Criswell Theological Review 4.1 (1989) 119-144.
Copyright © 1989 by The
AN EXPOSITION OF
2 CORINTHIANS 12:1-10
IN ITS LITERARY, THEOLOGICAL,
AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT
DANIEL L. AKIN
John E. Wood has aptly stated,
Let it be said at once that II Corinthians fills much the same place in the
New Testament as does the book of Job in the Old. It is a letter written
by one whose heart has been broken by the many intolerable burdens
heaped on him: a man struggling with a recalcitrant church and a
malignant foe. If in Romans and Galatians we see the apostle 'proclaim-
ing' the cross with might and main, in II Corinthians we see him 'bearing'
the cross, and bearing it triumphantly.1
126 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Within 2 Cor 12:1-10 and its immediate context several important
theological motifs are present which assist us in our exposition. These
include the development of a weakness Christology, the foundation
of apostolic authority, a rebuke of an over-realized eschatology, the
Christian life, and the proper place of boasting. This latter subject is
related to practical theology, yet it is an equally significant concern of
the apostle. We shall briefly comment on each of these in final prepa-
ration for our analysis of 12:1-10.
(1) Weakness Christology. In 2 Cor 12:1-10 Paul reluctantly
"boasts" about visions and revelations though he finds little benefit in
activity. Though he has been "raptured into
a]rrhta r!hmata, "unutterable utterances," he could not and would not
boast in his present self (vv 2-5) after the manner of his opponents.
He could legitimately boast (he would be telling the truth), but he
"refrained," fei<domai, because his authority rested in his public, con-
sistent words and witness, and not in the ecstatic experiences of a
previous day (vv 6- 7a). His thorn in the flesh was an instrument of
instruction concerning the sufficiency of divine grace (7b-9a). Further,
Paul learned (paradoxically, yes!) that at the center of the Christian
life was the principle that perfection (maturity) comes through weak-
ness, power through humility. This principle itself is grounded in a
weakness Christology (cf. 13:4), and is that which gives validity and
significance to 11:23-33, and counteracts the mindset and claims, of
Christology only of du<namij, "strength," the apostle rightly operated
within the scope of a Christology of a]sqenei<a, "weakness."19 M. Harris
"Comparison," 552; cf. also
19 Spittler, "The Limits of Ecstasy," 266.
Akin: TRIUMPHALISM, SUFFERING AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY 127
provides a helpful and balanced perspective of this spiritual principle
when he states, "Both weakness and power existed simultaneously in
Paul's life (note vv 9b, 10b), as they did in Christ's ministry and death.
Indeed, the cross of Christ forms the supreme example of 'power-in-
weakness'."20 Thus it is in the context of a weakness Christology that
Paul understands and builds his theology of Christian apostleship and,
indeed, the Christian life.
(2) The Foundation of Apostolic Authority. The basis of Paul's
apostolic authority, as we see, is closely related, indeed rooted in his
weakness Christology (as is his rebuke of over-realized eschatology
and the proper exercise of boasting). Martin summarizes the perspec-
tive of Paul when he says,
Paul's weaknesses--whether exhibited in his suffering for the Gospel or
centered in the thorn in the flesh--have been his criteria for true apostle-
ship. He has entered into the fray, not in order to boast of his own
achievement, but to boast of his weakness. By doing so he has offered
the Corinthians an alternative to the opponents that harass him. The
alternative is strength-based-on-weakness, a theme no doubt foreign to
the opponents of Paul, but one that expressed the heart of his Gospel of
a crucified Lord. . . . His weakness is the power of the crucified.21
In this same vein Forbes adds,
For Paul apostolic authority is the authority of the Gospel itself, mediated
through the apostle. Since the Gospel is the message of the 'foolishness'
and 'weakness' of God himself (I Corinthians 1:18-25), the apostle, if he
is such at all, embodies that foolishness and weakness. That is to say, his
life and work bear the marks of the death of Christ: the physical
sufferings and the social stigmata which we find enumerated in the
'catalogues of humiliation.' The pattern is not confined to the apostle, but
it is preeminently exemplified in him. His congregations are to imitate
him in his 'weakness' as he imitates Christ. Apostolic authority, the
embodiment of the power of the Gospel in the person of the apostle, is
the eschatological power of God, which is characteristically revealed
'in weakness'. This is what his opponents, in their arrogance, have
Forbes identifies, I believe, the crux of the matter when he comments
on 12:8-9 by saying, “This then, is why Paul will not boast of anything
except his 'weakness,' his humiliations and sufferings: they are to him
the surest marks of his commendation by the suffering Messiah.”23
Spittler adds his affirmation to these observations when he comments:
20 Harris, II Corinthians, 347.
21 Martin, II Corinthians, 394.
22 Forbes, "Comparison," 22.
23 Ibid., 21.
128 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
"The opponents authenticate their apostolic authority by pneumatic
demonstration; Paul paradoxically accredits his own authority by a
recital of weakness, thus aligning himself with his Lord who was
crucified from a position of astheneias (13:4)"24
(3) Correcting Overrealized Eschatology. The triumphalism of
Paul's opponents, as well as their apparent preoccupation with ecstatic
gives evidence of an over-realized eschatology in
Paul's paradise vision with the mystery religions,
makes an important point which applies also to Paul's enthusiastic,
existential, eschatological opponents:
In distinction from the mysteries, for Paul this experience of heaven had
no soteriological function as a rebirth elevating him to a higher existence.
There is no hint that he looked at it as the point of arrival in his search
for salvation or as that which produced a oneness with the divine and a
share in God's immortal being. Rather it came to him as someone who
was already a 'man in Christ', and that he was granted such an extraordi-
nary personal assurance of the reality of the heavenly dimension through
vision and revelation was purely of grace.25
Concerning Paul's mystic experience recorded in 12:2-4, Stewart
Even in the apostle's own career, it was quite exceptional. This was not
the level on which he habitually lived. The rapture and ecstasy came and
passed. . . . Paul himself--this is the point to be emphasized--would
have been the first to recognize and insist that such experiences form
only a comparatively small part of the soul's deep communion with God
in Christ. . . . It was in the daily, ever-renewed communion, rather than
in the transient rapture, that the inmost nature of Christianity lay.26
Verse 12:6 embodies the essence of Paul's thinking on this issue when
he informs the Corinthians that it is his present and continuous public
life and proclamation (note the use of the present tense) which is his
critical concern, and also his criterion for vibrant and genuine Chris-
(4) Legitimate boasting in the Christian life. McCant points out
'Boasting in weakness' is a parody of boasting and is thus ironical. Under
no circumstances does Paul wish to engage in what Plutarch calls peri-
autologi% (Paul uses kauxh<sij); it is not pleasing to the Lord (11:17).
24 Spittler, "The Limits of Ecstasy," 262.
25 Lincoln, "Paul the Visionary,"217.
26 J. Stewart, A Man in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, Reprinted 1975) 161-62.
Akin: TRIUMPHALISM, SUFFERING AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY 129
Since it is forced on him, he will boast 'inoffensively;' and unwittingly he
is consonant with Plutarch's rules for avoiding the offensiveness of
McCant goes on to show that while Paul's use of "boasting" is consis-
tent with the principles set forth by Plutarch, such may be only
coincidence. He further adds more importantly that one should not
neglect the OT as a possible source for the apostle's ideas and methods
in this area.28 Having laid this contextual foundation, McCant pro-
ceeds to identify in 2 Corinthians 10-13 aspects of boasting which
may properly be termed "principles of Paul's theology of boasting."
McCant argues that though Paul does not systematize them, he
does indeed advocate certain and specific principles for boasting
(kauxh<sij), a word which in its various forms appears 24 times in
2 Corinthians, 19 alone in chaps. 10-13, five in 12:1-9. Note the fol-
McCant's summary statement of these principles of boasting is an
echo of our prior conclusion concerning the primacy of Paul's "weak-
ness Christology" and the theology of the cross. He states, "Boasting
in 'weakness' and 'in the Lord' finds its foundation in Paul's Christo-
logy and theology of the cross."30
27 McCant, "Paul's Thorn," 558-59; cf. Plutarch, Moralia, "On Praising Oneself Inoffensively").
28 Ibid., 560.
130 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
II. Exposition of 12:1-10 "Glorying about Revelations
to His Soul and a Thorn for His Flesh"31
Alford notes that there is no break between this chapter and the
last.32 Especially is 11:22-33 significant to the passage, for it, along
with the "thorn in the flesh" (12:7-10) pericope, serves to sandwich
the paradise rapture in a context of weakness, thereby de-emphasizing
via structural context the importance of this ecstatic experience. Price
notes that "Basically, the thrust of the 'pronouncement story' consti-
tuted by II Corinthians 12:1-10 is that the blessing of God comes only
on the heels of adversity, not in the midst of ecstasy."33
Spittler structurally divides the text into five units: v 1, introduc-
tion of subject; vv 2-4, the paradise/third heaven rapture; vv 5- 7a,
character and grounds for boasting; vv 7b-9a, the sko<loy and its
persistence; and vv 9b-10, strength in weakness.34 We will adjust this
analysis slightly in our exposition.
1. Spiritual ecstasy: the paradise rapture (12:1-6)
Verse 1. "I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be
gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord." Paul
continues his ironic boasting, and states that it is morally necessary for
him to do so (kauxa?sqai, pres. inf.), even though such boasting is
not expedient or beneficial (ou] sumfe<ron me<n).35 The idea seems to be
that such activity is not becoming of the apostle, and that it is not
profitable for the Corinthians. Such action is not the best avenue of
spreading and defending the gospel, and Paul would prefer not to
boast at all.36 Yet as Barrett says, "It is not expedient to boast, but it
might be even more inexpedient not to boast."37 Thus Paul moves to
"visions and revelations from the Lord." In our text "visions" and
"revelations" are interchangeable terms, and only a minor distinction
between the two is warranted. A revelation mayor may not be via a
vision, and a vision may or may not be a revelation; Plummer notes
31 Plummer, A Critical Commentary on Second Corinthians, 336.
32 H. Alford, Alford's Greek Testament (4 vols;
33 R. M. Price,
12:1-10)," JSNT 7 (1980) 34.
34 Spittler, "The Limits of Ecstasy," 262.
35 Being aware of several textual variants in this passage, the author feels that it is
beyond the scope or intent of this paper to deal with them. In most cases we will
follow the UBSGNT 3rd ed. and NIV.
36 F. Fisher, Commentary on 1 and 11 Corinthians (Waco, TX: Word, 1975) 424.
37 Barrett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 306.
Akin: TRIUMPHALISM, SUFFERING AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY 131
that except in the apocrypha, o]ptasi<a, "visions" always points to a
vision that reveals something.38 The use of the plural "visions" and
"revelations" may indicate that Paul intended to share several experi-
fences of this type, yet the profitless nature of boasting led him to
recount only one.39 The word kuri<ou should be viewed as a subjective
genitive/ablative of source. The visions/revelations are "from the
Lord" and not "of or about the Lord" (objective genitive). Harris
points out that this interpretation is confirmed contextually by v 4, as
well as the repeated use of the divinum passivum of vv 2, 4, and 7,
where the unexpressed agent is God.40
Verses 2-4. "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was
caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or apart
from the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this
man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but
God knows--was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things,
things that man is not permitted to tell." "In solemn and subdued but
rhythmical language, which reads as if it were the outcome of much
meditation, and which suggests a good deal more than it states,
comments on these verses are crucial to a proper understanding of
what Paul is attempting to accomplish. They serve also as a balanced
perspective, and needed correction to some of the form-critical con-
clusions made popular by Betz. Barrett says,
Even when boasting of his own visions Paul is unwilling to do so
directly, and tells his story as if it related to someone else, of whom he
speaks in the third person. We may compare the occasional rabbinic use
of 'this man' for 'I' ...There is a man who is a visionary, and this man is
who has nothing to boast of but his weakness. Betz's account (pp. 84-92)
of verses 2-4 as a parody of an ascension narrative (of which there were
not a few in the ancient word) is full of useful parallels and of suggestion;
it seems to me; however, that the passage has an inner motivation that
makes it essentially independent of the parallels. Paul is not writing a
literary exercise in a given style.42
38 Plummer, A Critical Commentary on Second Corinthians, 338,
39 Martin, II Corinthians, 396.
40 Harris, II Corinthians, 397. See also R. V.G. Tasker, The Second Epistle of Paul
to the Corinthians (Tyndale; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958) 169-70; Plummer, A
Critical Commentary on Second Corinthians, 338; Hughes, Lincoln, and Martin suggest
that the genitive may be intentionally ambiguous and therefore capable of either
meaning or even both.
41 Plummer, A Critical Commentary on Second Corinthians, 339.
42 Barrett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 307.
132 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Paul begins in v 2 by stating oi#da a@nqrwpon (perf.
He essentially repeats this in v 3. Indeed the word oi#da is significant in
vv 2-3, occurring seven times. Paul describes this man as e]n xrist&?, a
favorite Pauline designation to describe the vital union of the Christian
relationship between a believer and his Lord. This designation, along
with the use of the third person, may be Paul's means of highlighting
the sacred nature of the experience, or because he wants to maintain a
distinction between the Paul who was granted this marvelous experi-
ence and the Paul who will only boast of his weaknesses (11:30).43 To
argue that "in Christ" means that in this experience the apostle was
"swallowed up in Christ, so as almost to lose his own personality,"44 is
to read into the text more than is warranted. Indeed, Furnish seems to
have the right idea when he says, "The phrase 'in Christ' may simply
mean 'a Christian' (see e,g., Rom 16:7); or, more probably, it is used
to identify this person (Paul) as one whose life has been transformed
and made new through faith in Christ (cf. Rom 6:11; 8:1; 1 Cor 1:30
and especially 2 Cor 5:17)."45
Paul dates the experience as occurring approximately fourteen
years from the time of writing, thus placing the event in the early
40s.46 He states further that the kind of experience, whether pneumatic
or somatic, is unknown to him. He repeats this thought with little
variation in 3b, indicating his ignorance, but also his indifference as to
the mode of the experience, That it actually happened is certain. The
"how" of it is not of primary concern. Perhaps the apostle is pur-
posely avoiding the endorsement of either a Jewish tradition which
almost always presumed a somatic rapture in such experiences, or a
Hellenistic tradition which almost always envisioned a pneumatic
rapture in which the body and soul (yuxh<) were separated,47 As far as
identifying this vision with anything specific we know of the apostle,
we agree with the unanimous consensus of scholarship that any such
43 Kruse, II Corinthians, 201. For an excellent discussion of the use of the third
person see v. P. Furnish, II Corinthians (AB; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984)
44 Plummer, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 116.
45 Furnish, II Corinthians, 524.
46 Hughes would argue for approximately A.D. 44.
47 Furnish, II Corinthians, 525. For interesting, helpful, but also some bizarre
ideas of Paul's ascension/rapture experience, 1 would direct the reader to J. L. Check,
"Paul's Mysticism in the Light of Psychedelic Experiences," JAAR 38 (1970) 381-89,
who evaluates Paul's experience in light of the psychedelic! J. W. Bowker, "Merkabah
Visions and the Visions of Paul," JSS 16 (1971) 157-73. He isolates parallels to "merka-
bah visions," which are based upon meditation of the heavenly chariot of Ezekiel;
Baird, "Visions, Revelation, and Ministry," identifies the vision in terms of apocalyptic
genre, dismissing as unsupported the view that sees the vision in an OT context of the
Akin: TRIUMPHAUSM, SUFFERING AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY 133
identification is nothing more than speculation. A popular view some-
times advocated is to identify this vision with Paul's stoning at Lystra
where he was left for dead. Plummer says in this context "That he
was caught up to heaven when he was lying apparently dead, after
being stoned at Lystra (Acts xiv. 19) is a surprising hypothesis."48
Fisher also notes that this view is "nothing more than conjecture."49 If
we are to be so bold as to set forth any theory, that to which Hughes
alludes to seems as reasonable as any. He notes that a number of
scholars (Allo, Zahn, Windisch, Plummer?, Bachmann, and Words-
worth) have been inclined to identify this experience with Paul's
ceding his first missionary journey (Acts 11:26; 13:4).50 Regardless of
its identification, our text affirms that the experience was personal to
Paul, and intended only for him, his edification and encouragement.
Paul says of this experience that he was "caught up, raptured" (a[r-
page<nta, v 2, h[rpa<gh, v 4) into the third heaven or paradise. The
word a[rpa<zw is also used by Paul in 1 Thess 4:17 to describe the
rapture of believers at the appearance of the Lord Jesus. The passive
voice indicates that Paul was not the active ,agent of the experience
but a passive subject. He was literally "snatched up" by the Lord
himself. This is in keeping with his literary use of the third person, as
well as his passivity throughout the pericope of 12:1-10. The phrase
"third heaven" is the first of a number of hapax legomena in this text.
While a great deal of attention has been given to this phrase as
providing insight into the apostle's cosmology, for our purpose we
find it wise to follow Calvin in his interpretation when he says, “He
[Paul] is not here describing fine philosophical distinctions between
the different heavens. . . . The number three is used as a perfect num-
ber to indicate what is highest and most complete.”51 Further, we see
48 Plummer, A Critical Commentary on Second Corinthians, 341.
49 Fisher, Commentary on I and II Corinthians, 425. Bowker ("Merkabah Visions,"
2) points out that we know of at least eight visions of the apostle Paul (I)
Road (Acts 9); (2) Vision of Ananias (Acts 9:12); (3) the vision of the Macedonian man
16:8); (4) encouragement at
22:17); (6) of Jesus during the night (Acts 23:11); (7) the angel in the shipwreck (Acts
27:23); (8) ascension into paradise (2 Cor 12: 1-4). To these we would add his vision to
50 Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 430-31. Cf- also Martin,
II Corinthians, 399,
51 J, Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964, repr. 1973) 156. Barrett (Second Epistle to the Corinthians,
310) follows Calvin, For expanded discussions see Hughes, The Second Epistle to the
Corinthians, 432-34; Martin, II Corinthians, 401-2; Plummer, A Critical Commentary
on Second Corinthians, 343-44.
134 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
in this account one unified vision not two visions, or one vision of two
parts. The third heaven and paradise are semantically equivalent, but
the word para<deison does inform us additionally of the apostle's
conceptualization in this area.52 The word "paradise" occurs in the NT
only three times: (1) Luke 23:43, (2) our present text, and (3) Rev 2:7.
A Persian word, it originally meant an "enclosure," and was used of a
pleasure garden or park. Barclay says, "When a Persian king wished
to confer a very special honor on someone dear to him, he made him
a companion of the garden and gave him the right to walk in the royal
gardens with him in intimate companionship."53 Hughes notes that in
the LXX para<deisoj is used for the "garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3)."54
M. Thrall also points out that "paradise is spoken of as the abode of
God in the Greek versions of Ezekiel (Ezek 28:13; 31:8). It was
thought of by the Jews as the region where the blessed, after death,
go to dwell with God until the final resurrection."55 Thus, from a
theological perspective, Paul's rapture experience took him to heaven,
to the very presence of God. Lenski notes that the prophets some-
described heaven in images drawn from
heaven could be viewed as a "paradise regained."56 A reading of
Revelation 21-22 will readily confirm Lenski's thesis.
Paradoxically, Paul's vision gives us no sight into divine mysteries;
his revelation no knowledge of heavenly truths. Paul simply related
that he heard a@rrhta r[h<mata. The word a@rrhta is also a hapax
legomenon, and the phrase itself an oxymoron. Kruse points out that
"Paul's account of his rapture differs markedly from other such
accounts from the ancient world both in its brevity and the absence of
any description of what he saw."57 Paul goes on to inform us that
what he heard is ou]k e]co>n a]nqrw<p& lalh?sai. Hughes says that this
pbrase may mean either "it is not possible" or "it is not lawful." He
correctly argues the latter, seeing e@cestai appears in the NT an addi-
tional thirty-one times, and always it seems to have the meaning "it is
lawful."58 Hodge comments that the revelation to which Paul was
52 See Hughes (The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 435-39) for an excellent
survey and discussion of the number of visions and the development, meaning and use
of the word “paradise.”
53 W. Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (rev. ed.
54 Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 436.
55 M. E. Thrall, The First and Second Letters of Paul to the
56 R. C. H. Lenski, The
Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1937, repr. 1963) 1294.
57 Kruse, II Corinthians, 204.
58 Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 439, n. 119.
Akin: TRIUMPHAUSM, SUFFERING AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY 135
privileged was one he was not allowed to make known to others.59
Barrett adds that the language here is that of the mystery religions,
but that it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that Paul was
directly dependent upon them. He further notes that,
The idea of sealed revelations was already to be found in the Old
Testament (Isa. 8:16; Dan. 12:4; cf, also 2 Enoch 17; Rev. 14:3). Paul's
revelation thus falls into a
familiar form-familiar no doubt at
a boast of Paul's rivals. Of this he too can boast; but as throughout these
chapters, his boasting is twisted into an unusual form.60
Verses 5-6. "I will boast about a man like that, but I will not
boast about myself except about my weaknesses. Even if I should
choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because 1 would be speaking
the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is
warranted by what I do or say."
Furnish sees here the essence of Paul's thinking with respect to his
apostolic authority when he says,
Paul will support his apostleship only by boasting of his weakness (11:30;
12:5, 9b-10): while he is willing to record this one instance of a private
experience, he is quite unwilling to claim it as an apostolic credential. . . .
Paul does not want to be known as a 'visionary,' but only as a weak and
suffering apostle. . . through whom God's incomparable power is dis-
Spittler adds to this when he states,
The paradise pericope thus continues and sharpens--one may say con-
summates--the same argument as that of the Peristasenkatalog (11:21b-
33): the physical hardships endured in the ministry and the skolops-
tempered, superlative revelations of paradise are no mere quantitative
proofs of apostolic superiority or even legitimacy. They rather function
as qualitative inversions to a wholly new ground for kauchesis (cf. 11:30
with 12:5b and 12:9b).62
Spittler goes on to point out concerning the relationship of vv 2-4 to
v 5 that,
It is precisely this esoteric disclosure in paradise (vss. 2-4) which
illumines both the third-person character of vss. 2-4 and the force of
vs. 5 which are interrelated. . . . By casting his (autobiographical!) report
59 C. Hodge, An Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1859; repr. 1980) 28.3.
60 Barrett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 311.
61 Furnish, II Corinthians, 544.
62 Spittler, "The Limits of Ecstasy," 262.
136 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
in the third person, Paul thus distinguishes his present self (the chal-
lenged apostle) from his ecstatic self ('14 years ago'). About his ecstatic
self (hyper tou toioutou, vs. 5) he will not boast (except in the asthen-
eiais). . . . Both Paul and his opponents experience ecstasy; the difference
lies in the use they make of it. For Paul such experiences are theo (I Cor.
14:2 and II Cor. 5:13). For the opponents, ecstasy serves not only for
propagandistic enticement, but as well for apostolic accreditation. Once
again the issue of apostolic authority emerges: by his refusal to capitalize
on the arreta rhemata, Paul rejects apostolic accreditation by ecstasy as
well as the ecstatic conception of Jesus such a view presupposes.63
These observations inform our exposition of vv 5-6. Indeed, on
behalf of such a one as the man described in vv 2-4, Paul will boast
(though we might add he will not tell us anything about his experi-
ences!). But of his present self only in his a]sqenei<aij will he boast
(cf.11:22-33; 12:7-10, and note again the strategic location of the
paradise pericope). Paul is quick to inform us that if he chooses to
boast he would not be a fool (a@frwn), but would be speaking the
truth (a]lh<qeian). Yet to do so would not be expedient (drawing upon
his opening statement in v 1), and indeed might be harmful. Religious
experiences, no matter how wonderful, are not the basis upon which
to establish apostolic authority or spiritual maturity. Furnish is quite
correct when he says,
His apostleship cannot be demonstrated by a recitation of his other
worldly experiences, but only by the effectiveness of his this-worldly
service as an apostle. The effectiveness of this service, and thus the
legitimacy of Paul's apostleship, is confirmed by what the Corinthians
can 'see' and 'hear' of his human frailties (the point of this 'fool's speech')
and of his apostolic work in establishing their congregation."64
So the apostle continues, fei<domai ("I refrain"; pres. mid.) lest anyone
ei]j e]me> logi<shtai (note the word order; "to me reckons, accounts"; it
a commercial term) beyond what ble<
("he hears"; pres.
these two verbs should not be minimized. Syntactically they probably
function as present progressives, emphasizing the consistency of life
demonstrated by the apostle. "Nothing should be reckoned to his
account but what is self evident."65 Short catches the flavor of what
Paul wishes to communicate. In these verses Paul
63 Ibid., 264.
64 Furnish, II Corinthians, 546-47.
65 J. Hering,
The Second Epistle of
worth, 1967) 92.
Akin: TRIUMPHALISM, SUFFERING AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY 137
implies that there is a good deal more which he could say in defense of
his position as an apostle, if he should adopt that line of argument. But
he will not give a false impression, or ask people to judge of his authority
by anything except the life he lives and the message he preaches. Nothing
else will authenticate him as an ambassador for Christ.66
Paul says, "Examine my walk and words." Anything beyond this is
not that on which apostolic authority or Christian maturity should be
2. Personal difficulty: the thorn in the flesh (12:7-9a)
Verses 7 -9a. "To keep me from becoming conceited because of
these surprassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in
my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.67 Three times I
pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me,
'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in
Chafin points out that the immediacy of the "thorn in the flesh"
narrative following the paradise rapture is not accidental; Paul evi-
dently believed that the two experiences were significantly related to
each other.68 Exegetically we have chosen to construct the phrase kai>
t^? u[perbol^? tw?n a]pokalu<yewn prospectively with v 7 (following the
NIV), and not retrospectively with v 6 (UBSGNT, 3rd ed.). The
proper interpretive move is most difficult to determine, and scholars
are divided over the issue. That equally good arguments can be made
for either view should promote humility at this point of interpretation.
Plummer renders v 7 a as, "And by reason of the exceeding
greatness of the revelations--wherefore that I should not be exalted
overmuch. . . . "69 "Exceeding greatness" translates u[perbol^? from
which we get our English word hyperbole. The word may be taken
quantitatively "abundance" or qualitatively "excellence" of the revela-
tions.70 Martin also makes this observation and, though favoring the
qualitative aspect, feels that a sharp distinction should probably not
66 J. Short, IB 5 (ed. G. Buttrick;
67 Unfortunately the NIV text omits at this point the repetition of i!na mh> u[per-
ai<rwmai. It receives a [C] reading in the UBSGNT 3rd ed. It is our judgment that
the phrase is a part of the original text. Therefore we have an example of inclusio or
framing in v 7 which heightens the significance of "the thorn in my flesh, the messenger
of Satan to torment me," as a necessary means of keeping Paul humble.
68 K. L. Chafin, 1, II Corinthians (Communicators Commentary; ed. L. J. Ogilvie
69 Plummer, A Critical Commentary on Second Corinthians, 347.
70 Short, 407.
71 Martin, II Corinthians, 410.
138 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Paul proceeds to tell us that the paradise vision had the potential
for promoting spiritual pride and arrogance. Therefore, "in order (i!na
introduces the first of three purpose clauses) that he might not lift
himself up improperly (u[perai<rwmoi pres. mid. sub.)," there was
given to him a thorn for his flesh. The middle voice seems significant
in indicating self exaltation. This same word is also used by Paul in
2 Thess 2:4 with respect to the "man of lawlessness."
He was given a sko<loy t^? sarki<. We have again an example of
the passivum divinum, for it is clear that God is the hidden agent who
is operative behind the scenes. Paul therefore sees the "stake, thorn"
(sko<loy is also a hapax legomenon) as originating in God. He pro-
ceeds in the text to further identify this sko<loy as a messenger of
Satan whose purpose is (1) continually to buffet (pres. tense) him
( cf. Matt 26:67 of literal physical blows inflicted upon Jesus during his
passion), and (2) for the purpose of keeping him humble. "Messenger
of Satan" is a personification of the sko<loy.72 "Thorn in my flesh" is
capable of two interpretations. If rendered "in the flesh" (locative of
place), it becomes likely that a physical disability is in mind. If it is
interpreted "for the flesh" (dative of disadvantage), then "flesh" may
be referring to the sin nature or creaturely weakness.73 It is our view
that the former of these two options is the better interpretation.
The question of primary interest is, of course, "What was the
thorn?" Anyone familiar with 2 Corinthians is well aware of the ex-
tensive discussion on this subject.74 Our own position is that Paul
suffered physically from a severe opthalmic difficulty. This seems
reasonable in light of Gal 4: 13ff; 6:11. This view is one we hold
tentatively, recognizing the objections to it, as well as the apparent
growing popularity and the defensibility of the thorn as being some
type of persecution.
Paul, in the OT tradition of Job, sees Satan as the instrument of
suffering in God's hand, accomplishing an end for him that is bene-
72 M. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (4
MacDonald) 355; A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (5 vols;
73 G. R. Beasley-Murray, II Corinthians (Broadman Bible Commentary; ed. C. J.
74 In the commentaries see the extensive discussions of Furnish, II Corinthians,
547-50; Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 442-46; Plummer; A Critical
Commentary on Second Corinthians, 348-51; Plummer, Second Epistle to the Corin-
thians, 140-45. Journal articles dedicated to
this subject include M. L. Barre, "
and the 'Weakness' of Paul," CBQ 42 (1980) 216-27; McCant, "Paul's Thorn," 550-72;
T. Y. Mullins, "Paul's Thorn in the Flesh," JBL 76 (1957) 299-303; P. Nisbet, "The
Thorn in the Flesh," Exp Tim 80 (1969) 126; D. Park, "Paul's SKOLOY TH SARKI:
Thorn or Stake (II Cor. XII 7)," NovT 22 (1980) 179-83; R. Price, "Punished in
Akin: TRIUMPHALISM, SUFFERING AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY 139
ficial (cf. Rom 8:28-30). This does not prevent him however from
petitioning the Lord "three times" (we take this literally contra Calvin)
to remove him a]p ] e]mou< (ablative of separation). The word tou<tou we
take as masculine, and therefore referring to the messenger of Satan.
However making a fine distinction at this point seems unnecessary.
It is here that Paul reveals a revelation from the Lord, rather than
in the paradise pericope which is contextually related to "visions and
revelations" in 12:1-4. Concerning kai> ei@rhke<n ("But he said to me"
perf. tense), Vincent says, "A more beautiful use of the perfect it
would be difficult to find in the New Testament."75 God has spoken in
the past, and that revelation continues even now to ring in the apostle's
ears. The word order of what follows is again significant: "'Suffices'
in weakness is perfected" (telei?tai pres. pass.
While Betz sees in this section a miracle or wonder story (parody)
that interestingly contains no miracle (such an observation we would
think would lead him to question the soundness of his identification of
literary form), the insights of McCant and also Tasker seem more
promising. They point out a number of parallels between Jesus (espe-
cially his garden/passion experience) and Paul. (McCant following
Betz does, however, call this a "parodic healing story!"76). Building
upon and expanding their insights, we would not suggest Paul con-
sciously modeled this narrative after the experience(s) of our Lord.
However, the "weakness Christology" we see developed so clearly in
2 Corinthians, as well as the "suffering servant motif," which surfaces
so often in the NT would certainly be influential for our apostle's self-
understanding of his position and mission. Those who follow the Lord
Jesus can expect that they will in many situations and circumstances
relive the mission, and even passion of the Savior.77
"Parallels between Jesus and Paul in the Context of Affliction"
(1) Jesus faced a cross (stauro<j) Paul faced a thorn/stake
an instrument of death. (sko<loy), possibly an instru-
ment of death (2 Cor 12:7).
(2) Three times Jesus prays "Let Three times Paul prays for the
this cup pass" (Mark 14:35f). removal of the thorn
(2 Cor 12:8).
75 Vincent, Word Studies, 356.
76 McCant, "Paul's Thorn," 571.
77 Ibid.; Tasker, Second Epistle to the Corinthians,178.
140 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
(3) Jesus receives an answer to his Paul receives an answer to his
prayer different from his initial prayer different from his initial
(4) Jesus prayed, "Not my will but Paul receives a word from the
thine. . ." (Luke 22:42). Lord (an oracle?), "For you
my grace is sufficient."
(2 Cor 12:9)
(5) Jesus is crucified. (Mark 15:24) Paul receives no healing.
(2 Cor 12:9).
(6) Jesus was rejected by "his Paul's "own" church (the
own." (John 1:11). Corinthians) apparently were
on the verge of rejecting him
(2 Cor 10:14; 12:7-10).
(7) Jesus was raised from the dead Paul will live with Christ "by
"by the power of God." the power of God"
(Mark 16:1). (2 Cor 13:4).
(8) Jesus was rejected as Messiah. Paul was rejected as an
(9) Jesus was the suffering servant. Paul was a suffering servant
(10) God saved a world through a God reached a world through
Christ crucified in weakness. an apostle daily crucified in
Christ in weakness.
The comments of Furnish are well taken and to the point when
the apostle is directed to understand his affliction as part of that weakness
in and through which God's powerful grace is operative. It is clear that
from Paul's point of view the 'decisive demonstration of the truth' of this
oracular pronouncement is Christ himself, 'crucified in weakness' but
alive 'by the power of God' (13:4a, cf. I Cor. 1:17-18,22-24). This is why
weakness is the hallmark of his apostleship, because he has been com-
missioned to the service of the gospel through the grace of
this Christ--a grace whose power is made present in the cross. Paul
therefore does not, like the Cynic and Stoic philosophers of his day,
strive to transcend his weaknesses by dismissing them as trifling. Nor
does he, like them, hold to the ideal of self-sufficiency, striving to limit
his needs and therefore his dependency on others. Rather, precisely by
accepting his tribulations as real weaknesses he is led by them to ac-
knowledge his ultimate dependence on God (cf. 1:8-9). Thereby his
weaknesses--not just the frailty which inevitably characterizes his crea-
turely status, but the adversities and afflictions he has had to bear as an
apostle--have become a means by which the incomparable power of
Akin: TRIUMPHALISM, SUFFERING AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY 141
God is revealed (4:7-15). The oracle he now quotes is therefore but a
special formulation of the gospel itself: salvation, one's only true suffi-
ciency, is by God's grace and in God's power (cf. 3:5, 8:9; Rom. 1:16).78
3. Supernatural sufficiency: The power of Christ overshadowing
Verses 9b-10. "Therefore will I boast all the more gladly about
my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why
for Christ's sake I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in
persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."
Furnish summarizes the essence of this final section of 2 Cor 12:1-
10 when he states,
Having cited the oracle (v. 9a), Paul goes on in vv. 9b-10 to show how it
applies to him, and therefore how it supports what he has been doing in
this 'fool's speech.' Three sentences express essentially the same point in
three different ways. ...The apostle says that he has now stopped pray-
ing for relief from the thorn in the flesh. Now, instead, he boasts of his
weaknesses, including that specific affiiction, because now he understands
them not as Satan's work but as the operation of the grace of the
crucified Christ. . . grace that constitutes the power of Christ.79
@Hdista ou#n ma?llon kauxh<somai e]n tai?j a]sqenei<aj "Most gladly
therefore (because of the Lord's reply) will I rather glory in my
weaknesses (than pray that they may be removed). The order of the
words is important."80 Also, this is the last use of kauxh<somai in this
epistle. Barrett points out that ma?llon is not to be taken with h@dista,
and that it is awkward that no direct comparison is expressed.81
Lenski I think demonstrates that though the grammar may be cloudy,
the thinking of the apostle is clear, especially when we construct it
with what follows: i!na e]piskhnw<sh e]p ] e]me> h[ du<namij tou? xristou? "in
order that may rest or tabernacle upon me the power of Christ."
The superlative h@dista is elative: 'very gladly,' 'with exceeding gladness'.
Ma?llon is distinct, 'the more,' 'rather,' since Paul had received this word
from the Lord, which showed him the great value of all his weaknesses
for the Lord's purpose. . . . All that he had said in 11:30 and 12:5 about
his making only the weaknesses his boast, all that at first sounds so
paradoxical and incomprehensible in these statements, is now perfectly
78 Furnish, II Corinthians, 550-51.
79 Ibid., 571.
80 Plummer, A Critical Commentary on Second Corinthians, 355.
81 Barrett, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 317.
82 Lenski, Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians, 1306.
142 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
Plummer points out that i!na e]piskhnw<sh is a "bold metaphor, which
may possibly be intended to suggest the Shechinah 'that the
strength of the Christ may tabernacle upon me."83 The word e]pi-
skhvw<sh is the third hapax legomenon in the pericope.
Paul concludes with a summation in v 10. Paul again includes a
"catalog of hardships," the second such listing in the "fool's discourse"
(cf. 11:23b-24). This listing is much shorter and more generalized.
says he is "well pleased, continually delights" (eu]dokw? pres.
progressive) in his weaknesses. The question as to whether power
through weakness is to be understood revelationally or ontologically
or both is addressed at length by Martin and especially O'Collins.84 In
our view the last idea is preferred, the thought being, "Under circum-
stances of 'weakness' something happens (power intervenes), and
both Paul and others become aware of this new development."85
Verse 10. "When I am weak, then I am powerful" is a gnomic
climax to 12:1-10. Paul has exposed his whole ministry for all to
observe, and he invites others to draw strength from his experience(s).
Whenever the Lord's servants humble themselves and acknowledge
their shortcomings, insufficiencies, and weaknesses, the power of Christ
can flow through them and manifest itself.86 "For whenever I am
weak, then powerful I am."
What do these exegetical observations imply for Paul's understanding of
revelatory experience as ground for ministry? Negatively, they indicate
that Paul refuses to found his ministry on private, ecstatic religion--even
though he can claim religious experiences of that sort. At the same time
II Corinthians 12 does say something positive about ministerial authority.
Paul, after demonstrating the vanity of boasting in visions, says, 'on my
own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses' (vs. 5). This
weakness is epitomized by the experience of the thorn, and the revela-
tion which that experience provided was crucial. In that revelation, the
power of Christ was perceived to work in weakness. Paul's ministry,
with its long catalog of weaknesses (II Cor. 11:24-29), was designed to
conform to God's way of working (I Cor. 1:23-24)--as power in weak-
ness. Paul refrains from boasting in visions, so that no one may credit
83 Plummer, A Critical Commentary on Second Corinthians, 355. Also see the
discussion of Martin, II Corinthians, 421.
84 Martin, II Corinthians, 421-23; cf. G. O'Collins, "Power Made Perfect in Weak-
ness: II Cor. 12:9-10," CBQ 33 (1971) 528-37.
85 O'Collins, "Power Made Perfect in Weakness," 528.
86 Martin, II Corinthians, 423.
Akin: TRIUMPHALISM, SUFFERING AND SPIRITUAL MATURITY 143
me with more than one sees or hears from me' (II Cor. 12:6). In other
words, Paul's ministry is accredited by the public credentials of his
Unfortunately, much of Christendom in 1989 is not far removed
from the mindset of the Corinthians in A.D. 55-57. Theologically and
practically we, like they, need to rethink biblical criteria for charac-
teristics which exemplify spiritual maturity, personally and ecclesio-
logically. Bruner speaks to what Paul would desire that we learn not
only from 2 Cor 12:1-10, but indeed the entire Corinthian corpus.
The Corinthian letters are a sustained attempt to formulate what Luther
called a theologia crucis, a theology of the cross. God's way of working
in the world--to men an inefficient way, and thus a proof of its divinity--
is the way of weakness. The crucified Christ himself is this way's classic
content; the cross its classic form; the struggling church (and church
member) its classic sphere. Men are saved by believing this content and
serve by assuming this form in this sphere. But hidden in the cross and
weakness (corporate and individual) and revealed in the church to faith
is resurrection power. When. . . weak, then. . . strong. (II Cor. 12:10)88
Though some might deem a practical word as inappropriate for a
journal, the insights of
fitting conclusion to our study. Seeking to glean practical and vital
truths from these chapters, truths which will challenge and strengthen
church of the Lord Jesus Christ,
observations by way of contemporary applications/significances.
(1) We should learn something of the very nature of Christian
leadership. Little is more important in our day when promoting self
under the guise of promoting Christ has become both commonplace
and indeed an advocated practice.
(2) We should discover the root of evil wedded to worldly boast-
ing and its relationship to the self-centeredness and pride which lies
at the heart of all sin. Modern "Christian" success stories and formulas
often reveal more about prideful triumphalism than the humble way
of the Saviors cross which fosters holiness, character, maturity, and
understanding in the sacred truths of the Christian faith.
(3) We should seek to emulate the model of Christian maturity
Paul exemplifies. Service, humility, conviction, and spiritual depth are
the characteristics that should be our priorities, our goals.
87 Baird, "Visions, Revelation, and Ministry," 661.
88 F. D. Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970)
144 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
(4) We should be reminded that Christians individually and cor-
porately are responsible for the styles of leadership they follow and
honor. The reality that Christian leaders are responsible before the
Lord for their conduct and teaching is equally balanced by the truth
that the members of the Christian community are responsible before
Christ for choosing what and whom they will follow.
(5) Finally, we should remember again that the early church like
the modern church was no paragon of perfection. They, like us, were
those whose allegiance was to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but whose
maturity and growth in his sanctifying grace often fell short of that
which our Lord intends. Indeed we are never to lose sight of the
reality of Scripture which reminds us that perfection will be experi-
enced only in the Parousia.89
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