WEEKLY SERMON BLOG
“Conflicting Boasts” --- II Corinthians 12:1-10
This passage comes in the midst of Paul’s attempt to demonstrate his apostolic role. False teachers were influencing this church, and they were claiming to be superior to Paul. The Corinthians who were susceptible to the idea that power and eloquence were indicators of the Divine, were being convinced that Paul was at best a secondary apostle, and had an inferior ministry to these false teachers. In order to prevent them from being deceived, Paul felt he was forced to boast about himself and what God was doing through him. Paul began this boasting by instructing these believers about his personal credentials and just what he had been willing to go through in order to advance the Gospel (sacrifices that went far beyond what the false teachers would have ever been willing to make):
II Corinthians 11:18-30
Having written this, Paul moves on to make a contrast between two different spheres of boasting to further distinguish himself from his opponents.
I. A Natural Boast: (vs.1-6)
Paul begins this section by writing, “It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast” (vs.1a). In attempting a word for word translation such as was done for the NKJV, there are difficulties because nuanced expressions are at times difficult to translate. A better rendering of the first clause of this verse is found in the ESV, which provides the following wording; “I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it”. This rendering clarifies that Paul was continuing the boasting that he had begun in chapter 11. Paul begins this passage by observing the truism that boasting is not morally appropriate, but that he was being forced to engage in it because of the necessity of convincing the Corinthian believers that they were in error about him and his opponents.
Paul then makes his most significant boast about himself. He writes, “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago — whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows — such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows” (vs.1b-3). Paul will clarify as he goes on that the man in Christ about whom he knows, is himself. His boast is about visions and revelations. The false apostles also boasted of having these, but they were false visions as their boasting indicated; because their experiences and the way they boasted about them were radically at odds with those of Paul, a man truly commissioned by God.
Paul notes that the particular incident that he refers to happened around fourteen years previous to writing this epistle. Since this letter was most likely written in A.D. 55, this means that the vision Paul referred to would have taken place in A.D. 41. Based on the chronology we are able to put together regarding Paul’s life from the NT, this vision would have taken place during a period of Paul’s life about which the Book of Acts is silent; therefore, there is no recorded event that appears anywhere else in the NT that corresponds to what Paul writes about here.
Paul repeats twice that he did not know whether or not he was in or out of his body during that revelatory experience. The reason for such repetition is always the same; to emphasize the idea. The reason why Paul refers to himself in the third person, and emphasizes that he was not aware of the state of his existence during the vision seems to be the same; to distance himself and his experiences from his opponents. First, unlike his opponents; the account about the vision is significant because of what it reveals about God and His relationship to His people. The person who receives such a revelation should never be the center of attention. Second, also unlike his opponents, Paul was acknowledging that he did not have an exhaustive knowledge of spiritual truths and experiences. All he could relate to his readers was what God intended him to understand. Therefore, God is pictured as being the source of spiritual truth, and the one in control of such visions, not the human recipient.
Paul passes on to his readers that he was caught up to the third heaven. The verb translated as “caught up” means to be seized or snatched away. The sense is that by God’s power Paul was transported alive to the third heaven, and he had nothing to do with arriving there.
To this Paul adds, “he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (vs.4). From this addition, we see that Paul equates the “the third heaven” with “paradise”. This is the only place in the Scriptures where there is a reference to a place called the “third heaven”. According to Jewish rabbinical writings around the first century we understand that the expression meant the highest heaven, or the abode of God. The term “paradise” is used two other times in the New Testament. Jesus tells the man on the cross who expresses faith in Him that he would enter into paradise with Christ on that very day (Lk.23:43). Later we read that the resurrected Christ promises the ones who overcome that they will eat of the fruit of the tree of life which grows in the midst of the paradise of God (Rev.2:7). Clearly, paradise is the place where those who are saved go to be with God to enjoy their eternal reward. So, Paul was taken to the presence of God where the righteous go after death, but went there during his earthly lifetime. It is never revealed in Scripture that anyone else ever had a similar experience. Therefore, this would definitely be an experience about which one could boast. While there, Paul said that he heard “inexpressible words”. The expression can refer to two different sorts of inexpressible sayings. It can refer either to something that cannot be expressed verbally because the experience transcends language, or it can refer to something that one is not permitted to speak about. Paul clarifies which he meant when he adds, “which it is not lawful for a man to utter”. Clearly, whatever Paul heard, he was instructed not to pass it on to anyone else. The question then might be, why then tell about it, if he could not reveal the spiritual information he was privy to while in paradise? The answer is that Paul recounts this not to pass on a message, but as an experience that is worthy of boasting about so that he can help his readers see the emptiness of the boasts of the false apostles.
Paul goes on to write that “of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities” (vs.5). Paul was saying here that the experience was something he would boast about, but in regard to himself, his only boast would be in regard to his weaknesses. This statement continues the distinction that Paul makes between himself and his opponents. Their boast was not in the things that God had done, but in themselves and their power and ability. The opponents were boasting in their own natural resources and power; not in the supernatural power of God. But what is there about weaknesses that would justify boasting in them? Paul elaborates on that shortly, as he makes his boast. But first, Paul writes, “For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me” (vs.6). Paul acknowledges the temptation to boast about oneself, but implies that to do so is to be foolish. Instead, he opted to speak the truth, and in doing so he had a very specific objective; namely, that no one should have a higher opinion of him than was justified by what they saw in his life or heard him say. In other words, it was proper that those a person ministers to be convinced to follow them by the substance of a leader’s character and the accuracy of his teaching. In contrast to this, Paul’s opponents sought to build a following based upon their own bragging and claims. Paul stresses that doing so is the mark of those who are false teachers.
II. A Supernatural Boast: (vs.7-10)
Paul now begins to explain what it means to boast in his weaknesses. Paul writes, “and lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations” (vs.7a). This verse opens up with a purpose clause, and it informs us that the weakness that Paul was experiencing was intended by God to keep Paul from being “exalted above measure”. That expression means to lift oneself up very high above others, and thus to become arrogant and proud. Therefore, Paul is acknowledging that apart from his experience of weakness he would have experienced an enormous temptation to be arrogant, and may have given in to it. Paul writes that the temptation would come because of the “abundance of the revelations”. Paul had just written about one that was unequalled in human experience; and yet adds here that he had experienced an “abundance” of such revelations. That word refers to having a wealth of such experiences and demands that we understand this to mean that Paul had many revelatory experiences. It seems from what we read in the NT that God may have given Paul more direct revelation than anyone else since Moses. It is easy to see that having such experiences could easily make someone develop an extraordinarily high opinion of himself. So, something else was given to Paul to protect him from this temptation.
Paul then tells us what it was; “a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure” (vs.7b). Of course, the “thorn” is a metaphor for some painful affliction, experience, or situation that Paul was experiencing. The question that has been debated for centuries is precisely what it was the “thorn” that Paul was referring to. One suggestion is that Paul is referring to the ongoing opposition he faces from those who had either personal or heretical agendas. It is pointed out that there is precedence for using the image of a “thorn” in this way (Ezek.28:24). However, since Paul specifies that the thorn relates to his flesh, this is not likely. More importantly, it is very doubtful (in light of Jesus’ teachings-Matt.5:10-12) that Paul would have been inclined to pray for the removal of persecuting enemies. Another suggestion that was popular centuries ago, is that Paul was referring to a profound struggle with sexual lust. However, this is pure speculation as there is nothing in the biographical material about Paul to support this conclusion. The best option that represents the majority view of interpreters is that Paul is referring to some sort of physical illness or disability. The next question is what sort of physical problem did Paul have? In regard to this there is no consensus. The suggestions are: Malaria, Malta Fever, Epilepsy, eye problems, digestive problems, etc. The truth is there is no way to know because we are simply not given enough information about his thorn to come to any certain conclusion. It seems that if God wanted His people to know what the thorn was, He would have inspired Paul to reveal it. Since this is not what happened we must assume it is not important that we know it. It also seems that there is a very likely reason why we are not told. This passage can be of enormous help to those who read it who are also suffering from some sort of terrible affliction. However, if Paul’s affliction were specified then it is likely many would assume that the principles of God’s comfort did not apply to them unless they suffered from the identical ailment that plagued Paul.
Paul writes that this thorn was “given” to him. In other words, Paul was the passive recipient of this thorn. Paul does not specifically state who it was who gave it to him; however, throughout the Old and New Testaments such statements imply that it came from God. This is so common, that interpreters refer to these unspecified references as “Divine passives”.
The fact that the thorn was given by God sets up a paradox of sorts in terms of what Paul says about the thorn; because he also refers to it as “a messenger of Satan”. The Greek word translated as “messenger” is the same term that is translated as “angel”. Because of this some have theorized that Paul is saying that he was afflicted with a demon. However, this is unlikely as nowhere else do we read of a Christian having a demon inside of them. Rather, since the thorn is literally “for the flesh” (not in) it is rather some sort of physical malady that Satan attempts to exploit as he seeks to tempt or deceive Paul. In this case the idea is equivalent to what we read in Job. God providentially sets up a test, and the devil uses the opportunity to break down the person’s commitment and obedience to God. The idea is that in trials, sufferings, and hardships God has His purpose (what He intends to achieve in the believer’s life), and the devil has his own independent agenda (resisting God’s intentions for that believer’s life).
Paul writes that the messenger of Satan came in order to “buffet” him. The Greek word translated as “buffet” literally means to beat someone else with a fist, and implies humiliating violence (being slapped around). Here the expression is used figuratively and indicates that the messenger of Satan was continually attempting to discourage, anger, frustrate, or drive Paul to despair over his thorn in the flesh and thus undermine his faith in and devotion to God. However, all the while God was using this very same experience to keep Paul from becoming arrogant over the privileged opportunities God had given him in Christ (re-emphasized by repetition of the phrase “lest I be exalted above measure”).
In response, Paul did what almost any of God’s people would do; he writes, “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me” (vs.8). This reveals that Paul is not teaching us here that we should seek out suffering, nor simply accept it without seeking to be relieved of it; instead that it is appropriate to seek healing and relief from the Lord. The Lord, that Paul is referring to in this verse, is the resurrected Christ. Indicating that though prayer to Christ is not the norm (praying to the Father is) it is still legitimate for the Christian to pray to Christ.
Paul then tells his readers about the response he received to his prayers, after his third appeal; “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness’” (vs.9a). These two clauses form a type of synonymous parallel that was common in Hebrew thought, that would be outlined as follows:
A is sufficient
B for you
C My grace
C My power
B in weakness
A is perfected
In this parallel, the grace of God is synonymous with His power. This is because God’s grace is His kind and merciful disposition to treat His people with goodness and blessing despite the fact they deserve punishment. God’s power is His ability to accomplish whatever He pleases. Therefore, God’s grace is the motivation behind the use of His power; and His power is an expression of His grace. The second part of the parallel is that the verbs translated as “sufficient” and “made perfect” express synonymous ideas. God’s provision, motivated by grace and effected by His power, were sufficient for Paul in the sense that he would be able to do what he needed to do in spite of the thorn in the flesh. In the same way, this dependence would allow God’s power to accomplish (i.e. perfect) God’s purpose through Paul. The idea in this parallel is that Paul did not need to be freed from the thorn in the flesh (which created various obstacles in his life and his ministry), because God would be at work within him to ensure that He succeeded in everything God was calling Paul to do.
Paul then records the conclusion he came to in light of this revelation from Christ in response to his prayers; “Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (vs.9b). The word “therefore” indicates that what follows results from what was previously said or written. In light of these words from Christ, Paul concluded that he would now boast in his weaknesses. First, Paul did not say he would do this reluctantly, or with resignation; rather he would do it “most gladly”. The Greek term speaks of something one strongly wishes to do or has enthusiasm about. This is because Paul’s focus was not on having a life as free from trouble as possible; instead it was on fulfilling God’s purposes for his life. Since the thorn in the flesh would in the end actually further God’s purposes rather than hinder them; Paul was happy to boast in the resource for success that God had given to him.
This is where Paul specifically articulates his supernatural boast. The Greek word translated as “boast” refers to something one celebrates or praises, and upon which one depends. Unlike his opponents, the false apostles, Paul would boast not in his own resources or abilities; he would boast in his weaknesses. There is a good reason why God’s purposes are achieved through human weakness. If God’s work is done through the strong, then the natural conclusion that all who are involved (or witness) will come to is that the work of God resulted from human resources. But if the human resources are clearly unequal to the task; then everyone involved will acknowledge that the work was accomplished by the power of God (exalting Him rather than a human being). This perspective gives enormous peace, because if one is not able to accomplish a given objective, it simply means it was not something God was interested in being done.
Therefore, Paul was no longer going to seek relief from the thorn; but would embrace it as God’s instrument to keep the apostle focused and dependent upon Christ. Paul said that the result of acknowledging his weaknesses would be that the power of Christ would rest upon him. The Greek word translated as “rest”, literally means to pitch a tent, and was used figuratively in the sense of choosing to dwell or live somewhere. Therefore, God’s power would encamp on Paul’s life and be perpetually with him because of his acceptance of his weaknesses.
Paul then continued expressing the conclusion he came to in response to Christ’s words to him about the thorn; “Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses” (vs.10a). Paul said that Christ’s revelation to him led him to “take pleasure” in things that a person normally tries to avoid. Some interpreters attempt to soften the idea here and suggest that Paul was saying he was content with having these things in his life. However, this is not the consistent meaning of this word in the NT; elsewhere it is always used to convey the idea of something that brings real joy and delight. Therefore, once again, Paul is expressing a sense of real joy about the role unpleasant things play in his life. The unpleasant things he refers to are “infirmities” (literally weaknesses in general), “reproaches” (insults, slander and verbal abuse), “needs” (unmet necessities of life), “persecutions”, and “distresses” (hardships that put emotional or situational pressure on one’s life).
There are some important things that must be clarified regarding what Paul writes about in these verses. First, Paul is not saying that he delights in misery for misery’s sake. He is not advocating either masochism or asceticism (the theological idea that we please God by intentionally inflicting pain or hardship upon ourselves). Paul is saying that he rejoices that he experiences these things for Christ’s sake. In writing this, Paul echoes Jesus’ own teaching on the subject:
Paul delights in advancing God’s purposes and serving his Lord; Jesus Christ. And if enduing weaknesses, insults, needs, persecutions, and severe troubles are important ways to accomplish this, then Paul is all for it.
Second, (and closely related), Paul is not encouraging his readers to seek out suffering or to refrain from seeking relief of misery in general. There are many times in our lives where God will use doctors, family, friends, or institutions to help alleviate our suffering. As Christians we should take advantage of those resources for relief whenever we can (after all they are expressions of God’s goodness to us). What Paul is saying is that when troubles of various sorts come that we cannot avoid, then we recognize that God in His providential sovereignty has given us those circumstances and we are to happily accept them and submit to what God will accomplish in and through us because of them.
Paul concludes the passage by summing up the truism of his supernatural boast, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vs.10b). It is helpful to make clear what the distinction is here that Paul has in mind as he speaks about the contrast of strength and weakness. A twenty-first century reader might conclude that Paul is speaking about power or the lack of it in the sense of sheer might. However, the terms in Greek carry a more basic thought about strength and weakness. Strength or power is the ability to accomplish something. Weakness, of course, by contrast is the inability to do a given thing. So, Paul concludes here that it is only as he recognizes the reality that he is unable to accomplish the spiritual ministry that Christ set before him, that he becomes genuinely able to accomplish it. The ability to do so comes as a result of Christ by the Spirit of God working His Divine power in and though Paul’s life. God wants all involved to know that His people must be dependent upon His power if our lives and ministries are ever to be what they should be. Therefore, He brings us to places of weakness and suffering so that this truth is clearly seen and no one is fooled by the appearance of superficial human sufficiency.
In this passage Paul explains a process that is also taught in the Book of James:
The reason we count trials as joyful, is because they advance the work of Christ in us and through us. But this truism is tied to others that must also be understood if we are going to be able to apply Paul’s lesson to ourselves.
First, God’s purposes are of supreme importance to Him, and should also be to those who are God’s people. It is easy to fall into the trap of seeing our lives as our own; working at our own goals and seeking to fulfill our plans with little to no thought about God’s purposes for our lives. However, when we choose to follow Christ, we lose our former life and gain another as God’s servants and children (Matt.16:25). If we understand this than we will be mentally in the place we need to be to accept trials not as interruptions or obstacles, but as God’s instruments.
Second, Paul was not writing about a principle that only applies to those in professional ministry. He was writing about something that applies to all God’s children. The life of each child of God has a purpose. No two believer’s lives serve the same purpose, and how God uses each one will be quite different. But trials will come into each one’s life to advance whatever that purpose is.
Third, the ability to rejoice in hardships and trials is rooted in a belief in God’s eternal promises of reward. If one believes that this life is all that there is, then it is inescapable to conclude that hardships and trials simply rob us of good experiences during our brief lives. However, if we truly believe in God’s promises of eternal life and eternal rewards for faithfulness; then the sacrifices made in this life will be something we can offer to God with joy and peace.
The truth is that there will never be any portion of our lives that are wasted, no suffering will ever be without purpose, and our reward will greatly outweigh our sacrifices (Rom.8:18).
In the Bonds of Christ,
Pastor Michael Huard