendom under the old Jewish yoke. But it is this which goes to the Apostle’s soul; he can be nothing but irreconcilably hostile to men who have assumed the guise of apostles of Christ, in order that they may with greater security subvert Christ’s characteristic work. Paul dwells on the deceitfulness of their conduct as its most offensive feature; yet he does not wonder at it, for even Satan, he says, fashions himself into an angel of light. It is no great thing, then, if his servants also fashion themselves as servants of righteousness.

We can only tell in a general way what Paul meant when he spoke of Satan, the prince of darkness, transfiguring himself so as to appear a heavenly angel. He may have had some Jewish legend in his mind, some story of a famous temptation, unknown to us, or he may only have intended to represent to the imagination, with the utmost possible vividness, one of the familiar laws in our moral experience, a law which was strikingly illustrated by the conduct of his adversaries at Corinth. Evil, we all know, could never tempt us if we saw it simply as it is; disguise is essential to its power; it appeals to man through ideas and hopes which he cannot but regard as good. So it was in the very first temptation. An act which in its essential character was neither more nor less than one of direct disobedience to God was represented by the tempter, not in that character, but as the means by which man was to obtain possession of a tree good for food (sensual satisfaction), and pleasant to the eyes (aesthetic satisfaction), and desirable to make one wise (intellectual satisfaction). All these satisfactions, which in themselves are undeniably good, were the cloak under which the tempter hid his true features. He was a murderer from the beginning, and entered Eden to ruin man, but he presented himself as one offering to man a vast enlargement of life and joy. This is the nature of all temptations; to disguise himself, to look as like a good angel as he can, is the first necessity, and therefore the first invention of the devil. And all who do his work, the Apostle says, naturally imitate his devices. The soul of man is born for good, and will not listen at all to any voice which does not profess at least to speak for good: this is why the devil is a liar from the beginning, and the father of lies. Lying in word and deed is the one weapon with which he can assail the simplicity of man.

But how does this apply to the Judaisers in Corinth? To Paul, we must understand, they were men affecting to serve Christ, but really impelled by personal, or at the utmost by partisan, feelings. Their true object was to win an ascendency for themselves, or for their party, in the Church; but they made their way into it as evangelists and apostles. Nominally, they were ministers of Christ; really, they ministered to their own vanity, and to the bigotry and prejudices of their race. They professed to be furthering the cause of righteousness, but in sober truth the only cause which was the better for them was that of their own private importance; the result of their ministry was, not that bad men became good, but that they themselves felt entitled to give themselves airs. Over against all this unreality Paul remembers the righteous judgment of God. "Whose end," he concludes abruptly, "shall be according to their works."

The most serious aspect of such a situation as this is seen when we consider that men may fill it unconsciously: they may devote themselves to a cause which looks like the cause of Christ, or the cause of righteousness; and at bottom it may not be Christ or righteousness at all which is the animating principle in their hearts. It is some hidden regard to themselves, or to a party with which they are identified. Even when they labor, and possibly suffer, it is this, and not loyalty to Christ, which sustains them. It may be in defense of orthodoxy, or in furtherance of liberalism, that a man puts himself forward in the Church, and in either case he will figure to those who agree with him as a servant of righteousness; but equally in either case the secret spring of his action may be pride, the desire to assert a superiority, to consolidate a party which is his larger self, to secure an area in which he may rule. He may spend energy and talent on the work; but if this is the ultimate motive of it, it is the work of the devil, and not of God. Even if the doctrine he defends is the true one-even if the policy he maintains is the right one-the services he may accidentally render are far outweighed by the domestication in the Church of a spirit so alien to the Lord’s. It is diabolical, not divine; the Gospel is profaned by contact with it; the Church is prostituted when it serves as an arena for its exercise; when it comes forward in tile interest of righteousness, it is Satan fashioning himself into an angel of light.

At this point Paul returns to the idea which has been in his mind since 2 Corinthians 10:7 -the idea of boasting, or rather glorying. He does not like the thing itself, and just as little does he like the mask of a fool, under which he is to play the part: he is conscious that neither suits him. Hence he clears the ground once more, before he commits himself. "Again, I say, let no man think that I am foolish; but if that favor cannot be granted, then even as a foolish person receive me, that I also may boast a little." There is a fine satirical reflection in the "also." If he does make a fool of himself by boasting, he is only doing what the others do, whom the Corinthians receive with open arms. But it strikes his conscience suddenly that there is a higher rule for the conduct of a Christian man than the example of his rivals, or the patience of his friends. The tenderness of Paul’s spirit comes out in the next words: "What I speak, I speak not after the Lord, but as in foolishness, in this confidence of glorying." The Lord never boasted; nothing could be conceived less like Him, less after His mind; and Paul will have it distinctly understood that His character is not compromised by any extravagance of which His servant may here make himself guilty. As a rule, the Apostle did speak "after the Lord"; his habitual consciousness was that of one who had "the mind of Christ," and who felt that Christ’s character was, in a sense, in his keeping. That ought to be the rule for all Christians; we should never find ourselves in situations in which the Christian character, with all its responsibilities, affecting both ourselves and Him, cannot be maintained. With Christ and His interests removed from the scene, Paul at length feels himself free to measure himself against his rivals. "Since many glory after the flesh, I also will glory." The flesh means everything except the spirit. Where Christ and the Gospel are concerned, it is, according to Paul, an absolute irrelevance, a thing to be simply left out of account; but since they persist in dragging it in, he will meet them on their own ground. What that is, first comes out clearly in 2 Corinthians 11:22 : but the Apostle delays again to urge his plea for tolerance. "Ye suffer the foolish gladly, being wise yourselves." It answers best to the vehemence of the whole passage to take the first clause here-"Ye suffer the foolish gladly"-as grim earnest, the reference being to the other boasters, Paul’s rivals; and only the second clause ironically. Then 2 Corinthians 11:20 would give the proof of this: "Ye bear with the foolish gladly for ye bear with a man if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes you captive, if he exalts himself over you, if he strikes you on the face." We must suppose that this strong language describes the overbearing and violent behavior of the Judaists in Corinth. We do not need to take it literally, but neither may we suppose that Paul spoke at random: he is virtually contrasting his own conduct and that of the people in question, and the nature of the contrast must be on the whole correctly indicated. He himself had been accused of weakness; and he frankly admits that, if comparison has to be made with a line of action like this, the accusation is just. "I speak by way of disparagement, as though we had been weak." This rendering of the Revised Version fairly conveys the meaning. It might be expressed in a paraphrase, as follows: "In saying what I have said of the behavior of my rivals, I have been speaking to my own disparagement, the idea involved being that I" (notice the emphatic ημεις) "have been weak. Weak, no doubt, I was, if violent action like theirs is the true measure of strength: nevertheless, wherein soever any is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am bold also. On whatever ground they claim to exercise such extraordinary powers, that ground I can maintain as well as they."

Here, finally, the boasting does begin. "Are they Hebrews? so am I Are they Israelites? so am I Are they the seed of Abraham? so am I" This is the sum and substance of what is meant by their glorying after the flesh: they prided themselves on their birth, and claimed authority on the strength of it. They may have appealed, not only to the election of Israel as the Old Testament represents it, but to words of Jesus, like "Salvation is of the Jews." The three names for what is in reality one thing convey the impression of the immense importance which was assigned to it. "Hebrews" seems the least significant; it is merely the national name, with whatever historical glories attached to it in Hebrew minds. "Israelites" is a sacred name; it is identified with the prerogatives of the theocratic people: Paul himself, when his heart swells with patriotic emotion, begins the enumeration of the privileges belonging to his kinsmen after the flesh-"they who are Israelites." "Seed of Abraham," again, is for the Apostle, and probably for these rivals of his, equivalent to "heirs of the promises"; it describes the Jewish people as more directly and immediately interested-nay, as alone directly and immediately interested-in the salvation of God. No one could read Romans 9:4 f. without feeling that pride of race-pride in his people, and in their special relation to God and special place in the history of redemption was among the strongest passions in the Apostle’s heart; and we can understand the indignation and scorn with which he regarded men who tracked him over Asia and Europe, assailed his authority, and sought to undermine his work, on the ground that he was faithless to the lawful prerogatives of Israel. There was not an Israelite in the world prouder of his birth, with a more magnificent sense of his country’s glories, than the Apostle of the Gentiles: and it provoked him beyond endurance to see the things in, Which he gloried debased, as they were debased, by his rivals-made the symbols of a paltry vanity which he despised, made barriers to the universal love of God by which all the families of the earth were to be blessed. Driven to extremity, he could only outlaw such opponents from the Christian community, and transfer the prerogatives of Israel to the Church. "We," he taught his Gentile converts to say-"we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh." [Philippians 3:3]

Here he does not linger long over what is merely external. It is a deeper question that he asks in 2 Corinthians 11:23, "Are they ministers of Christ?" and he feels like a man beside himself, clean out of his senses ( παραφρονων) - so unsuitable is the subject for boasting-as he answers, "I more." Many interpret this as if it meant, "I am more than a servant of Christ," and then ask wonderingly, "What more?" but surely., the natural meaning is, "I am a servant too, a higher degree." The proof of this is given in that tale of sufferings which bursts irrepressibly, from the Apostle’s heart, and sweeps us m its course like a torrent. If he thought of his rivals when he began, and was instituting a serious comparison when he wrote "in labors more abundantly [than they]," they must soon have escaped from his mind. It is his own life as a minister of Christ on which he dwells; and after the first words, if a comparison is to be made, he leaves the making of it to others. But comparison, in fact, was out of the question: the sufferings of the Apostle in doing service to Christ were unparalleled and alone. The few lines which he devotes to them are the most vivid light we have on the apostolic age and the apostolic career. They show how fragmentary, or at all events how select, is the narrative in the Book of Acts. Thus of the incidents mentioned in 2 Corinthians 11:25 we learn but little from St. Luke. Of the five times nine-and-thirty stripes, he mentions none; of the three beatings with rods, only one; of the three shipwrecks, none, {or Acts 27:1-44, is later} and nothing of the twenty-four hours in the deep. It is not necessary to comment on details, but one cannot resist the impression of triumph with which Paul recounts the "perils" he had faced; so many they were, so various, and so terrible, yet in the Lord’s service he has come safely though them all. It is a commentary from his own hand on his own word-"as dying, and, behold, we live!" In the retrospect all these perils show, not only that he is a true servant of Christ, entering into the fellowship of his Master’s sufferings to bring blessing to men, but that he is owned by Christ as such: the Lord has delivered him from deaths so great; yes, and will deliver him; and his hope is set on Him for every deliverance he may need. [2 Corinthians 1:10]

But, after all, these perils are but outward, and the very enumeration of them shows that they are things of the past. In all their kinds and degrees - violence, privation, exposure, fear-they are a historical testimony to the devotion with which Paul has served Christ. He bore in his body the marks which they had left, and to him they were the marks of Jesus; they identified him as Christ’s slave. But not to mention incidental matters, there is another testimony to his ministry which is ever with him-a burden as crushing as these bodily sufferings, and far more constant in its pressure: "that which cometh upon me daily, anxiety for all the Churches." Short of this, anything of which man can boast may be, at least in a qualified sense, "after the flesh"; but in this identification of himself with Christ’s cause in the world-this bearing of others’ burdens on his spirit-there is that fulfillment of Christ’s law which alone and finally legitimates a Christian ministry. Nor was it merely in an official sense that Paul was interested in the affairs of the Church. When the Church is once planted in the world, it has a side which is of the world, a side which may be administered without a very heavy expenditure of Christian feeling: this, it is safe to say, is simply out of sight. Paul’s anxiety for the Churches is defined in all its scope and intensity in the passionate words of the twenty-ninth verse [2 Corinthians 11:29]: "Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I burn not?" His love individualized Christian people, and made him one with them. There was no trembling timorous soul, no scrupulous conscience, in all the communities he had founded, whose timidity and weakness did not put a limit to his strength: he condescended to their intelligence, feeding them with milk, and not with meat; he measured his liberty, not in principle, but in practice, by their bondage; his heart thrilled with their fears; in the fullness of his Christ-like strength he lived a hundred feeble lives. And when spiritual harm came to one of them-when the very least was made to stumble, and was caught in the snare of falsehood or sin-the pain in his heart was like burning fire. The sorrow that pierced the soul of Christ pierced his soul also; the indignation that glowed in the Master’s breast, as He pronounced woe on the man by whom occasions of stumbling come, glowed again in him. This is the fire that Christ came to cast on the earth, and that He longed to see kindled-this prompt intense sympathy with all that is of God in men’s souls, this readiness to be weak with the weak, this pain and indignation when the selfishness or pride of men leads the weak astray, and imperils the work for which Christ died. And this is indeed the Apostle’s last line of defense. Nowhere could boasting be less in place than when a man speaks of the lessons he has learned at the Cross: yet these only give him a title to glory as "a minister of Christ." If glorying here is inadmissible, it is because glorying in every sense is "folly."


Verses 30-33

Chapter 26

STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS.

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

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

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

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

This is the text which our Revisers render:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 11:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-corinthians-11.html.

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