Exegetical Notes: 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; 13:2-8

12:7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.

To prevent such spiritual pride from welling up in Paul, he was given a thorn in the flesh.

“to keep me from being conceited” – On the bright side, Paul fully understands the purpose of this “thorn” in his life. It was designed to keep him humbly dependent upon God’s grace as he lived and ministered under the gospel. The word conceited implies that that Paul might view himself as better than others, or that he might look down on others because they had not received the same spiritual experience he had.

“thorn” – The word translated “thorn” (skolops) occurs only here in the New Testament. It refers to something pointed such as a stake for impaling, a medical instrument, or a thorn. “Stake” would be a better translation, though “thorn” has dominated English renderings of the word.412 The metaphor carries “the notion of something sharp and painful which sticks deeply in the flesh and in the will of God defies extracting.

Paul’s point being that God has pinned down his pride through the use of this stake. 

The word describes something that causes pain, annoyance—something vexing—and does not especially refer to sickness or affliction it can also refer to some kind of opposition. 

What exactly IS his thorn in the flesh?  A plethora of suggestions have been made. 

1.  Continual criticism of his physical appearance
2.  Some physical ailment, such as poor eye sight or other sickness. 
3.  Some sort of psychological ailment, such as distress, depression, or guilt. 
4.  Some spiritual sort of ailment, ie. sexual temptation. 
To which john piper responds using verse 10: So you can see that what Paul has in mind here is not sin. He is not talking about a kind of behavior—like we might say he has a weakness for lust; or she has a weakness for overeating. Paul is not talking about bad choices that we make. He is not saying, The power of Christ is perfected in my bad choices. Or: I will all the more gladly boast of my bad choices. Weaknesses here are not imperfect behaviors.
5.  Trouble from adversarial theological groups, ie. the Judiazers. I tend to lean in this direction, especially because Paul describes this thorn as a “messenger”, literally “an angel”.

“was given” – The passive voice implies that God gave it to him. “Martin comments that the verb “to give” (δίδοναι) is used to denote God’s favor (see Gal 3:21; Eph 3:8; 5:19; 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Corinthians, 412). Plummer suggests that if Satan were the agent, the verbs, “lay upon” (ἐπιτίθημι, Luke 10:30; 23:36; Acts 16:23), or “cast” (βάλλειν, Rev 2:24) or “put on” (ἐπιβάλλειν, 1 Cor 7:35) would have been more appropriate (The Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 348).”

“Satan” – Satan comes as God’s adversary to lure people away from God’s rule, or he comes as God’s proxy to implement trials God authorizes. The story of Job provides the foremost example of the latter.426

APP: if we are not careful, we will let satan take over the things God places or allows in our life and we miss the spiritual lesson(s) God intends to reveal. We forget that God works all things together for good (Rom 8)…that trials are designed to produce maturity within us (Jas 1). 

“So the answer to our second question is that the source of our weaknesses may sometimes be Satan and his destructive designs for us; but always our weaknesses are designed by God for our good. This is why the truth of God’s sovereign grace is so precious in the midst of hardship and calamity. God is in control of Satan. Satan does nothing to God’s children that God does not design with infinite skill and love for our good.” – John Piper

“harass” – The verb “to torment” (kolaphizein, “abuse,” “batter”) implies humiliating violence—being slapped around; and the present tense suggests that it was persistent—something that happens over and over again.

Satan was permitted to buffet Paul. The word means “to beat, to strike with the fist.” The tense of the verb indicates that this pain was either constant or recurring. 

ILL: Paul was given a spiritual “kick me” sign that he could not remove from his back. 

“to keep me from becoming conceited” – 2 times in this verse! Paul’s “thorn” was an effective cure for any mistaken euphoria that visions might evoke. God wanted Paul to remain humble and fully aware of his own weakness. The thorn punctured any pride that might surge within him because of his grand entry into heaven, and the result was that he dealt with others with the meekness and gentleness of Christ (10:1) rather than with the arrogant puffery of Satan.

APP: Paul’s ambiguity as to his thorn allows for a broader context of personal application, while still applying the same t heological and devotional lesson to our own lives. Thorns take many shapes and sizes. 

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.

Paul’s initial prayer entreating the Lord to remove the stake (or perhaps the messenger of Satan, since the verb aphistēmi is always used of persons in the NT) indicates that he did not initially appreciate the significance of this affliction nor was it something easily borne.

APP: some incorrect responses to suffering:

1.  Bitterness and anger toward God. 
2.  Give up and give in. Some throw themselves a pity party. 
3.  Attempt to muscle through with self reliance. 

APP: Few are able to value the onset of anything unpleasant or difficult, and they usually grasp its value only in retrospect.

APP: As Jesus accepted the cross through fervent prayer, so Paul has resigned himself to submit to God’s will about his weakness and no longer makes this request. Times come in our lives when we must learn to accept what is inescapable and then listen for what God is saying to us through it. We might find that we are mistaken about what we think is best for us and for God’s work.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Stakes in the flesh are not good, but they also are not bad because they may convey a word from God if we are attuned to hear it. What is important to Paul is the theological word-to-the-wise that his stake in the flesh provided him. It was a constant reminder of God’s grace and God’s power working through him.

Although God’s grace is sufficient, removal of the thorn would have been insufficient because Paul would not continually be dependent on the power of God in his life. 

Our tendency is to automatically see affliction and suffering as punishment from God, when in reality, it actually is a gift from God. 

“But he said to me” – Literally: “once for all he said to me”.

ILL: “Is that your final answer?”

In fact, in this particular case, God’s denial of Paul’s request turned out to be to Paul’s greater good because it was to God’s greater glory

When we accept our own weakness, we then also learn that we must totally rely upon God. This is why the stake was not some temporary lesson that God would allow quickly to pass. 

In the Christian life, we get many of our blessings through transformation, not substitution. When Paul prayed three times for the removal of his pain, he was asking God for a substitution: “Give me health instead of sickness, deliverance instead of pain and weakness.” Sometimes God does meet the need by substitution; but other times He meets the need by transformation. He does not remove the affliction, but He gives us His grace so that the affliction works for us and not against us.

“My grace” – What is grace? It is God’s provision for our every need when we need it.

“sufficient” – It was a message of sufficient grace. There is never a shortage of grace. God is sufficient for our spiritual ministries (2 Cor. 3:4–6) and our material needs (2 Cor. 9:8) as well as our physical needs (2 Cor. 12:9).

“my power” – We learn from the message given to Paul that God’s grace is not just the unmerited favor that saves us but a force that also sustains us throughout our lives. The modifier “my” in “my power,” is important. Paul is not speaking about power in general, but “the power of Christ” revealed in the crucifixion and resurrection: “For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you” (13:4)

“perfect” – The verb “perfected” (teleitai) means “brought to completion” or “is made fully present.” The present tense indicates that it is not yet a finished product but that it is still in process of being made perfect.

“weakness” – The stake makes him acutely aware of his own inadequacies and prevents him from thinking that he is equal to the task alone. It prevents a bloated ego from crowding out the power of God in his life.

“that the power of Christ might rest upon me” – God gives his pride a knockout blow that makes him completely dependent on divine power, not his own. As Bruce puts it, “His prayer was indeed answered, not by his deliverance from the affliction, but by his receiving the necessary grace to bear it.”432 But he received more than grace to bear a vexing affliction; he received the power of Christ.

APP: What God’s people really need is God’s grace and power, not comfortable living. It is my fear that we all live too comfortable. 

The deepest need that you and I have in weakness and adversity is not quick relief, but the well-grounded confidence that what is happening to us is part of the greatest purpose of God in the universe—the glorification of the grace and power of his Son—the grace and power that bore him to the cross and kept him there until the work of love was done. That’s what God is building into our lives. That is the meaning of weakness, insults, hardships, persecution, calamity. –John Piper

10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

“For the sake of Christ” – As believers, We don’t live our lives for us, but for Jesus. 

“insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” –

Insults—when people think of clever ways of making your faith or your lifestyle or your words look stupid or weird or inconsistent. When we were giving out “Finding Your Field of Dreams” at the dome, I heard one man say mockingly, “And the Lord said, Play ball.” And all his friends laughed.

Hardships—circumstances forced upon you, reversals of fortune against your will. This could refer to any situation where you feel trapped. You didn’t plan it or think it would be this way. But there you are, and it’s hard.

Persecutions—wounds or abuses or painful circumstances or acts of prejudice or exploitation from people because of your Christian faith or your Christian moral commitments. It’s when you are not treated fairly. You get a raw deal.

Calamities (or distresses or difficulties or troubles)—the idea is one of pressure or crushing or being weighed down; circumstances that tend to overcome you with stress and tension.

“then I am strong” – He is therefore most powerful when he is least reliant on his own resources. Illusions of our own strength cause us to overlook divine power and results in our rebelliousness against God.

13:2 I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them—

“I warned those who sinned before” – Paul’s second visit to the Corinthian church found itself to be somewhat disappointing. Many within the church were involved in activities which clearly went against behavior believers should display. See 2 Cor. 12:21. 

“and I warn them now while absent” – After his initial warning, on his second visit, Paul now warns those involved in obvious sin to repent and submit to Christ’s rule. 

“if I come again I will not spare them” – Although Paul’s statement does not consist of an exact time line, a principle of church discipline can be drawn from verse 2. As a church, we should not allow fellow believers to live in obvious, habitual sin. At some point, we must go further than a verbal warning.

since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you.

Impatience with the Corinthians’ sin did not motivate Paul to threaten them with discipline. Rather, the Corinthians demanded proof that Christ was speaking through Paul, and the discipline was to be the proof. Throughout his epistles to Corinth, Paul dealt with challenges to his authority as an apostle. Some within the Corinthian church doubted Paul’s authority as Christ’s spokesman. They wanted to see some proof. Paul warned that the proof would come in the form of harsh discipline. We cannot be sure precisely what kind of proof Paul had in mind, though it was to be indisputable proof (dokime). Richard L. Pratt Jr, I & II Corinthians, vol. 7, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 439.

For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

“in weakness” – meaning that the innocent, sinless Christ took on human flesh and died a shameful death for sinners.

“lives by the power of God” – The power of God became evident in Christ through the witness of his resurrection. 1 Thess. 1:10; 1 Cor. 15:42-49.   

“but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” – Just as the power of God in Christ was underestimated or misunderstood, Paul says warns those in Corinth not to underestimate the power of God in his own ministry.

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!

“Examine yourselves” – Within the context of 2 Corinthians, Paul continually finds himself needing to “prove” his ministry to be authentic before the Corinthian church. In verse 5, he flips the table and encourages them that they should also be examining themselves. 

Although we often assume Paul’s question to be one of justification, in reality, it probably deals more with conduct and sanctification.

Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to take a hard look at themselves and see if they are displaying the evidence of internal faith.

Viewing Paul’s question as dealing with sanctification and conduct makes the later part of the verse more clear.

Paul’s encourages the church to evaluate their display of Christ, ultimately because if Christ is in them, then they should display Him outwardly to others. 

“unless indeed you fail to meet the test” – However, the only valid excuse for their continued sin and rebellion would be that Christ was not indwelling them and they were in fact not redeemed individuals. 

I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test.

Paul expresses a desire for them to accept his apostleship as genuine. He has invested much time and energy into the Corinthian church and wishes to continue to do so effectively. 

But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed.

This statement means that if this letter stimulates their moral reformation, he will have no opportunity to prove his authority through some external display of apostolic power when he returns to Corinth. He will therefore still lack proof, in the eyes of some, that he can be bold in person. All he wants, however, is their obedience. He has no desire to demonstrate through some kind of apostolic showdown that Christ speaks in him. Therefore, he corrects what he says in 13:6, “And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.” His passing or failing the test is not at issue, and he does not want them to get the wrong impression that it is uppermost in his mind. His goal as an apostle is not to maintain his own reputation or to set himself up on a pedestal for all to revere but to make others worthy for Christ. David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, vol. 29, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 548.

For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.

Paul’s main concern is to be obedient to, display, and encourage others to walk in the truth. His apostleship, according to their standards, in not his main objective. 

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