2 Corinthians 12:9

In 2 Corinthians 12:9 we know that Paul’s asked God repeatedly to take away the ‘thorn in his flesh’. And God had a response for Paul.  The answer was not what Paul was necessarily hoping for, or expecting.  But God still had a response.  We often close our ears to God if He responds in a way we were not hoping for, or expecting. Paul hears God loud and clear. The thorn isn’t going away any time soon. “But 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Instead of removing the thorn from Paul’s life, God had given, and would continue to give, His grace to Paul.  And that grace was more than sufficient to meet Paul’s every need. Paul was intent in his desire to be relieved of this burden (thorn).  But there are two ways of taking away a burden.  It can be done by removing the load, or it can be done by strengthening the one who is bearing the load.  Instead of taking away the thorn, God is clear that He would strengthen Paul as he continued to carry it, and God would show His strength through Paul’s apparent weakness. Walking as a Christ Follower is not about us or how strong or powerful we are. It’s about us letting the power of God carry us.

As humans we really don’t believe God’s grace is sufficient until we believe we in our own strength and efforts are insufficient. It flies in the face of the American way of pulling up our own bootstraps and just trying harder and harder to achieve the things we want to accomplish. That thinking is a huge obstacle to accepting God’s strength. Before we can truly do that, we have to embrace our own inabilities, inadequacies and weaknesses. And until we take ourselves off the throne of our life and admit we can’t do it alone, we will not experience the overwhelming sufficiency of God’s grace that He wants to pour out upon us.

Guzik answers the question of ‘How did God’s grace make the difference?  How did it meet Paul’s need at this point?’

  1. Grace could meet Paul’s need because it expresses God’s acceptance and pleasure in us. Grace means that God likes us, that He is favorably disposed towards us; we have His approval and promise of care.
  2. Grace could meet Paul’s need because it was available all the time. When we come to God by faith, through the blood of Jesus, His grace is ever ready to meet and minister to our insufficiencies.
  3. Grace could meet Paul’s need because it was the very strength of God. Grace is not weak or wimpy. Instead, it is the power of God to fulfill what we lack.

Bottom line is that God’s grace is always sufficient to overcome anything lacking within us. But we have to be willing to admit our need, and then allow God’s grace to fulfill what only He can do through us. Grace is not about us beyond getting out of the way and letting God be God in our lives.

2 Corinthians 12:6-8

In 2 Corinthians 12:6-8 Paul reinforces that he really has something to be able to boast about if he wanted to. He just made a very compelling argument to that fact as he finished the last chapter with a very long list of things he had experienced for the sake of speaking the truth of the Gospel. But he also makes it clear that while he had plenty of experiences that he could focus on in his own life, it is Jesus he wants to talk about. “Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.” He doesn’t want to dwell on his past resume, but on the Gospel.

Paul knows he is not immune to the danger of pride.  No one is. Poole wrote “The best of God’s people have in them a root of pride, or a disposition to be exalted above measure, upon their receipt of favours from God not common to others.” As humans, we’re all prone to fall into pride. God had chosen to give Paul a ‘thorn in the flesh’ to keep him grounded. Paul reveals the real reason for telling of his heavenly vision: not to glorify himself, but to explain his thorn in the flesh. “So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.”

Paul understood that this great trial related to a thorn was actually a gift.  Spurgeon wrote that “Paul does not say, ‘There was inflicted upon me a thorn in the flesh,’ but ‘There was given to me.'” Kruse explains that in the ancient Greek the word skolops (thorn) shows “something which frustrates and causes trouble in the lives of those afflicted.” When we think of a thorn, we think of a somewhat minor irritation.  But the root word Paul uses for thorn here describes a tent stake, not a thumbtack! In a strange way, the thorn was both ultimately given by God, but it was also a tool of Satan.

Paul wanted it gone. Satan undoubtedly jumped at the chance to afflict Paul to attempt and take him off the path of obedience to Jesus Christ and his mission to share the gospel. But God had a purpose in it and although Paul was frustrated and even beaten by the continual ‘thorn’ in his life, God chooses to leave it in place to assure Paul doesn’t fall to the temptation of pride as the false teachers of the Corinthian church were continually doing themselves. Paul definitely wants it gone – “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” It is not just an aggravation, it was a pain and Paul continued to pray that God would remove it.

2 Corinthians 12:1-5

In 2 Corinthians 12:1-5 Paul continues to discuss his resume as a minister of the Gospel.  He is tired of writing about himself!  He would much rather write about Jesus!  But the worldly thinking which made the Corinthian Christians think little of Paul was also making them think little of Jesus, even if they couldn’t perceive it. “I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.” The false teachers in Corinth were spewing lies about things they had seen or knew from the Lord. Those folks were making things up to try and elevate their status in the church.

Paul switches to a third person perspective as he shares his vision and revelation from God. So why did he decide to make the change in how he wrote this section? He is doing everything he can to relate this experience without bringing glory to himself. This is exactly the kind of lie that the false teachers were parading around Corinth claiming. “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.” Paul tells his story and takes the focus off of him being the man, so the impostors would not try to outdo him. Paul doesn’t seem to know exactly how it happened, so rather than focus on trying to figure it out we should believe because we can’t know how it happened either.

Paul goes on to share more details about this experience that happened some 14 years previously. The location of this event is called Paradise, but beyond that we don’t have much clarity around the details. Paul was ok with not knowing the details because he knew God knows. We’ll not know and understand everything until we have the privilege to enter eternity with the Father. “And I know that this man was caught up into paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” So what did Paul hear? God didn’t want us to know, so He didn’t give Paul permission to speak.

Paul is sharply – and humorously – contrasting himself with the “super apostles” among the Corinthian Christians.  They would not hesitate to boast about the kind of vision Paul had, or many other things they felt separated them from the rest of the church.  In fact, they would write books, make tapes and videos, and go on speaking tours about such a vision had those been options in their day! “On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” Paul is only willing to talk about his own weakness, not boast about anything he has seen or heard. He’s not about building himself up but showing his dependence on God for all things.

2 Corinthians 11:28-33

In 2 Corinthians 11:28-33 Paul wraps up the long list of things he has endured in order to be a minister and servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The list is long and painful to read. But he ends it with maybe the thing that most bothers him of all he has and continues to endure – the pressure of shepherding a church. “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” We don’t have much understanding or appreciation for what pastors and teachers have to endure to serve in the ministry. As shepherds of God’s flock, they carry a lot of weight and responsibility and it never ends. While many of us are feeling fatigue during this pandemic being in front of a camera and feeling under a microscope constantly, that’s been the life of a pastor for centuries. Paul feels it.

But it’s not weakness. It is love and caring that creates the pressure. “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” Paul’s deep concern was not for himself.  It was for others; for the weak and those made to fall.  Paul had many burdens, but few of them were for himself.  He, like Jesus, was truly an others-centered person. His concern was for those whom God had entrusted to his care. Hughes explained “This anxiety was based not only on disturbing reports which came to his ears, but on his knowledge of the savage subtlety of the enemy of souls who, he realized, would stop at nothing in his attempts to overthrow the work of the gospel.”

Paul goes on to make sure that he isn’t taking credit in any way, shape or form for living through the long list of things he has endured. “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” What Paul willing to boast about?  What are his credentials as God’s minister for the Gospel?  Only his scars and the things which show his weakness and absolute dependence on God. The weakness Paul refers to may be a specific illness or limitation; more likely, it is the life of hardship and stress he lived overall serving God. The false apostles in Corinth thought the things Paul endured made him look weak and unqualified to serve. Paul did not care if it looked foolish in the eyes of the world or those in the church who thought like the world.  Paul lived with an eternal perspective, not a worldly perspective. His focus was on serving God and Him alone.

Paul makes clear that he’s got his hand on the Bible in telling his story. It’s true and he’s not making things up. “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.” Morgan wrote “God knoweth.  He knows what?  Knows all the suffering, knows all the trial, knows all the facts, which he has already referred to, that he is led everywhere in triumph all the way. ‘God knoweth.’  That is the secret of his deepest boasting.” And Paul ends this chapter recalling one of the first times God was there to guide him through a challenge beyond his own ability. “At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.” This is how Paul’s ministry began and he was fine with letting God continue to guide and protect him as he continued to serve as a servant of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 11:24-27

In 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 Paul continues to explain his resume to the Corinthian Christians. The false apostles who claimed superiority were parading around with their credentials, but they were paper only. Paul gives complete clarity to just how committed and dedicated he was to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.” The number forty was important in that it was the maximum beating that could be given. The Rabbis restricted the number of stripes you could give to 39 (forty stripes minus one). They did this not out of mercy, but they feared that there might be a miscount and forty stripes would be exceeded by accident.

Clarke describes what this was like. “The two hands of the criminal are bound to a post, and then the servant of the synagogue either pulls or tears off his clothes till he leaves his breast and shoulders bare.  A stone or block is placed behind him on which the servant stands; he holds in his hands a scourge made of leather, divided into four tails.  He who scourges lays one third on the criminal’s breast, another third on his right shoulder, and another on his left. The man who receives the punishment is neither sitting nor standing, but all the while stooping; and the man smites with all his strength, with one hand.” This punishment was not a simple beating, but severe in pain and how long it lasted. Paul had it done five times!

But Paul is far from done explaining just how much he has been pummeled as a minister of the Gospel. “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned.” The Jews scourged people with forty lashes. The Romans used rods or wands to do their damage. Paul also recalls the attempt to stone him to death at Lystra where they left him for dead. So he endured plenty of physical pain for the sake of the Gospel. And if that wasn’t enough, he goes on. “Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea”. He was shipwrecked three times and spent 24 hours adrift in the sea. Paul traveled many miles for the sake of the Gospel and it wasn’t always smooth sailing!

And he goes on with even more sacrifice and suffering he has made. “…on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” What a resume!  Here’s the summary of what he endured:

  1. Five times received 40 lashes
  2. Three times beaten with rods
  3. Stoned and left for dead
  4. Three times shipwrecked
  5. A night and day adrift at sea
  6. Frequent journeys
  7. Danger crossing rivers
  8. Danger from robbers
  9. Danger from his own people
  10. Danger from the Gentiles
  11. Danger in the city
  12. Danger in the wilderness
  13. Danger at sea
  14. Danger from false brothers
  15. Toil and hardship
  16. Sleepless nights
  17. Hunger and thirst
  18. Going without food
  19. Cold and exposure

It wasn’t the mere fact of a hard life that made Paul a true minister of Christ.  Many people have hard lives, but are in no way servants of Jesus.  But for Paul, all these perils and hardships were things he freely chose, when he could have lived completely differently if he wanted to.  But he wanted to serve Jesus, and if these hardships were part of serving Jesus, he accepted them. That’s what being a minister of the Gospel is all about!

2 Corinthians 11:20-23

In 2 Corinthians 11:20-23 Paul confronts the Corinthian church about the way those who claimed to be “super apostles” were treating them like slaves. These false profits may be been legalists that were trying to put the church under bondage through strict application of the law. They used that to take control and claim authority over those in the church. “For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face.” Paul explains how that approach took advantage of those who were willing to follow. It was not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they were being deceived.

The Corinthian church was so gullible to these false teachers that they would take whatever treatment they were given. Paul sarcastically says he was too weak to take advantage of the Christ Followers in Corinth that way. “To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! But whatever anyone else dares to boast of – I am speaking as a fool – I also dare to boast of that.” Paul again acknowledges that these false apostles were bold and convincing in their speaking, but that he too would ask in a similar way preaching with confidence and a sense of the call that God has placed upon him.

Then Paul launches into his credentials. These false teachers want to compare resumes, Paul’s up for the challenge. He begins with his ancestry, which was more than enough to qualify him as an apostle. He was not only the seed of Abraham, but also was of the Israelites and beyond that was a Hebrew. Paul grew up in Tarsus of Cilicia but apparently his parents were Judean Jews who moves to Tarsus. “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I.” Paul knows that his blood ancestry itself does not make him an apostle of Jesus, but it was something the false teachers were continually pointing to so he starts with that piece of his resume.

Paul goes on the next address the claim of these false teachers as servants or ministers of Christ. They claimed it as the right to be honored and privileged. Paul knows it is something very different. Paul knows that being a minister is not about privilege, but service to those under your care. He worked tirelessly to serve people for the sake of the Gospel. “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman – with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death.” And he paid the price for that servant attitude and action with many different sufferings. Being a minster is not about what one gets, which is how the false apostles lived, but in what you can give to those in your care. Paul was a true shepherd.

2 Corinthians 11:15-19

In 2 Corinthians 11:15-19 Paul continues to explain the way the enemy works. We know from scripture the plan he has for each of us as humans is to “kill, steal and destroy” as Jesus told us in John 10:10. So it’s no wonder that the servants of Satan, his doers of evil and destruction, will try and look appealing and someone to trust. “So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” Clarke wrote “It is generally said that Satan has three forms under which he tempts men:

  1. The subtle serpent.
  2. The roaring lion.
  3. The angel of light.

He often, as the angel of light, persuades men to do things under the name of religion. And he positions his servants to do the same.

The Corinthian church has had a faction that continued to be antagonistic against Paul. As he writes, it is easy to sense both Paul’s sarcasm and his hesitancy to promote himself.  He would rather talk about Jesus, but that message is hindered by the church’s disregard of his credentials as a true apostle, a true representative of Jesus. “I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little.” He doesn’t really care what they think about him as a person. But he cares deeply about the Gospel and the truth of Jesus Christ. That’s when his ire gets raised.

Paul really dislikes talking about himself and this is an uncomfortable conversation for him to have. He also doesn’t like to discuss his resume or credentials, yet is forced to by the small group that continually works to undermine him. He’s not on a campaign to raise his stature with the church. He wants to preach Christ and Him alone, and put this nonsense behind him so he can minister truth without all the politics and subversion. “What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not with the Lord’s authority but as a fool.” He doesn’t claim to be speaking for Christ, but letting his life speak for itself.

Paul gets personal with the Corinthians here. The group that claimed superiority – the so called ‘super apostles’ – had no problem boasting about their credentials and place of authority in the church. It wasn’t based on God’s call, but their own desire to puff themselves up. Paul uses sarcasm to call the church out. “Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves!” He basically says if the Corinthian Christians are wise enough to listen to these self-inflated fools, surely they can listen to him for a while! Ultimately that is all Paul wants, for the church to listen to God’s truth which he delivers as God’s called.

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