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.