I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. (12:1)
With this little bit of transition, Paul takes us in to a second subsection in his enhanced defense of his ministry in Corinth; his readers are still in the woodshed. Here, Paul is getting into a subject that he really doesn’t mention much about in his writings, and apparently in his public teaching: visions and revelations he has experienced. We can infer from this that his opponents, those super-apostles, have big claims to special revelation. If that was true, then we know why Paul would talk about something here that he normally avoided. Why would he normally refrain from discussing these subjects? Because there is “nothing to be gained”.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of 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 and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (12:2-4)
So, Paul knows a guy who, 14 years ago, during the period in Paul’s life we know nothing at all about, who was caught up to the “third” heaven… After the story, Paul has an interesting comment to make:
But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. (12:6b-7a)
It sounds like this guy was really Paul after all, doesn’t it? Now look at 7b:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
Linking the story with his thorn in the flesh makes it pretty clear that Paul is that man. Yes, the super-apostles make their wild claims and tell their entertaining stories, but Paul, who really doesn’t like to talk about it, has real stories to tell. Yet even though he has such stories to tell that also have the benefit of being true, he refrains because his message is about Christ, not about himself. I’ll lay out what Paul only implied: If the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t enough for you, if you need entertaining fiction to seal the deal, that’s your problem.
As for the thorn in his flesh, we don’t know what it was. In the old days it was taught that the thorn was lust and burning sexual desire, but that explanation has been pretty well discarded now for lack of evidence. More recently people have theorized that the thorn was some sort of medical problem, possibly his eyesight, or maybe malaria or leprosy or chronic migraines or…?
The truth is that we don’t know, and as always in cases like this, beware the teacher who claims to know for certain that which is not revealed in Scripture. Much more to the point is what our text actually does say:
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 weakness.” Therefore I will 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 weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (12:8-10)
This thorn, this “messenger of Satan”, is something God chose not to take away; it almost reminds one of the story of Job, doesn’t it? God, for reasons of His own, has apparently allowed Satan to torment Paul physically so that Paul would not become prideful and/arrogant in the pursuit of his mission as the Apostle to the Gentiles, with its crowning accomplishments, signs, wonders and miracles, for such pride and arrogance would surely damage Paul’s ability to carry out this great calling. Instead, in spite of Paul’s weaknesses, which evidently were obvious enough, Paul would overcome his weakness by the power of the Spirit working through him.
Don’t we all have a weakness or weaknesses? I certainly do. In an odd way, as I read these words of shame for the Corinthians who chose to follow false apostles, I find comfort and a great deal of encouragement, for they tell me that even though I am weak, God is strong, and when I serve His purpose as best I can, He provides me with His power to get the job done… in spite of the fact that I am unworthy and inadequate.
Am I the only one who sees it that way?