10:1-2 Some of the Corinthians were being influenced by false teachers who had infiltrated the church. So Paul pleads with the believers in a spirit of meekness and gentleness to listen to him to avoid his having to boldly confront those who were behaving according to the flesh and had accused Paul of being self-serving.
11:30-33 Since the Corinthians had put up with the boasting of the false apostles, Paul would boast too. But he would do so about his weaknesses (10:30). On one occasion in Damascus, he had been lowered down in a basket through a window in the wall of the city to escape those who wanted to kill him (11:32-33). He was willing to be weak and helpless for the sake of proclaiming the gospel.
12:1-5 Paul continues his boasting. He tells of a man in Christ who was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago (12:2). The first heaven refers to the earth’s atmosphere, and the second heaven is the area that includes the sun, moon, planets, stars, and galaxies. The third heaven is the dwelling place of God. We know Paul is referring to himself because he’s talking about his own boasting and weaknesses (12:1, 5). What happened was such an overwhelming experience that Paul doesn’t know whether he was in the body or out of the body at the time (12:3). What he does know is that he alone had experienced a personal tour of heaven and came back to talk about it. Nevertheless, he speaks of his experience humbly in the third person (a man, he, this person) because ultimately he prefers to boast in his weakness (see 12:6-10) since this is where true strength lies and how God is most glorified.
12:6 If Paul had wanted to boast about his heavenly experiences like this (and more), he would have been telling the truth. The false apostles had nothing to compare with this! But he didn’t want to boast in these things; rather, he wanted to speak only about what the Corinthians had seen or heard from him.
12:7 If anyone had reason to boast, it was Paul. No one else could say of heaven, “Been there. Done that!” So, to keep him from exalting himself concerning these extraordinary revelations, God gave him a thorn in the flesh. A “thorn” is something or someone that painfully nags or irritates one’s humanity on a continuous basis.
Many interpreters have speculated about what Paul’s particular thorn might be. That we’re left to guess at exactly what it was gives us the freedom to apply any of our “thorns” to this passage, but Paul tells us several things about it. First, it was clearly painful. Thorns don’t bring comfort! It brought him torment. Second, though God was the ultimate source of the thorn (see 12:8-9), Satan served as the delivery system, probably by means of the false teachers. As in Job’s experience, God allowed Satan to bring suffering into Paul’s life, but (unlike Satan) God had good purposes in mind. Third, God’s intention was that Paul not exalt himself as a result of his astonishing experiences. The Lord wanted to keep Paul humble because removing his self-sufficiency would eliminate any stubborn pride, make him more useful, cause him to bear more fruit in ministry, and bring more glory to God.
If God gives you a “thorn in the flesh,” you can be certain that it’s for your good and because he loves you. Such a thing is intended to unveil anything in your life (an actual or potential sin) that is not in sync with God’s kingdom agenda. Your self-sufficient attitude stands in his way; he wants you to see him as your all-sufficient God. Thus, sometimes God acts like a recycling plant in our lives: He breaks us down so that he can re-use us and increase our anointing.
12:8 Notice what Paul didn’t do in response. He didn’t rebuke the devil. Why? Because the devil was only the messenger service. Paul knew that his sovereign God had permitted the devil’s actions, so he prayed to the Lord three times that the thorn would leave. And this was no mere prayer: Paul pleaded repeatedly. He begged that God would take away the cause of his intense suffering.
12:9 God answered Paul’s prayer, but it wasn’t the response he was looking for: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness. We see in the example of Paul that when you suffer you should tell God what you want in prayer. Nevertheless, once you’ve said your piece, you have to be willing to listen to and accept God’s answer. The Lord had determined not to remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh. What he did do, however, was grant divine grace that was sufficient for Paul’s needs (see 2 Cor 9:8).
God’s sufficient grace is the inexhaustible supply of his goodness that we cannot earn and do not deserve—but that keeps on coming. No matter how bad Paul’s thorn got, God promised that his grace was more than enough because his “power is perfected in weakness.” Indeed, sometimes God gives us a second wind and turns an infirmity into a spiritual asset that allows us to see a fresh manifestation of his presence and power.
When I have a really bad headache, I take extra strength pain reliever because it has the power to address my problem. In other words, my weakness drives me to a pill so that its power may be demonstrated in my life. If not for the weaknesses that God allows us to endure, we would lack opportunities to seek his sufficient grace and experience his perfect power.
Once Paul was permitted to see his thorn in the flesh in light of God’s glorious purposes, he chose an interesting response. He confesses, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. He doesn’t complain about his weaknesses: he brags about them! Notice that Paul isn’t sugar-coating his thorn. He calls it what it is: a painful weakness. Nevertheless, he boasts in it because he sees it as the doorway to experiencing the power of Christ in his life.
12:10 Paul’s entire perspective had changed. No matter what he faced—insults, hardships, persecutions, or difficulties—he was willing to endure it all for the sake of Christ. Likewise, the Lord calls on you to look to him when your thorn—whatever it is—pricks you. For even if he doesn’t take it away, he has grace and power to accomplish in your life only what is possible in the midst of your profound weakness. By God’s grace, take pleasure in your weaknesses so that his power can be revealed. Then you will be able to say along with the apostle Paul, When I am weak, then I am strong.
12:11-12 The Corinthians had compelled Paul to act like a fool with his boasting. Rather than putting him in a situation in which he had to defend his ministry, they should have commended him. Though Paul may have been nothing by worldly standards, he was by no means inferior to the so-called super-apostles (12:11). Unlike those deceivers, Paul had his ministry validated by supernatural signs and wonders and miracles (12:12).
12:13 Some of the Corinthians, no doubt instigated by the false apostles, accused Paul of making them inferior to other churches. But given the divine affirmation that accompanied his ministry (see 12:12), the only thing they’d “suffered” was not being burdened by Paul (see 11:7-9). For this, Paul sarcastically begs, Forgive me for this wrong!
12:14-19 Paul had refused funds from the Corinthian church because he was concerned for their spiritual condition, not their money (12:14). Like a father, he felt responsible to care for his spiritual children—not to have them take care of him. Nevertheless, because of his love for them, he longed that they would love him in return (12:15). Even Titus and those who had gone with him to visit the Corinthians had not taken advantage of them but had walked in Paul’s footsteps (12:16-18). The apostle was not concerned for his own self-image but for building the church up (12:19).
12:20-21 Paul is worried that when he comes he will find the church full of strife and sin (12:20). He laments the fact that he might discover a lack of repentance among those who had sinned previously, insisting that this would bring him nothing but grief (12:21).
13:1-4 As his third visit to Corinth approached, Paul warns that he will not be lenient toward unrepentant sinners but will discipline them (13:1-2). If they want proof of his apostolic authority, he will demonstrate it, and they will see Christ’s power working through him (13:3). Though Paul himself was weak, the risen Christ was operating in him, and God’s power will be displayed unless the sin was addressed (13:4).
13:5-6 Paul urges them, Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Examine yourselves. This testing was not for the purpose of determining whether they were saved. Paul was confident that they had experienced God’s saving grace in Christ (see, e.g., 1 Cor 1:4-9). Instead, he wants them to examine whether Christ’s abiding presence was operating through them. They needed to test whether they were operating in sync with the true faith or with the heretical teachings of the false apostles. Were they progressing in the faith as disciples? Or were they regressing due to sin and error? Regardless, Paul knew that he and his co-workers would not fail the test (13:6).
13:7-10 Paul earnestly prays that the Corinthians would do nothing wrong. He had no desire to vindicate himself or to see God discipline them (13:7). The driving force behind Paul’s ministry was nothing less than the truth of the gospel and its impact in the spiritual development of these believers (13:8). He was happy for them to become strong though he himself was weak. His longing was to see them continue their spiritual growth and become fully mature believers (13:9), so he wishes to avoid dealing harshly with them and disciplining them. Better to have the privilege on the Lord’s behalf of building them up rather than tearing them down (13:10).