“It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord:” (2 Corinthians 12:1).
Paul the Apostle spent a large portion of 2 Corinthians chapter eleven boasting of his ministerial credentials. Although Paul was reluctant to boast of himself in this manner, he felt compelled to do so in an effort to counter the growing influence exerted by a group of false apostles who had gained influence over the members of the Corinthian church.
However, the final verses of that chapter also closed with a rather humiliating event from Paul’s ministry. It involved an incident where Paul was forced to hide in a basket to avoid detection by the local religious and governmental authorities. That enabled him to escape from his pursuers when he was lowered down by a rope through a window in the city wall.
The indignity of that experience serves as a backdrop to the subject that Paul will discuss here in the opening verses of chapter twelve: “visions and revelations of the Lord“. A “vision” refers to a type of apparition (1) or supernatural appearance of a person or thing. (2) A revelation refers to “an unveiling” or the disclosure of something that cannot be known unless God divulges it.
Its possible that the false teachers in Corinth boasted of such encounters, thus establishing the need for Paul to address that subject. In doing so, Paul effectively cut off all avenues of rhetorical escape for these counterfeit apostles. For instance, if these “leaders” sought to justify their authority on the basis of a superior lineage, then Paul could do the same. If they claimed to have suffered for Christ, then Paul was ready to remind the Corinthians that he had suffered as well- and to a far greater extent.
If they sought to appeal to “revelations from God” then Paul was ready to discus one of many such encounters with the Lord, some of which are documented within the pages of the New Testament. (3) But unlike those who sought to draw attention to themselves in discussing such things, Paul will focus his attention upon the One who was responsible for these revelations. In part, this has led one commentator to offer an important observation…
“Paul’s refusal to ‘boast’ and ‘testify’ about his great ‘mountaintop’ experience in Paradise should be a good guideline for the multitude of religious ‘stars’ circulating Christendom today testifying of their ‘great spiritual experiences’ or ‘visions’ or ‘revelations.’” (4)
(1) G3701 optasia Strong’s Definitions https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g3701
(4) Paul T. Butler, The Bible Study Textbook Series, Studies In Second Corinthians (College Press) [p. 404] Copyright © 1985 College Press Publishing Company https://archive.org/stream/BibleStudyTextbookSeriesSecondCorinthians/132Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“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” (2 Corinthians 12:2).
So who was this “man in Christ” mentioned in the verse quoted above? Well as we’ll see later in this chapter, that man was none other than Paul the Apostle. It appears that Paul’s reluctance to boast of these visions and revelations from God was so great that he insisted upon referring to himself in the third person. This served to minimize attention upon the one who received this revelation and maximize attention upon the One who was responsible for this encounter.
The time line given for this event was fourteen years prior to this letter to the Corinthian church. So the revelation that Paul is about to discuss likely took place around A.D. 42-44. Although the Bible is silent regarding that portion of Paul’s life, one scholar tells us about Paul’s likely whereabouts during that period: “This was probably during Paul’s unrecorded early ministry in Tarsus, just before Barnabas came to get him to help at Antioch (cf. Act_11:25-26).” (1)
The focus of this revelation was “heaven,” a word that possesses several different Biblical meanings. For instance, heaven can refer to the area within our atmosphere in the realm of anything that flies through the air. This word can also be used to refer to outer space, the expanse where the sun, the moon, and the stars reside. We can find an example of usage in Psalm 19:1 where we’re told, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
Finally, the word “heaven” can used to identify the place where God dwells. an area that Paul referred to as the “third heaven” here in 2 Corinthians 12:2. This served to positively identify the location for this encounter and eliminate the potential for misunderstanding between the other two uses of this word.
Yet despite the impressive nature of what we are about to read, these verses represent the only Biblical record of this event. Since it had been well over a decade between the date of this revelation and the book of 2 Corinthians, there was plenty of time for Paul to position this experience as the centerpiece of his ministry if he desired. We’ll talk more about why Paul may have declined to do so in a later study but for now, we can say that Paul was serious about fulfilling a statement he made earlier in this letter: “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (4:5).
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, Free Bible Commentary 2 Corinthians [12:1] Copyright ©2014 by Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06B_12.html
“And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Corinthians 12:3-4).
Luke 23:39-43 provides us with the account of an exchange that took place between Jesus and a thief who was crucified alongside Him, one that directly relates to the passage quoted above…
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” (NIV).
So this repentant thief and the Apostle Paul both entered a place that Jesus referred to as “paradise.” One source defines this word as found within the New Testament…
“In the NT, paradise is mentioned three times. In Luk_23:43 it refers to the abode of the righteous dead. In Rev_2:7 it refers to the restoration of Edenic paradise predicted in Isa_51:3 and Eze_36:35. The reference here in 2Co_12:4 is probably to be translated as parallel to the mention of the “third heaven” in 2Co_12:2. Assuming that the “first heaven” would be atmospheric heaven (the sky) and “second heaven” the more distant stars and planets, “third heaven” would refer to the place where God dwells.” (1)
While Paul was caught up to this place, he apparently heard things that were so beautiful, incredible, and astounding that it would have been a crime to attempt to express them in a human language. But what is it that makes heaven what it is? Well the primary answer to that question is that the Lord Himself will be there- and as Psalm 16:11 tells us, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Since God reigns in Heaven, it also possesses the characteristics of His Kingdom- things like love, joy, peace and righteousness. In addition, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain in Heaven as we’re told in Revelation chapter 21. So while Paul may have been reluctant to talk about this experience, these were some of the things that surely helped sustain him during his many long years of ministry.
(1) NET Bible® notes [Luke 23:43] http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Luke&chapter=23&verse=43&tab=commentaries Quotations designated (NET) are from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.
“Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. 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” (2 Corinthians 12:5-6).
Paul the Apostle faced a dilemma in his effort to be heard as an apostle of Christ within the Corinthian church. For instance, Paul could have spoken at length regarding the visions and revelations he received from God. While that would help to validate his authority, the issue was how to communicate that information in a way that didn’t exalt him.
Paul’s solution was to deflect attention away from himself by referring to these visions and revelations in the third person. That served to acknowledge the reality of those experiences but distanced Paul from the kind of personal association that might glorify him in the eyes of others.
However when it came to the subject of his infirmities, Paul’s approach was quite different: “…I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses” (NIV). By emphasizing his frailties, deficiencies, and human limitations, Paul again turned the focus away from himself and placed it upon the God who enabled him to succeed despite his weaknesses. In fact, this topic will serve as Paul’s primary theme over the next few verses of this letter.
So Paul’s report of these visionary experiences placed him on an equal footing with the false apostles in Corinth who were surely boasting of similar “revelations from God.” But unlike those who sought to capitalize upon their alleged experiences, Paul did not want his life and ministry to be measured by such things. Instead, he preferred to be evaluated by his words and actions.
You see, a “spiritual revelation” may be nothing more than the product of a fertile imagination. In a similar manner, a “vision from God” may not originate with the God of the Scriptures. This is one reason why the New Testament book of 1 John tells us, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1 NIV).
This may explain why Paul wanted others to evaluate him on the basis of what he said and did, for such things can be tested and authenticated for their fidelity to Jesus’ teachings.
“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure” (2 Corinthians 12:7).
What was the “thorn in the flesh” that Paul the Apostle mentioned here? Many commentators believe this phrase refers to some sort of physical affliction. For instance, Paul may have contracted a disease like malaria or perhaps he may have suffered from epilepsy, chronic pain, or some other type of debilitating condition.
However, it is widely believed that Paul suffered from some kind of eye disease. In fact, some feel Paul’s condition was so severe that he may have been legally blind. For instance, consider the following portion of Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “If you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me” (Galatians 4:15). He later added this handwritten note to the end of that letter: “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand” (Galatians 6:11).
Another clue to suggest that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” referred to a physical condition is found in the New Testament book of Acts. In portions of that book, the author uses terms like “we” and “us” to describe Paul’s missionary journeys, thus indicating his personal involvement in the events that occurred. Why is that significant? Well, the book of Acts was authored by Luke, a man who is identified as a physician in Colossians 4:14. If Paul’s thorn in the flesh was related to a physical ailment that required medical attention, that may help explain why Luke was there.
In any event, this thorn in the flesh was not like the annoying little protrusions that we might encounter on the stem of a flowering plant. In reality, the word translated “thorn” refers to a pointed object that might be suitable for use as a tent stake. (1) When used in a figurative manner, one source reports that this word refers to “something which frustrates and causes trouble in the lives of those afflicted.” (2)
Finally, another commentary explains why the exact nature of this “thorn” remains unknown and why God may allow similar thorns to enter our lives today: “…’The precise nature of it has been concealed perhaps that all afflicted ones may be encouraged and helped by Paul’s unnamed yet painful experience.’ Our trials may be very different from Paul’s, but they should produce the same exercise and fruits.” (3)
(1) G4647 skolops Thayer’s Greek Definitions https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g4647
(2) David Guzik, 2 Corinthians 12 – The Strength of Grace in Weakness © Copyright – Enduring Word https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/2-corinthians-12/
(3) William Moorehead, quoted in William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers (2 Corinthians 12:7)
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of 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 becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV).
Many automobiles and motorcycles feature a tachometer as part of their instrument package. A tachometer is a type of gauge that monitors engine revolutions per minute (or “RPM”). Many tachometers feature a “redline” that identifies the safe RPM limit for each engine.
This is useful information for a motor vehicle operator, for an engine that consistently operates above its redline is one that is in danger of failure. Because of this, a driver is advised to stay below that mark in order to maintain a safe operating range.
In one respect, Paul the Apostle was given a similar redline in the form of this “thorn in the flesh” here in 2 Corinthians 12:7. When we consider the extent of Paul’s work, it becomes easier to understand why God allowed this issue to enter his life. You see, it is difficult to underestimate the extent of Paul’s impact upon human history. God worked to shape innumerable lives throughout Paul’s first-century ministry and that work continues today through the inspired Biblical letters that bear his name.
However, the extraordinary nature of the revelations Paul received from God could have easily pushed him past his “redline” to a place where he might have acquired an inflated opinion of himself. Therefore, this thorn in the flesh (whatever it was) served to neutralize any tendency towards pride, arrogance, or conceit and helped ensure that Paul maintained a sense of humility.
While we don’t know the exact nature of Paul’s condition, we do know it’s origin: it was “…a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud” (NLT). So much like Job’s experience in the Old Testament, it appears that Satan (or one of his demonic representatives) was permitted to harass Paul with this painful affliction.
Like the relentless pounding of the sea upon the rocks, this thorn in the flesh buffeted Paul and humbled him. Thus this “messenger” kept Paul from exalting himself as a result of these extraordinary visions and revelations. Paul’s example also serves as an important caution for anyone who may be tempted to seek God for similar visions or revelations today. As one source observes in commenting on Paul’s experience, “The chastisement from hell follows soon upon the revelation from heaven.” (1)
(1) Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:4”. “Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jfb/2-corinthians-12.html. 1871-8.
“Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9)
Paul the Apostle’s experience in pleading for the Lord to remove this “thorn in the flesh” brings to mind Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to His crucifixion…
“And now they came to an olive grove called the Garden of Gethsemane, and (Jesus) instructed his disciples, ‘Sit here, while I go and pray’ …Then he returned to the three disciples and found them asleep. ‘Simon!’ he said. ‘Asleep? Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Watch with me and pray lest the Tempter overpower you. For though the spirit is willing enough, the body is weak.’ And he went away again and prayed, repeating his pleadings” (Mark 14:32, 37-39, TLB).
We should note that Jesus “…went away again and prayed, repeating his pleadings” within this portion of Scripture. This represents an important consideration for anyone who seeks to determine if it is appropriate to pray repeatedly regarding a need or approach God once in prayer and leave that request with Him. In light of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane (and Paul’s experience as recorded here in 2 Corinthians 12:8), it seems appropriate to bring our needs to God for as long as they exist or until such time as we receive an answer from Him.
Finally, one scholar offers a wide-ranging and thought provoking analysis of this passage…
“This was not lack of trust, but shows that we can pray about whatever concerns us as often as we feel the need. This recurrent, painful problem taught Paul a great spiritual lesson (cf. 2Co_12:9). I must say here that this account sheds light on the over-emphasis in our day on faith healing being conditioned on the amount of faith of the person needing healing. Obviously Paul had tremendous faith. Also, the unfortunate teaching that God wants every believer healed and delivered from every problem is addressed in this passage.
The requests of both Jesus and Paul were not answered in the way they wanted. God uses problems and sickness in our lives for His purposes (cf. Rom_8:17; 2Co_1:5; 2Co_1:7; Php_3:10; 1Pe_4:12-17). Our needs are God’s opportunity to reveal Himself and His will to us!” (1)
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, Free Bible Commentary 2 Corinthians [12:7] Copyright ©2014 by Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06B_12.html
“Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Like most people, John (1) was a combination of strengths and weaknesses. As a spiritual leader, John was particularly gifted in those areas of ministry that required empathy, compassion, and understanding. He offered sound Biblical counsel and cared deeply about others on an emotional level. If there was a family emergency, hospital admittance, or troublesome medical diagnosis, John immediately responded to the call to offer spiritual and emotional support without hesitation.
Nevertheless, John’s ministry responsibilities often required him to spend much of his time in areas that did not make use of those strengths. John recognized his limitations in those areas and as his ministry failed to progress in the manner he hoped, he sometimes questioned why God called him to a work that often did not make use of his attributes.
Much like this fictitious spiritual leader, there may be some who toil away at a ministry responsibility or secular job that seems ill-suited to their abilities. While it is difficult to be tasked with the responsibility to perform a duty for which we feel unprepared, 2 Corinthians 2:10 provides us with some important encouragement.
You see, God may sometimes place us in an arena where we possess little natural talent in order to demonstrate His capabilities, build our faith, or teach us something important about ourselves. One commentator summarizes this idea in a manner that is well worth our consideration…
“Our world prizes strength—the physical strength of athletes, the financial strength of companies, the political strength of office-holders, and the military strength of armies. But Paul put a new twist on the notion of strength: weakness can make a person strong (2 Cor. 12:7–10).
Most of us would have no problem with God using our natural areas of strength, such as speaking, organizing, managing, or selling. But suppose He chose instead to use us in areas where we are weak? Moses claimed to be a poor speaker (Ex. 4:10), yet God used him as His spokesman on Israel’s behalf. Peter tended to be impulsive and even hot-headed, yet God used him as one of the chief architects of the early church. Weakness has a way of making us rely on God far more than our strengths do.” (2)
(1) John is a fictitious person based on the author’s experience.
(2) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1511). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
“I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing” (2 Corinthians 12:11).
“‘Now,’ he says, ‘my folly is over. That I should have indulged in it is your fault, not mine.’” (1)
William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It contains one of the best known lines in all his literary works: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.” (2) Much like the character who spoke these famous lines, the Apostle Paul has also played a part before the Corinthian “audience” over the previous twenty-eight verses of this epistle.
Paul’s role was to play the fool, boasting of his ministry credentials in an effort to counter the influence of the false apostles who had infiltrated the Corinthian fellowship. But 2 Corinthians 12:11 marks the end of that performance. Its clear that Paul was uncomfortable in this role; in fact, he never would have engaged in such a performance if the members of the Corinthian church had not compelled him to do so.
If it were not for the inaction of the Corinthians in defending him, Paul could have spent a larger portion of this letter encouraging the congregation and working to edify them. Instead, he was forced to open himself to a charge of self-promotion in boasting of his credentials- and all because the members of the Corinthian church refused to acknowledge Paul’s apostolic authority despite the evidence he will go on to provide in the following verse.
But just as an actor may return to the stage to offer a fitting conclusion to a dramatic work, Paul will offer a coda to his performance of “The Fool’s Speech” here in 2 Corinthians 11:28: “…I am not at all inferior to these ‘super apostles,’ even though I am nothing at all” (NLT). This sentiment would later be echoed by Martin Luther who is widely quoted as saying, ‘God creates out of nothing. Therefore until man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.”
This doesn’t mean that Paul was lacking in human value but it does imply his recognition of a larger truth, one that he shared with the members of the Philippian church: “…it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
(1) Meyer, Frederick Brotherton. “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:4”. “F. B. Meyer’s ‘Through the Bible’ Commentary”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbm/2-corinthians-12.html. 1914.
(2) William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II Scene VII
“Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (2 Corinthians 12:12).
Much like the apostles who accompanied Jesus during His earthly ministry, the Apostle Paul verified his calling through the miraculous works God performed through him. Some of those works included the act of laying his hands upon the sick and their subsequent recovery (Acts 28:8, compare with Luke 9:1-6) and raising the dead (Acts 20:7-12 compare with Matthew 10:1-8). It was highly unlikely that the false apostles in Corinth could point to similar validations.
While these false teachers may have claimed to possess a similar degree of apostolic authority, Paul supplied the Corinthian church with hard evidence:“…an exhaustive demonstration of the power God gives to a genuine messenger of his in the miracles, signs and works of spiritual power that you saw with your own eyes” (Phillips).
One source provides us with a definition of the “signs and wonders and powerful deeds” (NET) referenced within this passage…
“The words signs and wonders and mighty deeds do not describe three different types of miracles, but rather miracles viewed in three different aspects. Signs were miracles that conveyed a definite meaning to human intelligence. Wonders, on the other hand, were so remarkable that they stirred up human emotions. Mighty deeds were performances that were obviously of superhuman power.” (1)
Yet even though God worked unusual miracles through Paul the Apostle (see Acts 19:11-12), he did not employ them as promotional tools. Nor were they designed to provide a spectacle for the entertainment of an audience. Instead, these “signs and wonders and mighty deeds” served to authenticate Paul’s apostolic authority and confirm the message of salvation through Christ he proclaimed.
So just as a signpost identifies (or points the way to) a destination, these miraculous signs were not the object of Paul’s work. However, they helped lay the groundwork for another of Paul’s objectives for the Corinthian church: spiritual growth and maturity (2 Corinthians 7:1). Thus, a person who found healing and salvation as a result of God’s ministry through Paul would reap the benefit in this world and the world to come.
Finally, we should remember that Jesus expressed His displeasure with those who refused to accept Him in the absence of such miraculous works when He said, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no means believe” (John 4:48). Because of this, we can say that these signs, wonders, and miraculous works did not represent the foundation of Paul’s ministry but served as a validating component of his ministry.
(1) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers (2 Corinthians 12:12)
“For what is it in which you were inferior to other churches, except that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong!” (2 Corinthians 12:13).
Its interesting to consider how God used the individual personalities, cultural backgrounds, and writing styles of the various Biblical authors to communicate His Word. While God is personally responsible for every single Biblical word (2 Timothy 3:16-17), the Scriptures also display the human qualities of their authors in the nuances of their work.
2 Corinthians 12:13 provides us with a good example of this concept in action. You see, Paul the Apostle responded to his critics with a healthy dose of irony in communicating a God-inspired message to the members of the Corinthian church. We could paraphrase that message in the following manner: “Do you actually believe that my decision to decline your financial support somehow made you inferior to other congregations? If that’s the case, then please forgive me for not taking money from you.”
One source suspects that Paul was responding to an agenda that was at work among some within the Corinthian church…
“The well-to-do in the Corinthian church want an apostle they can be proud of—one who conforms to their high-society expectations for a professional moral teacher. Thus they want Paul to stop working and to accept support from them, to become their client or dependent (see 1Co_9:1-27). Paul avoids playing into the hands of the well-to-do faction of the church… by accepting support from others instead; here he replies in irony: ‘Forgive me!’” (1)
In any event, Paul’s decision to forego the Corinthians’ financial support offered several benefits. First, it helped diminish the financial burden upon the members of the congregation. While that decision held little consequence for the wealthier members of the church, it surely had a beneficial impact upon those with limited financial resources
It also served to neutralize the criticisms of those who suspected that Paul may have been seeking to enrich himself. Finally, this decision provided Paul with greater flexibility in ministering God’s Word. Since Paul was not dependant upon support from the Corinthians, he had greater freedom to speak the truth without fear of reprisal from those who might be inclined to withdraw their financial assistance in response to an uncomfortable message.
So by removing the potential for the Corinthians to deprive him of their support, Paul also removed any limitations (perceived or otherwise) he may have felt in ministering to them. Given the number of serious issues that Paul has addressed throughout the Corinthian epistles, this choice was probably something that was absolutely necessary.
(1) Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament © 1988 Craig S. Keener [2Co_12:13]
“Now for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be burdensome to you; for I do not seek yours, but you. For the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved” (2 Corinthians 12:14-15).
There is a difference of opinion among Biblical scholars regarding Paul the Apostle’s statement in 2 Corinthians 12:14: “…I am ready to visit you for the third time” (NIV), While there are a few possible ways to interpret this message, we can turn to the Scriptural accounts of Paul’s Corinthian ministry to help make an educated guess.
Paul’s initial visit to Corinth is recorded in the New Testament book of Acts and took place during his second missionary journey (see Acts 18:1-8). Many believe that his second visit to Corinth was referenced earlier in 2 Corinthians 2:1. That portion of Scripture reveals Paul’s distress over a “painful visit” he made to address the inappropriate and ungodly behavior of some within the church. Now it appears that Paul was preparing to visit the Corinthians once again- but as we’ll soon see, he was greatly concerned over what he might discover upon his arrival.
Nevertheless, one thing that was common to each of Paul’s Corinthian visits was this: “I will not be burdensome to you.” Unlike other spiritual leaders who sought to subjugate the members of the Corinthian church, consume their wealth, seize their property, and abolish their freedom (2 Corinthians 11:19-21), Paul was concerned for the Corinthians’ personal welfare and not for what they could offer him.
For Paul, this concern was analogous to the relationship that exists between a loving parent and his or her child. Just as loving parents willingly make sacrifices on behalf of their children, Paul the Apostle willingly sacrificed his right to financial support from the Corinthians because it was in their best interest for him to do so. And just as a child may grieve a mother and father by failing to appreciate an act of parental self-denial, Paul felt that same kind of emotional heartache in his relationship with the church at Corinth: “I am glad to give you myself and all I have for your spiritual good, even though it seems that the more I love you, the less you love me” (TLB).
“But be that as it may, I did not burden you. Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you by cunning!” (2 Corinthians 12:16).
Since Paul the Apostle’s decision to forego financial support from the Corinthians made it impossible for his opponents to claim that he was seeking to enrich himself at their expense, it appears they turned to a similar (but equally unsupportable) charge. Paul alludes to that charge in 2 Corinthians 12:16 and we can use it to help identify the probable accusation against him.
It seems the charge against Paul amounted to a reverse form of money laundering. “Money laundering” is a term that describes the process of disguising a source of income in order to give it the appearance of legitimacy. For instance, a criminal might attempt to funnel the profits from an illegal enterprise through a legitimate business organization in order to make those profits appear legal. Thus, the “dirty” money generated by a criminal activity is “laundered” to make it look clean.
Admittedly, that’s a lot to infer from this verse so lets consider this portion of Scripture in greater detail. First, we should remember that Paul was heavily involved in organizing a project to collect funds for the Christian community in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-3). Although Paul worked to ensure financial transparency with regard to that offering (2 Corinthians 8:16-21), there was always the possibility that some might question where that money might ultimately go.
For those who were intent on discrediting Paul, this offered an opportunity to speculate upon any number of theories that ended with Paul diverting a portion of those funds for his own personal use- all while he was allegedly ministering to the Corinthians at no charge. One Biblical paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 12:16 illustrates this idea more fully: “Some of you are saying, ‘It’s true that his visits didn’t seem to cost us anything, but he is a sneaky fellow, that Paul, and he fooled us. As sure as anything he must have made money from us some way’” (TLB).
In their opinion, Paul must have reversed the money laundering process by siphoning funds from a “clean” source (the collection for the saints in Jerusalem) and turning it into something unethical. Others might simply call it theft. But much like a martial art form that turns an opponents’ force against him, Paul dealt with such criticisms in a forthright manner here in 2 Corinthians 12:16 and turned them back against his accususers. We’ll see Paul go on to call two witnesses to his defense next.
“Did I take advantage of you by any of those whom I sent to you? I urged Titus, and sent our brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not walk in the same spirit? Did we not walk in the same steps?” (2 Corinthians 12:17-18).
Just as a defense attorney might defend his or her client before a witness, Paul the Apostle asked several questions that were designed to reveal the truth about his financial relationship (or lack thereof) with the members of the Corinthian church. To some, Paul’s refusal to accept the Corinthians’ financial support was nothing more than veiled attempt to collect payment from them through some other means. To refute that charge, Paul called upon Titus as his primary witness in the passage quoted above.
From the context of this passage, it appears that Paul asked Titus to visit Corinth at some point. As part of that visit, Paul asked if there was anything in Titus’ character, demeanor, or conduct that reflected poorly upon Paul. As Paul’s associate, did Titus provide any indication that he had been less than ethical in some way? Did Titus ask for money. behave inappropriately, or otherwise try to take advantage of them? The obvious answer to those rhetorical questions was “no.”
Its often been said that a person can be known by the company he or she keeps and Titus’ ethical conduct mirrored Paul’s own behavior. Paul drove that point home by asking, “Didn’t we have the same motives and do things the same way?” (GW). The obvious answer to that rhetorical question was “yes.” If Titus acted honorably in his visit with the church at Corinth, then Paul surely did as well.
But that was not all. You see, Paul also referred to an unnamed brother who accompanied Titus. As a fellow Christian, that person could be certainly be trusted to provide independent confirmation of their good conduct. Thus Paul offered two lines of defense to support the integrity of his actions. While this may have been insufficient to silence Paul’s detractors at Corinth, it may have been enough to convince those who were more open-minded regarding their accusations against him.
Unfortunately, what was true Paul’s day remains true today as well. Those who defame others in pursuit of an agenda other than truth may never be convinced despite the quality of the evidence that demonstrates otherwise. Nevertheless, that should not dissuade us from defending our conduct if we have acted in an appropriate and ethical manner.
“Again, do you think that we excuse ourselves to you? We speak before God in Christ. But we do all things, beloved, for your edification” (2 Corinthians 12:19).
Some members of the Corinthian church may have viewed themselves as judges who were presiding over Paul the Apostle’s testimony within this letter. But as Paul reminded the Corinthians, his intent to was to build them up, not subject himself to their approval. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the Corinthians didn’t get the message even though Paul had already addressed this topic in an earlier letter to them…
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).
This doesn’t mean that Paul was dismissive of their opinions or was uninterested in what the Corinthians had to say. However, Paul weighed the relative value of their judgment in contrast to the highest authority- the Lord Himself. In this instance, it appears that some in Corinth were not interested in listening, learning, and establishing a dialog with Paul on spiritual matters; instead they were intent on subjecting him to their own inflated opinions.
Although it may not appear obvious at first glance, Paul’s example provides us with a tool we can use to evaluate ourselves in this regard: “We speak before God in Christ.” If our words and actions are tempered by the realization that everything we say and do takes place in God’s presence, we can have confidence in responding to those whose words and actions are guided by other motives.
As mentioned earlier, this approach is summarized by the Latin term Coram Deo, a phrase that means “in the presence of God.” For Paul, this represented a double-edged responsibility. First, it involved edifying (or “building up”) the members of the Corinthian church. However, it also involved the need to communicate a number of difficult truths.
So just as a builder might renovate a home, Paul sought to dismantle the old, ungodly attitudes that existed within the church and build a new congregational mindset, one that honored God. To accomplish this, Paul had to correct the mistaken notion that he was a defendant and the Corinthians were his judges. This was not a trial and Paul was not seeking to exonerate himself. Instead, he was there to help them if they were willing- and that meant establishing a proper understanding of their relationship with him.
“For I fear lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I wish, and that I shall be found by you such as you do not wish; lest there be contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults” (2 Corinthians 12:20).
As Paul the Apostle prepared to revisit to the church at Corinth, its clear that he held a great deal of concern over what he might discover upon his arrival. That concern involved many of the negative behaviors he has addressed over the course of his first and second Corinthian epistles. Paul expressed that concern with a list that included a number of inappropriate practices…
Contentions, a word that refers to factions within the church (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-12),
Jealousies, or rivalries between various individuals or groups (see 1 Corinthians 3:3).
Outbursts of wrath, One Biblical translation expands on this concept by associating this phrase with other terms such as intrigues and divided loyalties (AMPC).
Selfish ambitions. Once source defines this term in the following manner: “…a desire to put one’s self forward, a partisan and fractious spirit… This word is found before NT times only in Aristotle where it denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means.” (1)
Backbitings, a word that is rendered as backstabbing (CEB), selfish fighting (ERV), and slander (HCSB) in other Biblical versions of this passage.
Whisperings. We might associate this word with a person who secretly disparages others without their knowledge or someone who “talks behind your back.”
Conceits. This word communicates the idea of pride, arrogance, or someone who is “puffed up” (see 1 Corinthians 4:6).
Tumults, a word that is characteristic of disturbances, confusion, instability, or a state of disorder (2) (see 1 Corinthians 14:40).
These were issues that plagued the first-century church at Corinth and they represent attitudes that we should prayerfully seek to identify and eliminate within our own lives.
So this message served as a warning that alerted the Corinthians to the risk of future consequences if they failed to act upon Paul’s counsel within this letter: “I am afraid that when I come I won’t like what I find, and you won’t like my response” (NLT). As one source observes in commentating on this passage, “The apostle’s fear is that upon his return both he and his converts may find that the lies of his detractors have worked so well that neither of them will be happy to learn the truth” (3)
(1) G3701 eritheia Strong’s Definitions https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g2052
(2) G181 akatastasia Strong’s Definitions https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g181
(3) Davis, J. A. (1995). 1-2 Corinthians. In Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Vol. 3, p. 996). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
“lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness which they have practiced” (2 Corinthians 12:21).
In the final verse of this chapter, we find an open and honest admission from Paul the Apostle; he was fearful of what he might encounter on his next visit to the church at Corinth. Yet Paul was still willing to make that trip, even with the knowledge that it might result in a humiliating experience for him.
You see, Paul held a position of responsibility and accountability in his relationship with the members of the Corinthian church. As mentioned earlier, this was analogous to the type of relationship that should exist between a parent and a child from Paul’s perspective. Like any good, loving parent, Paul could not simply “look the other way” while the Corinthians engaged in harmful behaviors and developed relationships with others who sought to take advantage of them.
In this respect, Paul served as the antithesis of an Old Testament spiritual leader named Eli. We can find the account of Eli’s life in the Biblical book of 1 Samuel. His example illustrates the damage that can occur if we fail to act in a God-honoring manner and reprove, exhort, or correct those who fall within our sphere of authority.
Eli was a priest who had two sons who also served as priests. Unfortunately, Eli’s sons acted in a manner that was highly inappropriate for two men who were alleged to represent God. For example, we’re told that these men took the offerings that the people had dedicated to God and seized them for their own personal use (1 Samuel 2:12-17). They also engaged in immoral relationships with the women who served at the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22).
This misconduct was clearly apparent to the members of the local population but more importantly, it was also known to Eli (1 Samuel 2:22-25). Although Eli confronted his sons about their actions, he failed to exercise his parental, spiritual, and patriarchal authority to compel them to stop (1 Samuel 2:27-36, 1 Samuel 3:11-14). While it surely would have painful and difficult for Eli to put an end to his sons’ behavior, his failure to do so ultimately led to a consequence that was far worse (see 1 Samuel 4).
In contrast, Paul the Apostle was determined to follow a different path with the Corinthian church. He was prepared to use his position of authority to implement positive spiritual change and in doing so, he provides us with a good example to follow today.
“I am afraid that when I come again, my God may humiliate me in your presence, and that I will be grieved over many of those who sinned in the past and have not repented of the impurity, fornication and debauchery that they have engaged in” (2 Corinthians 12:21 CJB).
2 Corinthians chapter twelve closes with Paul the Apostle’s list of concerns for the members of the Corinthian church. Paul expressed those apprehensions by focusing on three specific types of conduct…
Impurity or uncleanness (NKJV). This phrase does not refer to physical cleanliness but is associated with those who act in a sexually immoral manner. It also expresses the idea of someone who acts from an impure motive that seeks to use others to meet his or her needs.
Fornication. In the original language of this passage, the word translated “fornication” is porneia. As you might suspect, this is the word from which we derive the modern-day term “pornography.” In a general sense, this word refers to any kind of sexual activity that occurs outside a Biblical marriage commitment. More specifically, it is used to identify two unmarried persons who are engaged in a physical relationship with one another.
Debauchery. “Debauchery” is a word that does not see widespread use today but serves to communicate a number of inappropriate behaviors. For instance, words like “promiscuous,” “immoral,” and “lewd” are all associated with the general idea of debauchery. A person who is undisciplined and unrestrained in his or her moral behavior is someone who might fit this description.
This list provided a warning to the congregation regarding the attitudes and behaviors that would motivate Paul to respond in a manner he would prefer to avoid. These descriptions also bring to mind something that Paul wrote in the Biblical letter that follows this epistle to the Corinthians…
“Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).
So while Paul has focused upon the actions of the false apostles in Corinth over the last few chapters of this letter, the other members of the Corinthian congregation were certainly not exempt. God-dishonoring choices would lead to negative consequences for the unrepentant and Paul issued a fair warning in the final verse of this chapter.