Criswell Theological Review 4.1 (1989) 119-144.

          Copyright © 1989 by The Criswell College. Cited with permission. 





                       SUFFERING, AND

                  SPIRITUAL MATURITY:

                     AN EXPOSITION OF

                 2 CORINTHIANS 12:1-10



            [Abbreviated by Ted Hildebrandt, for NT Lit courses use]


                                         DANIEL L. AKIN

                              Criswell College, Dallas, TX 75201



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




Theological context

            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

such activity. Though he has been "raptured into Paradise" and heard,

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

the interlopers at Corinth. Where the opponents of Paul presumed a

Christology only of du<namij, "strength," the apostle rightly operated

within the scope of a Christology of a]sqenei<a, "weakness."19 M. Harris


            18 Forbes, "Comparison," 552; cf. also Carson, Triumphalism, 16-27.

            19 Spittler, "The Limits of Ecstasy," 266.



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.



"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

experiences, gives evidence of an over-realized eschatology in Corinth.

Contrasting Paul's paradise vision with the mystery religions, Lincoln

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-

tian experience.

            (4) Legitimate boasting in the Christian life. McCant points out

that Paul's

            '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.



            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-

lowing observations.



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.

            29 Ibid.

            30 Ibid.



            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; Grand Rapids: Guardian, 1976)


            33 R. M. Price, "Punished in Paradise: (An Exegetical Theory on II Corinthians

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.



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,

St. Paul affirms the reality of his mysterious experiences."41 Barrett's

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

            in fact St. Paul; but Paul would rather be thought of as the weak man,

            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.



            Paul begins in v 2 by stating oi#da a@nqrwpon (perf. ind, intensive),

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

prophetic call.



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

commissioning at Antioch as apostle to the Gentiles, immediately pre-

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,"

n. 2) points out that we know of at least eight visions of the apostle Paul (I) Damascus

Road (Acts 9); (2) Vision of Ananias (Acts 9:12); (3) the vision of the Macedonian man

(Acts 16:8); (4) encouragement at Corinth (Acts 18:9); (5) of Jesus in the Temple (Acts

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

go up to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-2)-

            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.



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-

times described heaven in images drawn from Eden, and therefore

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. Philadelphia: Westminster,

1975) 257.

            54 Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 436.

            55 M. E. Thrall, The First and Second Letters of Paul to the Corinthians (Cam-

bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 176-77.

            56 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the

Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1937, repr. 1963) 1294.

            57 Kruse, II Corinthians, 204.

            58 Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 439, n. 119.



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 Corinth as

            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-

            closed (4:7-15).61


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.



            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

is a commercial term) beyond what ble<pei ("he sees"; pres. ind.) or

a]kou<ei ("he hears"; pres. ind.). The significance of the present tense of

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 Saint Paul to the Corinthians (London: Ep-

worth, 1967) 92.



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

be made.71


            66 J. Short, IB 5 (ed. G. Buttrick; Nashville: Abingdon, 1953) 406.

            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

Waco, TX; Word, 1985) 289.

            69 Plummer, A Critical Commentary on Second Corinthians, 347.

            70 Short, 407.

            71 Martin, II Corinthians, 410.



            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 vols.; McLean, VA:

MacDonald) 355; A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (5 vols;

Nashville: Broadman, 1931) 4.365.

            73 G. R. Beasley-Murray, II Corinthians (Broadman Bible Commentary; ed. C. J.

Allen; Nashville: Broadman, 1971) 72.

            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, "Qumran

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

Paradise," JSNT 7 (1980) 3.'3-40; N. G. Smith, "The Thorn that Stayed," Int 13 (1959)




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'

[pres. ind.] to you the grace of me. For the power [implied: 'my

power'] in weakness is perfected" (telei?tai pres. pass. ind.).

            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"

                        Jesus                                                   Paul

(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.



(3) Jesus receives an answer to his           Paul receives an answer to his

prayer different from his initial                 prayer different from his initial

request.                                                          request.

(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

he says,

            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



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.



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.

Paul says he is "well pleased, continually delights" (eu]dokw? pres. ind.

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."


                                                III. Conclusion

Baird states,

            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.



            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

            suffering service.87


            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.

He states,

            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

theological journal, the insights of Carson within this context seem a

fitting conclusion to our study. Seeking to glean practical and vital

truths from these chapters, truths which will challenge and strengthen

the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, Carson offers the following

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)




            (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


            89 Carson, Triumphalism, 27-29.




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