Notes for teaching on 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, part of which is featured in Explore the Bible, Spring 2018, Session 13.
Note: The Explore the Bible curriculum actually focuses on 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10 and 13:2-8. Because my own teaching philosophy says that it is better to stick with one topic or passage, I have chosen to zero in on 12:1-10. This expands on the first text/theme in Explore the Bible and leaves the second for another time.
Paul boasts in his weakness, because it is in his weakness that God’s strength is made evident.
The passage is applicable today because it teaches Christians to see their own thorns/weaknesses through a gospel-lens.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
1 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 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. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.
Paul is here continuing a line of argument that began in chapter 10. Apparently, there are those in Corinth who have challenged his apostleship and hold themselves above him by boasting about themselves. Paul is loath to defend himself against these detractors, especially because doing so will require that he commend himself through his own boasting – in effect showing that he is more qualified than they are. In this section of the argument, Paul addresses visions and revelations. These are ecstatic experiences that his detractors apparently put in their own boastful resumes.
As already noted, Paul is loath to boast of his own experiences. His reticence is on display here as he speaks about himself in the third person. In effect, he is deflecting attention from himself even as he describes his own experience of a vision/revelation of the highest order. We know that Paul is talking about himself because he says as much in verses 6-7a.
As Paul describes his vision/revelation, we find out several things:
- It happened fourteen years ago – this was one of those spiritual experiences that has a lasting effect in a Christian’s life.
- He was caught up into the third heaven/paradise – David Garland notes that Paul is using common Jewish thought concerning levels in heaven to say that he was caught up to the highest part of heaven possible (level three was the highest).
- He is not sure whether he went there bodily or only in spirit.
- He heard inexpressible things that he is not allowed to share.
Obviously, this is a vision/revelation of the highest order that puts Paul on the same playing field as the “super-apostles” who boast about their own visions. Because of the magnitude of the vision, Paul is probably placing himself on a higher plane than his opponents.
5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I 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, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations.
Paul lets the Corinthians know that he would rather boast about his own weaknesses (more on this later) than about this amazing experience. Even so, he would only be telling the truth if he were to boast about his vision/revelation. He does not boast about it, though (this is the first time the Corinthians have heard about it – Paul didn’t use it to pad his resume when he first met them), because he doesn’t want to make himself look greater than he is. Note that Paul is implicitly critiquing his rivals in saying this.
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Apparently, Paul did not become conceited after such a great revelation because of God’s own intervention. In his providence, God gave (or allowed) Paul to experience a “thorn” in his flesh that Paul describes as a messenger from Satan. David Garland notes that a better translation might be that Paul was given a “stake” in his flesh. These descriptions let us know that whatever the thorn was, it was deeply troubling to Paul. So much so that he pleaded with the Lord to take it away three times. This threefold petition mirrors Jesus’ own prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane just before he was arrested (this insight also from Garland) in that Paul asks for God to change his situation three times and then acquiesces to God’s answer. For Paul, this was not the answer that he expected or wanted.
The answer itself was “no,” but not without an explanation. God’s plan was to use the thorn as a vehicle for Paul to experience his grace. In effect, Paul will experience God’s grace as he deals with the thorn. We might think here of a person with a physical disability who maintains a good attitude and even overcomes his/her limitations (such as a person with one leg completing a marathon). For Paul, his peace despite the thorn and the fact that the thorn did not interfere with his ministry were due to God’s grace. Importantly, this was an experience of grace that Paul would not have had without the thorn. Because of the thorn, Paul experienced God’s power being perfected in Paul’s weakness. This is basically a way of saying that Paul’s effectiveness was not hindered by the thorn due to the presence of God’s grace and power in his life.
In the end, God used the thorn for two purposes in Paul’s life: (1) God used the thorn to keep Paul from becoming conceited – because of the thorn, Paul was always aware of his limitations; (2) God used the thorn to make Paul constantly dependent on himself. Note that Paul was not left to deal with the thorn on his own. Rather, he would deal with it through God’s grace. This constant dependence on God surely had a great effect in the life of the apostle.
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 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.
Because Christ’s power is made manifest through his weaknesses, Paul will boast about those weaknesses gladly. Moreover, he goes so far as to say that he “delights” in his weaknesses for the same reason – it is the vehicle through which Christ’s strength is made obvious to both himself and others.
It is important to note here that Paul is not a masochist who delights in his thorn because he likes pain. Remember that he asks God to remove the thorn three times! Rather, Paul delights in the thorn not because the thorn itself is pleasant or good but rather because of what God does through the thorn. His delight is in his experience of Christ’s power rather than in weakness for weakness’ sake.
Thoughts on the Passage as a Whole
In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul describes two divine experiences. The first is an ecstatic vision in which he is caught up to the highest heaven and hears things that he is not allowed to discuss. The second is his ongoing experience of Christ’s power in the midst of his weakness. If we were to use today’s language, we might say that the vision was a “mountaintop experience,” while the thorn was a “valley experience.” What is important to note here is that God is present in both situations.
A second point for consideration is Paul’s own view of these divine experiences. Whereas he certainly appreciated the glory of the vision, he didn’t boast about it. Though the vision was an experience of great import to his own spiritual journey, Paul was careful not to use it to publicize how “spiritual” he was. Divine power experienced in weakness, however, was a different story. Paul was glad to boast about his weakness because it put Christ’s power on display. Note here that Paul in his boasting is more interested in exalting Christ than in exalting himself.
A last point for consideration is the idea that “all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” Paul wrote this oft-quoted phrase in Romans 8. In 2 Corinthians 12, we see how Paul experienced this truth in his own life. Indeed, the experience of his thorn may have been how God taught him that God works for good even in poor circumstances. Paul didn’t write glib platitudes to explain away people’s pain. Rather, he spoke from his own experience of God working for his good in the midst of difficulty and weakness.
Notes for Teaching
While the Corinthians probably knew what Paul was referring to when he spoke of the thorn in his flesh, we don’t. While this lack of knowledge leaves our curiosity unsatisfied, it actually helps us identify with Paul. Because he doesn’t name his thorn (thereby giving it a narrow meaning), we are able to think of our own difficulties, varied as they are, in a similar manner. Make sure to invite class participants to think about the passage in light of their own experience.
When talking about thorns and weakness, we need to be careful to recognize who is in the room. Some people experience greater difficulty in life than others, and we want to be sure that we are not talking past these people as if naming thorns is a theoretical exercise. For them, the thorn is all too real! This in mind, be sensitive as you address this topic and if appropriate ask the person to share from his/her own experience.
You may also come up against confusion concerning Paul’s vision. Does this kind of thing actually happen? If it happened back then, does it still happen today? I would simply say that God is able to give his people wonderful experiences to enhance their faith. Yes, this can come in visions, but as Paul shows us, we want to be careful not to make too big of a deal out of them.
Also, when talking about thorns, note that they are not good in and of themselves. Indeed, it is okay (as Paul did) to ask God to take them away. Also note, though, that God can work good through the thorn even though the thorn is not good itself.
A Possible Teaching Plan
Read: 2 Corinthians 12:1-4
- What are we to make of Paul’s experience? Does God still do stuff like this today?
- What do we learn about Paul’s vision from 12:1-4?
- What kind of impact do you think this experience had on Paul’s life?
- Why do you think Paul is sharing this experience with the Corinthians?
Explain: Explain that Paul is defending himself against detractors by showing that he, too, has had visions (his opponents boast about their visions).
Read: 2 Corinthians 12:5-7a
- Does Paul usually boast about these kinds of experiences? Why or why not?
- What can we learn from Paul’s reticence to boast about the vision?
- Why do you think that Paul in verse 5 says that he’s okay to boast about his weaknesses when he doesn’t want to boast about his vision?
Read: 2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a
- What do you think Paul is talking about when he mentions the thorn in his flesh?
Explain: Explain that we don’t know what the thorn was, though it was probably obvious to the Corinthians. We can, however, learn some things about the thorn from how Paul talks about it.
- From the way he talks about it (as a thorn in his flesh and a messenger from Satan), what was Paul’s first reaction to the thorn?
- What do you think Paul thought when he heard God say, “My grace is sufficient for you…”?
- How did God end up using the thorn in Paul’s life?
Read: 2 Corinthians 12:9b-10
- What does it mean when Paul says that he delights in his weaknesses?
- After all is said and done, what is Paul’s view of the thorn?
The Vision and the Thorn Together
- Why was Paul reticent to boast about his vision but eager to boast about his weakness?
- What can we learn about our own thorns/weaknesses from Paul’s example?
- Would anyone like to share how God has used a thorn in their own life?
- What can we learn from Paul’s reticence to boast about his vision and his eagerness to boast about his weakness?
David Garland, 2 Corinthians in the New American Commentary series.
Explore the Bible curriculum.