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 11

Chapter eleven continues Paul’s defense of himself to the Corinthian believers. Many of them had been on the verge of rejecting him, but his previous letter brought them back a little. Now he wanted to stop their retreat once-and-for-all. This chapter contains some of the harshest words we have recorded from Paul’s hand toward believers or unbelievers (other examples include 1 Corinthians 3:1-3; 5:1-5; 11:17-18; Galatians 3:1-5; 5:12; Philippians 3:2; 1 Timothy 1:20). Reminiscent of a courtroom, at this point in his self-defense he presented four accusations against his prosecutors.

First, he accused the Corinthian believers of embracing anyone and anything except Paul and his message (2 Corinthians 11:1-4), including those who would abuse them (2 Corinthians 11:16-21). Second, he accused them of scorning him because of his gentle demeanor and graciousness (2 Corinthians 11:5-6). Third, he accused both the Corinthians and the false teachers of dismissing his service for Christ, including taking support from other churches instead of Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:7-9) and experiencing great suffering for his ministry (2 Corinthians 11:23-33). Fourth, he accused his critics of being agents of Satan who were working undercover, only pretending to be apostles of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).

Although this was harsh and even full of sarcasm and contempt for those against him, Paul made sure to show his love and concern for the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:1-3, 9-11). This was not as much an attack on them as it was their sinful actions and those who led them astray. However, even at this Paul still had the court’s attention, and he was not done yet.

2 Corinthians 10

Chapter ten begins the final section of the letter and a new defense of Paul’s authority over the Corinthian church as God’s divinely-appointed apostle, specifically in comparison to the false teachers that had deceived them.

Paul’s appeal that they would listen to him was offered in “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1). His comment that he was meek while with them and full of courage only in his letters was a sarcastic retort toward his accusers, who apparently had convinced many of the Corinthians that Paul was a hypocrite. He could talk a big game in his letters, but in person, he carried no power or authority. Paul claimed this was ludicrous (2 Corinthians 10:9-11). The bulk of his argument in this chapter was based on the truth that the most important aspect of this life is a spiritual matter, not a physical one, emphasizing thoughts and not just actions (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). This is why he refused to be held to someone else’s human standards (2 Corinthians 10:2); why he seemed harsh when dealing with matters of obedience and disobedience in the church (2 Corinthians 10:6); and why he did not let outward matters distract him from inward realities (2 Corinthians 10:7-8).

In the final verses, Paul denounced his critics for boasting about their accomplishments while minimizing Paul’s (2 Corinthians 10:12-18). He pointed out that they simply “compare[d] themselves with themselves” to brag about how good they were, but he was not about to lower himself to their games. Instead, he would boast only about the work God was doing in and through him and his team, including what God was accomplishing in Corinth. Ultimately, he cared only that people heard the gospel (from him directly or the churches he started) and that they continued to grow in their faith. Nothing else was worth bragging about because that was all God called him to do.

The last verse should be a wonderful encouragement to all who want to be faithful servants: “It is not the person who commends himself who is approved, but the person the Lord commends.”