2 Corinthians 12

Apostleship Established by Divine Knowledge & Power
2 Corinthians 12
2 Corinthians 12. In this chapter Paul shows that he was not only an apostle, but an apostle of high degree. Not that he was boasting of being greater than others, but that the allegations of his detractors were false; he was “not a whit behind the chiefest of the apostles”. He had all the marks of an apostle (v.12), and He was given special revelations beyond any other. The chapter begins with a Christian in the best possible state; a “man in Christ”, caught up to paradise. The chapter ends with Christians in the worst possible state; those who “have not repented as to the uncleanness and fornication and licentiousness which they have practiced”. It is a chapter, in keeping with the character of this epistle, of high and low extremes! In the middle of the chapter we have the secret to enjoying heavenly things and avoiding sin; i.e. self-judgment.

He had been given Special Visions and Revelations (12:1-10)

Well, it is not of profit to me to boast, for I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. v.1 Paul now comes to another thing that marked him as an apostle; he had been given special visions and revelations of the Lord. It was not profitable for Paul to boast of these things, but it was profitable for the Corinthians. Visions and revelations are not the same. Visions are what you see, revelations are what God tells you. Paul’s ministry could be summarized in four revelations, which he most likely received at the time indicated in v.2. Read more… Since the truth has been recorded in the Holy Scriptures and the apostles have died, the visions and revelations that God gave in establishing Christianity are no longer needed. What is still needed are the revelations which God chose to have men write down by inspiration.
2 I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago, (whether in the body I know not, or out of the body I know not, God knows;) such a one caught up to the third heaven. v.2 This event happened fourteen years earlier and Paul hadn’t said anything to anyone.1 We ought to be quiet about our experiences that happen to us in private unless we have specific direction, as Paul did here, to share it. Paul actually went to heaven and came back! The experience is unparalleled. Yet Paul never made this experience the cornerstone of his doctrine, as if to say “You should believe in Christ because of my experience”. That would not be a sound foundation for faith. Many religions claim supernatural experiences; i.e. both Mohammed and Joseph Smith claimed to see things otherworldly. Instead the apostle’s doctrine is founded on the resurrection of Christ… a solid foundation for faith. Yet it is a real comfort for those of us “who are alive and remain” to know a little of what the sleeping saints are experiencing even now! Notice also that Paul identifies himself as “a man in Christ” and not by his own name or as an apostle. This was not something that was given to Paul only because he was an apostle. In a certain sense Paul’s experience represents the normal Christian experience of being dead and risen with Christ. We can have the experience of having no other occupation than Christ in glory. It is pictured in the Old Testament by Israel’s crossing the Jordan River and entering the land of Canaan. Read more… Paul was caught up to “the third heaven”, which indicates that there are three “heavens”. The three heavens mentioned in scripture are: the physical heaven, the spiritual heaven (heavenlies), and the eternal heaven, or the abode of God. This “third heaven” is connected in v.4 with “paradise”. Read more…
3 And I know such a man, (whether in the body or out of the body I know not, God knows;) 4 that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable things said which it is not allowed to man to utter. vv.3-4 While Paul was caught up into the third heaven, he couldn’t tell whether he was transported in the body like Elijah or Philip (2 Kings 2:11; Acts 8:39) or out of the body like Isaiah or John (Isa. 6:1; Rev. 4:1). It wasn’t a question of Paul on earth having a dream. At a minimum, Paul’s soul was caught up to heaven, and possibly his body, although he didn’t know about the body. It is significant that he didn’t know about the body. Paul’s awareness of self was so suppressed, and the natural senses were so unimportant to him that he said he didn’t know whether he was in or out of the body. In a similar way, when any “man in Christ” is fully immersed in the New Creation, the things of the Old Creation will grow strangely dim and unimportant. The believer will begin to walk through this world as one unmotivated by and unattached to the things of earth. We will become increasingly attached to heaven where Christ is, who is our life. But another reason why Paul says twice “whether in the body or out of the body I know not, God knows” is that we should be careful not to build elaborate doctrines on this experience. The great question that would naturally arise is how Paul’s mortal body could be brought into the presence of God. This would pose some difficult challenges, because no one can be in God’s presence unless in the glorified state. Certainly Paul was not glorified, because later on he died. But thankfully we are not given room to question or reason about it. Paul just says he didn’t know. We can leave it at that. Paul refers to being in “paradise”, which means ‘the garden of delights’. It was the same word used by Jesus when assuring the thief on the cross; “this day, thou shalt be with me in paradise”. Paradise is the intermediate state for believers. Read more… It is a state of being in the presence of the Lord, and it is like a waiting room where all the departed saints are until the rapture. It is not the same as the Father’s house (John 14). We will enter the Father’s house at the rapture, going in as a redeemed company, with our glorified bodies. Paul heard “unspeakable things” while he was there. Notice that it doesn’t say they were unintelligible, but that there were not words to describe what he heard. Now, some of the things Paul heard were given to him to speak, such as “the mystery”, which it would appear was revealed to Paul at this time (Eph. 3). In fact, much of what distinguishes Paul’s doctrine was probably received at this time. But this chapter refers more to the experience Paul had, as a mark that he was indeed a true apostle. What did Paul see in heaven? One thing we know Paul saw and heard is the glorified Christ; “The God of our fathers has chosen thee beforehand to know his will, and to see the Just One, and to hear a voice out of his mouth” (Acts 22:14).
5 Of such a one I will boast, but of myself I will not boast, unless in my weaknesses. 6 For if I shall desire to boast, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth; but I forbear, lest any one should think as to me above what he sees me to be, or whatever he may hear of me. vv.5-6 There was no self involved. Paul distances himself from the glory, speaking in the third person. The expression “of such a one” is somewhat difficult. Some critical translations read “on behalf of such a one”. Paul wouldn’t boast of himself, but of the blessedness of being “in Christ”. It is touching to see how even in this, Paul does not promote himself. He separates himself from this “one”, speaking generally of a man in Christ. He does not say myself until the issue of pride comes in, then he says “I” (v.7). Paul chose to boast only in “weakness”; i.e. that which magnified the power of Christ, and which the flesh could not boast in. Paul did not want anyone to think great thoughts about him. He was not looking for the praise of men; therefore he would “forbear” speaking anymore of the visions and revelations. People would form their impression of Paul from his moral conduct; what they saw him to be, or heard him to be. There are two kinds of foolishness in this section. In the previous chapter which dealt with sufferings, Paul was willing to play the fool by speaking of himself. It was “a little folly” (2 Cor. 11:1) because it was about him, rather than about Christ, but the account of his sufferings was not something the flesh would boast in. However, in 2 Cor. 12:6 he says “I shall not be a fool”, because in recounting visions and revelations from the Lord, there was provision for the flesh to be puffed up. The first kind of foolishness is speaking of self to help others and not bring glory to self. The second kind of foolishness is speaking of self to bring glory to self. One Paul was willing to do because they had compelled him… the second he simply would not do.
7 And that I might not be exalted by the exceeding greatness of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn for the flesh, a messenger of Satan that he might buffet me, that I might not be exalted. v.7 The visions and revelations were so great that God saw fit to give Paul this “thorn for the flesh”. The thorn for the flesh was a physical affliction that was given by God to make Paul small. We do not know exactly what this affliction was, but it could have something to do with Paul’s eyesight (Gal. 4:15). It was something that tended to make Paul contemptible in his preaching, and it was to the Galatians’ credit they were able to look past it (Gal. 4:13-14). The greatness of the revelations would inevitably mean that the flesh would rise up in Paul. Even the great apostle Paul had the flesh! This gives us some insight as to why God allows trials, even physical trials, in our lives. It may be preventative. The thorn was not given to correct the flesh, because the flesh cannot be corrected. Rather it was given to keep Paul humble; “that I might not be exalted”. It is similar to what we have in ch.4, where God was allowing suffering to break down his body (an earthen vessel), that the life also of Jesus might shine out. This was coupled with the practice of self-denial; “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus”. Even in relating this glorious experience, Paul presents the fact that God had to reduce him on account of his pride. We find that God was actually permitting “a messenger of Satan” to buffet Paul. Similar to Job, God was allowing Satan to afflict Paul, but God was ultimately in control, and it was given to accomplish God’s purpose. The only man who ever lived that had no possibility of pride (or need for a thorn) was the blessed Lord Jesus.
8 For this I thrice besought the Lord that it might depart from me. 9 And he said to me, My grace suffices thee; for my power is perfected in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of the Christ may dwell upon me. 10 Wherefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions, in straits, for Christ: for when I am weak, then I am powerful. vv.8-9 Paul prayed three times that the “thorn for the flesh” would be taken away. This was not for selfish reasons, but because the affliction was a hindrance to him. But he ceased asking when the Lord answered “My grace is sufficient for thee”. This is an example of Heb. 4:12. We can come boldly before the throne of grace, and we will find one of two things: mercy or grace. Mercy is deliverance from the trial, grace is to get through the trial. When we are praying for something for ourselves, we need to be sensitive to God’s will. When He chooses to give us grace (to go through a trial) instead of mercy (to get out of it), then we need to leave it with the Lord. But when it comes to praying for others, Paul could say “we… do not cease praying and asking for you” (Col. 1:9). In another place he says, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). Paul wasn’t just complacent about speaking of his infirmity, he could say “most gladly therefore will I rather boast in my weaknesses”. Why? Because Paul knew that his weakness magnified the power of Christ. Therefore, all the sufferings mentioned in the previous chapter (summarized in v.10), were what he chose to boast in, rather than his successes.

He had Performed the Signs of an Apostle (12:11-12)

11 I have become a fool; “ye” have compelled me; for “I” ought to have been commended by you; for I have been nothing behind those who were in surpassing degree apostles, if also I am nothing. v.11 Again Paul says he had become a fool, not in the sense of v.6, but in the sense of ch.11, v.1. He was not a fool in the sense of boasting to bring glory to himself, but in the sense of talking about himself, even for their own good. Paul remarks on the irony of these three chapters, as if to say “I shouldn’t even have to defend myself”. If things were right, the Corinthians should have been commending him! He repeats the same words he said in ch.11, v.5; “I reckon that in nothing I am behind those who are in surpassing degree apostles.” He did not say that he was ahead of the other apostles, but that he was not behind the greatest of the twelve, such as Peter, James, and John. He adds, “if also I am nothing”, because in comparison with Christ, the greatest believer is still nothing.
12 The signs indeed of the apostle were wrought among you in all endurance, signs, and wonders, and works of power. v.12 Paul states these facts, not as boasting in them, but as declaring what they already knew; “the signs indeed of the apostle were wrought among you”. There are five signs of an apostle, and the first is “patience”, or endurance through circumstances. Perhaps if a fleshly minded person were writing this, the signs and wonders would be at the top of the list. But moral character is above all what gives power to Christian ministry, even for an apostle. What is the difference between signs, wonders, and works of power? In scripture, “signs” are often connected with the conscience of man (warning), “wonders” are connected with the heart of man (awestruck), and “works of power” are connected with the mind of man (perplexity). In each case, the signs of an apostle marked him as having divine power. See Mark 16:17-18 for a more specific list of the things that mark an apostle. Note: it could be that “in patience” is the spirit or character in which the miraculous signs were done. How important it was that those deeds be done in the right spirit.

Paul Had Not and Would Not Be a Burden (12:13-18)

13 For in what is it that ye have been inferior to the other assemblies, unless that I myself have not been in laziness a charge upon you? Forgive me this injury. v.13 The thought is carried on from v.12. Paul was not inferior to the other apostles, and the Corinthians were not inferior to other assemblies in that the “signs of an apostle” had been done among them by Paul. They had abundant evidence at their disposal, just like the other assemblies… and yet Corinth was the assembly Paul must defend himself to. The only thing different with Corinth was that Paul had not been a financial burden to them. He says “Forgive me this wrong” because his refusal to take money from the Corinthians was their loss. Paul could say to the Philippians, “Not that I seek gift, but I seek fruit abounding to your account” (Phil. 4:17). The reason Paul hadn’t made himself a burden in Corinth was that he knew their state was too poor. He knew it could be used by the enemy to tarnish his ministry, and result in much damage. As we see in v.16, Paul’s suspicions were correct!
14 Behold, this third time I am ready to come to you, and I will not be in laziness a charge; 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. 15 Now “I” shall most gladly spend and be utterly spent for your souls, if even in abundantly loving you I should be less loved. vv.14-15 Paul had never been a financial burden to the Corinthians, and he wasn’t going to in the future. This “third time” coming to Corinth, Paul wouldn’t take any money for himself, although he would be ready to accompany those who would travel with the collection toward Jerusalem. Paul was proving to them in a practical way that he desired the blessing of their souls, not to profit personally from their material gains; “I do not seek yours, but you”. He was toward them as a parent with a child. A parent does not seek to profit from their child, but rather to provide for the child, and seek nothing in return. It was with gladness that Paul would actively give of himself (“spend”) and passively be taken advantage of (“be utterly spent”). The second is more difficult to do with gladness. As a parent with a child, Paul’s love was unconditional. He was willing to lay down his life for them; i.e. “be utterly spent”. It seemed like the more love Paul poured out on these erring children, the less he received in return. What a lesson! A true servant of Christ will go on loving and giving of him or herself without looking for anything in return. In this way Paul imitated Christ, and we should do the same.
16 But be it so. “I” did not burden you, but being crafty I took you by guile. 17 Did I make gain of you by any of those whom I have sent to you? 18 I begged Titus, and sent the brother with him: did Titus at all make gain of you? have we not walked in the same spirit? have we not in the same steps? vv.18-19 Not only was Paul careful not to be a financial burden to the Corinthians, but he made sure those he sent to Corinth followed his footsteps. Paul wisely uncovers the guile of his detractors. They were accusing him of guile, of refusing financial assistance when present with them, but sending Titus to reap their wealth instead. Paul was wiser than that, and cut off that opportunity by being careful to send only those servants whom he could trust implicitly to walk “in the same spirit” and “in the same steps” as Paul did. What a contrast Titus is with Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, who took money from Naaman the Syrian. The very fact that Paul has to say these words reveals the bitter resentment toward Paul on the part of his detractors, and the great need for carefulness that Satan might not get an advantage. How wise that there would be yet another brother “chosen by the assemblies” (2 Cor. 8:18-19) to accompany Titus, that all would be transparent and beyond suspicion.

Fears Concerning the Corinthians’ State upon Arrival (12:19-21)

19 Ye have long been supposing that we excuse ourselves to you: we speak before God in Christ; and all things, beloved, for your building up. v.19 The false accusations and scurrilous rumors about Paul had been going on for a long time in Corinth. They alleged Paul was just making excuses. In summary of this long defense of his apostleship, Paul could attest that everything he had said was true, because he spoke everything “before God in Christ”. Furthermore, Paul gave this long defense, not for his own benefit, but for their edification.
20 For I fear lest perhaps coming I find you not such as I wish, and that “I” be found by you such as ye do not wish: lest there might be strifes, jealousies, angers, contentions, evil speakings, whisperings, puffings up, disturbances; 21 lest my God should humble me as to you when I come again, and that I shall grieve over many of those who have sinned before, and have not repented as to the uncleanness and fornication and licentiousness which they have practised. vv.20-21 Paul’s fear was that, as he had warned many times, he would have to come with a rod. Then he would find them in a state he didn’t want, and they would meet him in a state they didn’t want. If there wasn’t a deep thorough work of repentance, the problems that existed in Corinth would be manifest when Paul arrived. In the first epistle, Paul wrote to correct a number of issues, but two glaring issues were disunity and immorality. Paul speaks here, after two corrective epistles, that there might be the evidence of disunity when he arrived;“strifes, jealousies, angers, contentions, evil speakings, whisperings, puffings up, disturbances”. If this were the case, Paul would have to exercise his apostolic authority in judgment on them. But he would not use his authority to exalt himself. Rather he would be “humbled”, much like a parent who has to discipline their child. And rather than feel justified, Paul would “grieve” over those who were going on poorly. He speaks of some who had “sinned before”, that is, before they were converted. We read in 1 Cor. 6 of the gross immortality that the Corinthians were steeped in before they were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11). It isn’t that some of them were still going on with these sins at the time Paul was writing, but that they had “not repented” of the immoral deeds they had practiced. This highlights the importance of repentance. If we do not judge the root of our sin, it will come up again eventually. Even after believing the gospel, it is important that there be a work of repentance. Often the issue of authority is what brings out the flesh in believers. For the Corinthians, it was the authority of Christ in the apostle that would manifest those who hadn’t repented of their old sins. For us today it could be the authority of a parent, or the authority of Christ in the local assembly. Sometimes an assembly action is taken, and we see the flesh coming out in surprising ways. It is because the work of repentance was never deep.
  1. We do not know exactly when this occurred. Some Bible teachers, such as F.G. Patterson, believe this event coincides with the incident in Lystra when Paul was stoned (Acts 14:19), because that was “fourteen years” earlier. However, there is no proof of it, so we cannot be sure.