2 Corinthians 12

Chapter twelve concludes Paul’s self-defense with his final three points. First, in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 he recounted an experience that happened “fourteen years ago.” He referred to himself in the third person (“I know a man”), because even in his self-defense his purpose was to point the Corinthians back to Jesus rather than to himself (2 Corinthians 12:6). Probably shortly after his escape from Damascus (2 Corinthians 11:32-33; Acts 9:23-25), God gave him a special revelation through a vision in which he stood in heaven. 1 Because this was so early in his Christian life, even before his ministry began, God gave him an ailment to keep him from becoming arrogant for receiving such a revelation. The exact ailment is unknown (although there is much speculation 2); Paul simply called it “a thorn in the flesh” and “a messenger [or “angel”] of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7). In response to his multiple requests to have it removed, God responded only with his abiding grace (2 Corinthians 12:8-10), something Paul would learn to appreciate and demonstrate throughout the rest of his life. God’s grace became the source of his boasting, not Paul’s accomplishments.

His second point was toward his accusers again. For the second time, he called them “those ‘super-apostles’” (2 Corinthians 12:11; 11:5), a snide comment reflecting how they presented themselves compared to him. However, he reminded the Corinthians of something he had that those others did not: “the signs of an apostle” (2 Corinthians 12:12). By this, he referred to the miracles (“signs and wonders and powerful deeds,” vs. 12) that the Holy Spirit worked through his true apostles to authenticate that their message was from God. Of course, Satan can do miracles, too, but it seems that Paul thought that the believers in Corinth knew the difference between the miracles he did and anything Satan might do.

Finally, part of his critics’ accusation always included Paul’s greed for money, so he continued to remind the Corinthians how he never asked for anything from them for himself either of the first two times he was there, and that he would not ask again on the third visit (2 Corinthians 12:13-18). Basically, in these three chapters (ten through twelve), plus his remarks at the beginning of the letter, Paul thoroughly dismantled every accusation against him with a supernatural blend of authority and love, harshness and grace. 2 Corinthians 12:19 reveals his attitude throughout this heartfelt letter: “Ultimately, I’m not really defending myself here. To reject me is to reject Christ. I just want to build you up.”

Paul noted that he had three fears that would make his third visit to them painful again (2 Corinthians 12:20-21): 1) that they would no longer know each other; 2) that there would be schismatic disunity; and 3) that they would be living in unconfessed, unrepentant sin, causing him humiliation before his accusers and grief before God.

Notes:

  1. Interestingly, Paul’s response to what he saw and heard (2 Corinthians 12:4) was very different than those today who claim to have gone to heaven and return to write books and appear on television.
  2. See the notes on Galatians 4 for support that this may have been related to Paul’s eyes.

2 Corinthians 4

Chapter four returns to the theme of Paul’s personal struggles in carrying out his ministry, especially toward the Corinthians. Although there was a great deal to discourage them, including satanic opposition, Paul’s cure to keep himself from depression was to do the one thing he was called to do: continue preaching the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:1-6). This worked against his discouragement as he was always reminded that “we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ . . . For God . . . is the one who shined in our hearts” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6). Paul’s proper focus helped him frame his attitude in situations that could throw him off track.

A second key perspective that Paul held was the temporal nature of this world, especially his physical body. A look through Acts and Paul’s other letters show that he suffered great physical abuse throughout his ministry, at the hands of both Jews and Gentiles (see 2 Corinthians 6:4-5; 11:23-27). Too often believers approach this world as if it should be like heaven. Paul knew that his body was fragile, like a “clay jar” (2 Corinthians 4:7). However, he had an “extraordinary power” from God so that no matter how he was in “trouble . . . perplexed . . . persecuted . . . knocked down,” he refused to be “crushed . . . driven to despair . . . abandoned . . . destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). No matter how often he was “handed over to death,” it was always “for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:11), and he would certainly be resurrected into Jesus’ presence one day (2 Corinthians 4:14). “Therefore, we do not despair,” because, no matter what happens to the body, it cannot destroy our spirits, which God continues to renew. Paul’s eternal perspective allowed him to press on through temporary pain (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). What a wonderful encouragement this should be to every believer who suffers from terrible life situations or depression!

2 Corinthians 3

Chapter three continues Paul’s defense of his apostolic ministry and authority in Corinth. It seems that one of the attacks his accusers used was that he had no credentials. Officially, that was true. However, Paul took the firm stance that, since he was commissioned by Jesus himself (Acts 9:15-16; Galatians 2:6-10), he did not “need letters of recommendation” either to or from the churches he started (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). On the contrary, the churches themselves and the stories of life change through Christ were all the credentials he needed to prove the authority and authenticity of his message. What could be better proof than the Corinthians themselves?

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Additionally, Paul needed nothing for his own benefit either, because God had both called him to that ministry and made him adequate to accomplish it (2 Corinthians 3:4-6).

For the rest of the chapter, Paul used the example of Moses receiving the stones tablets with the Ten Commandments as an illustration of the difference between the old spiritual life under the Law and the new spiritual life under the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:7-18). Exodus 34:29-35 records that Moses’ face glowed after having seen God, but he wore a veil in the presence of the people when not relaying God’s message to them. Paul noted that this veil unintentionally became a barrier between them and God, much like the unbiblical clergy-laity divide in the Church. Rather than seeing it as a visible reminder that they could not approach God’s holiness, the people used it to elevate and exalt Moses.

On a spiritual level, the Jewish people still have a veil which they misunderstand, but it is the Law itself, the one that God gave through Moses. Paul was clear in Galatians 3:19-25 that the Law was a temporary guardian over Israel until Jesus came and that it did not have the power to give spiritual life, only point to death. Thus, in a sense, the Law actually kills those who trust in it for salvation (2 Corinthians 3:6), even though the Law itself was holy (Romans 7:7, 12). By clinging to the Law instead of turning to Christ, the Jewish people continue to “veil” their own eyes to the truth of God’s plan for them (2 Corinthians 3:15-16). Only the Spirit of God can produce the freedom they are looking for (2 Corinthians 3:17).