Paul is in the midst of defending his ministry against the accusations of the false teachers who had infiltrated the church at Corinth. In the first 7 chapters, Paul had seemingly accomplished the task of regaining his authority and their loyalty, for in chapters 8-9, he takes advantages of those things (his authority and their loyalty) to encourage generous contributions to be made to the saints in Jerusalem. In chapters 10-11, we saw that Paul returned to a harsh rebuke of the false teachers with sarcastic remarks about their fraudulence and the foolishness of boasting about his own efforts. The first half of this chapter, the first 10 verses, represent the conclusion to his Fools Speech, and the final half of the chapter (v11-21) explain his remarks and plans to visit the Corinthians a third time (the first was his 18 month church-planting stay, the second was his painful visit). Lets take a look.
1) V1-6 1I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know God knows. 3And I know that this man whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows 4was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. 5I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.
Though Paul cant tell of the things he heard (v4, not saw) fourteen years ago (around 41 AD) while caught up to the third heaven (v2), and though he doesnt admit to being this man (v2-3, because he despises self-exalting boasting), and though hes not even sure if it was reality or a dream (v2, in the body or out of the body; see Acts 22:17), he goes on to visions and revelations from the Lord (v1). He doesnt see anything to be gained by mentioning this (v1), but truthfully, the Corinthians would have very much been drawn to him over this kind of detail.
The word for caught up in v2 and v4 is used elsewhere as a synonym for the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:17). In Acts 8:39-40, Philip was caught up from the Ethiopian Eunuch and appeared in Azotus. Jesus was caught up in the imagery of Revelation 12:5. And believers are to snatch from the fire those in danger of falling into false teaching (Jude 1:23). The third heaven (v2), also called paradise in v4, is mentioned only three times in the New Testament (Luke 23:43; Revelation 2:7; here). The first heaven is our atmosphere, where birds fly around; the second heaven is outer space, where stars fly around; and the third heaven is beyond that, perhaps a pre-heaven, restored Garden of Eden, or the spiritual dwelling place for angels and the Lord Himself.
Paul heard inexpressible things (v4), literally unutterable utterances, which he cannot or will not reveal, both because they cannot be stated (they are unutterable) and because he is not allowed to tell. Commentators suggest that Paul doesnt mind talking about his weaknesses (such as the preceding account of his being lowered from the city wall in a basket and the following account about the thorn in his flesh), but he clearly doesnt want to discuss experiences that seem to make him more admirable. Thus, despite this incredible experience, Paul wont boast about it, though he could since it is true (v5-6). But he doesnt want to be exalted; he wants Christ to be glorified.
2) V7-10 7To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christs power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christs sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul mentions the famous thorn in [his] flesh, which God gave to keep [him] from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations. Interestingly but not surprisingly, Paul attributes the gift to God (implied), but acknowledges the thorn as a messenger of Satan, to torment him. Paul has a sound understanding of the doctrine of concurrence, where there is one action or event with two causes (God and Satan in the case) and two motives (to keep him from becoming conceited on the one hand and to torment him on the other hand). Sam Storms notes, Most commentators recognize this as an example of what is called the divine passive in which God is the hidden agent behind events and experiences in human lives (Ralph Martin; cf. Matthew 7:2). It is a conventional use of the passive voice to avoid mentioning the divine name. Had Paul wanted to say that Satan was the ultimate source, he probably would not have used the Greek verb didomi. As Martin points out, this word was usually employed to denote that Gods favor had been bestowed (cf. Galatians 3:21; Ephesians 3:8; 5:19; 1 Timothy 4:14). If Satan were the ultimate source of the thorn, more appropriate Greek words were available to express that thought (e.g.,epitithemi, lay upon [Luke 10:30; 23:26; Acts 16:23]; ballo, cast [Revelation 2:24]; or epiballo, put on [1 Corinthians 7:35])
We must remember that God often uses the devil to accomplish His purposes (cf. Job; 1 Corinthians 5:5). Although Satan and God work at cross purposes, they can both desire the same event to occur while hoping to accomplish through it antithetical results. Satan wanted to see Jesus crucified, as did God the Father (Isaiah 53:10; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28), but for a different reason. The same is true in the case of Job. What Satan had hoped would destroy Job (or at least provoke him to blasphemy), God used to strengthen him.
Literally hundreds of different opinions have been construed on the identity of this thorn, with the most popular being a physical ailment (speech impediment, eye trouble (Galatians 4:13-15; 6:11; Acts 9:18; 26:14), or epilepsy) or a demonic cloud around his every move. But we dont know what it was. Catholicism has traditionally treated this thorn as sexual desire or lust. But most Protestants reject that idea, because Paul was given the gift of celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:1-9). Others have considered that the thorn may have represented an emotional problem that Paul had to deal with. Chrysostum thought the thorn represented the constancy of spiritual opponents in the ministry of Paul. Pauls thorn may be an idiom, akin to us saying, A pain in the neck. Tasker comments, As there is nothing which tends to elate a Christian evangelist so much as the enjoyment of spiritual experience, and as there is nothing so calculated to deflate the spiritual pride which may follow them as the opposition he encounters while preaching the word, it is not unlikely that Chrysostoms interpretation is nearer the truth than any other. Calvin says, I
think that this phrase is meant to sum up all the different kinds of trial with which Paul was exercised. For here
flesh does not mean body, but rather the part of the soul which is not regenerate, so that the meaning would be, To me there has been given a goad to jab at my flesh for I am not yet so spiritual as to be exempt from temptations according to the flesh.
The word for thorn is used only here in all of the New Testament, though in classical Greek, it referred to the stake on which enemies were impaled after their defeat. Thus, whatever Pauls thorn was, there is no doubt that it was excruciating for him. He endured so many pains from other sources without asking for reprise (2 Corinthians 11), but this thing, he pleaded with God for relief. In fact, Paul prayed three times to Jesus (v8; Acts 1:24; 7:59; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20) that He would remove the thorn, but Jesus responded, My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness (v9). The threefold prayer could reference Christs threefold prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup would be removed, but He, like Paul here, went without relief. It could also refer to three episodes of pain stemming from the thorn in his flesh. Or it could refer to repetitive pleading with God (constancy) for the thorns removal.
Paul effectively glorifies God by boasting over unanswered prayer. Gods gracious presence is enough, and Paul will eventually tie all of this to the cross of Christ (13:4), but we see that all of it is patterned off Jesus life purposely to show the true Jesus over any false proclamations. In the end and after much prayer, Paul is content, delighting in weakness (v10; Ephesians 6:10), for he knew that God had great purpose in his suffering. Storms concludes, Paul learned that his spiritual purity was more important to God than his immediate physical pleasure. Of greater value to God than Pauls comfort was Pauls holiness. If, in the divine wisdom, it was necessary to give him pain in order to protect him from pride, Paul was willing to yield to the divine purpose. If, as God saw it, the best way to make Paul humble was to make him hurt, so be it.
3) V11-15 11I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the super-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12The things that mark an apostle signs, wonders and miracles were done among you with great perseverance. 13How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong! 14Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less?
Paul is done now with his foolish boasting, which was required because the Corinthians had strayed too far. Even in blaming them for forcing him to boast, we see Pauls humility in v11; even after all of this boasting, he acknowledges his nothingness (in a good and humble way), which is still superior to the super-apostles, who are less than nothing (in a not-so-good way due to their evil motives). Carson says, Preferring the worldly standards of leadership paraded by the interlopers, the Corinthians began to feel ashamed that their father in Christ was meek (10:1), short on rhetorical flourishes (10:10; 11:6), not very secure financially (11:7-11; 12:13), and reticent about his spiritual experiences (12:1-10).
Coming to v12, many have claimed that Paul is saying that signs, wonders, and miracles (2 Thessalonians 2:9) are traits of true apostleship, and that he performed such things among the Corinthians with great perseverance, or through the patient endurance of much criticism. Yet throughout this letter, and elsewhere, Paul hints at other, more tangible proofs of apostleship: changed lives, blameless character, genuine love, and sacrificial giving. Sam Storms comments, Contrary to what many have thought, Paul does not say the insignia of an apostle are signs, wonders and miracles. Rather, as the NASB more accurately translates, he asserts that the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by [or better still, accompanied by] signs and wonders and miracles
Pauls point is that miraculous phenomena accompanied his ministry in Corinth. Signs, wonders and miracles were attendant elements in his apostolic work. But they were not themselves the signs of an apostle. Whereas it is true that one characteristic of apostolic ministry is the miraculous, one may perform miracles without being an apostle. In short, writes Wayne Grudem, the contrast is not between apostles who could work miracles and ordinary Christians who could not, but between genuine Christian apostles through whom the Holy Spirit worked and non-Christian pretenders to the apostolic office, through whom the Holy Spirit did not work at all.
His question in v13 is ironic, and his answer satirical. The Corinthian church was never treated inferior to the other churches; if anything, they were treated as superior! And Paul never burdened them, namely by taking their money, and for that he apologizes, as if it were a bad thing!
In v14, Paul mentions his plan for a third visit to Corinth. The first was the planting of the church, which lasted 18 months; the second was the painful visit. Though false teachers might request a fee per visit, or lure followers in order that they might eventually gain respect and wealth, Paul will come for free, paying his own way, because he doesnt want their money he wants them, which, according to Storms, is their continued allegiance and love, first to Christ and then to himself. He is like a father caring for his children or a shepherd his sheep, not looking for anything in return, but only their welfare. V15 is beautiful [Since I want you and not your possessions,] I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. My ESV translation is great as well: I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. Storms paraphrases, I will spend until Im spent. Pastors should mimic this attitude! If Paul hasnt shown his love in this letter, he doesnt know how. And how will the Corinthians respond? Will they love him less after reading this foolishness?
4) V16-21 16Be that as it may, I have not been a burden to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery! 17Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent you? 18I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not act in the same spirit and follow the same course? 19Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening. 20For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 21I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.
Paul left us hanging, asking the question, Will you love me less? Showing that theres no deceit in genuine selflessness (v16-17), Paul effectively says, Even if you do love me less after this, I will take heart, for I have not been a burden to you. At least my love hasnt cost you a dime. And neither did Titus love (v18).
V19 asks an interesting question. If weve been thinking Paul is on the defensive in these last few chapters, were wrong. Paul is unconcerned with his reputation or success in ministry (2 Corinthians 6:8), so long as the Corinthians are edified. He is speaking in the sight of God, a brother in Christ, writing for the Corinthians strength (v20)! Paul acknowledges that his efforts are not selfish or deceitful; its for Gods glory that he strives to bring the Corinthians back to Him. Yet Paul is afraid with a fear that stems from love, for it is painful to see the ones you love failing repeatedly to make wish choices and grow in Christ. Paul fears the pain that may come if that is the case upon his return. He fears having to get involved in their quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder (v20). And he fears that God will humble him. Paul, like any parent of children who misbehave (especially in public), would be humiliated by their lack of morality and repentance from the impurity, sexual sin, and debauchery (sensuality) in which they have indulged (v21).
Storms says, [Paul] anticipates mourning over their sins. Discipline grieved Paul. He took no sordid joy in it. Says Carson: Not for him the haughty sternness of egocentric leaders who can with dry eyes and a high hand discipline members ensnared by sin. Paul is too much aware of the intertwining of responsibilities in the body of Christ. He cannot even distance himself entirely from their sin. He himself feels humbled in the face of it, just as a father feels humbled by his sons rebellion.