2 Corinthians 12:7
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!
(a) The surpassing greatness of the revelations. Next to Jesus, no man had a better understanding of grace than Paul, and no man wrote more of the New Testament.
(b) Because… for this reason. Because of Paul’s phenomenal impact for the gospel, he found himself with a target painted on his back.
(c) To keep me from exalting myself. Trials and weaknesses keep us humble.
It is unthinkable that the apostle of grace was seriously tempted to exalt himself. Wherever he went he preached Jesus, and his boast was always in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:21, 2 Cor. 10:17). So this could be read as Paul putting a smiling face on what was a serious concern. “The trials and hardships I faced were brutal and left me at the end of myself (see 2 Cor. 1:8-9), but hey, at least they kept me humble.”
(d) A thorn in the flesh. This is an Old Testament expression (see Num. 33:55, Jud. 2:3) that survives as the modern idiom, a thorn in the side. In context, thorns are annoying people who vex us (Jos. 23:13). Paul was not dealing with Facebook trolls, but vicious people who tried to kill him again and again (see 1 Cor. 11:23).
(e) A messenger of Satan. Some say the thorn in Paul’s side was a sickness sent by God, but Paul said it was a messenger of Satan. The word for messenger can mean angel, so a messenger from Satan could be a demonic spirit behind those who opposed Paul. For example, the vicious Judaizers who seemed to follow Paul from town to town had a diabolical and murderous agenda.
(f) To torment me. Few people have suffered for the gospel to the extent that Paul did (see 2 Cor. 10:23-27). Persecution was Paul’s middle name. If Satan’s aim was to persecute Paul into silence, it didn’t work.
(g) To keep me from exalting myself! Paul repeats himself for emphasis: “These brutal and repeated attacks on my life keep me humble!”
Yet there is another way to read this: Because of the persecution he attracted, Paul was compelled to maintain a low public profile. “To keep me from being excessively exalted” is how the phrase appears in the Amplified Bible. Paul was the most famous Christian in the world. Wherever he went, he drew crowds and the downside of his popularity was the fierce and personal persecution that came with it. Who would want that?
2 Corinthians 12:8
Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.
(a) Concerning this. Concerning the frequent attacks on his life.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we get a resume of persecution: imprisonments, floggings, stonings, and shipwrecks (see 2 Cor. 11:23-27). Paul had faced “dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren” (2 Cor. 11:26).
(b) I implored the Lord. On three occasions Paul was driven to the very edge. He begged God to intervene. “God, I can’t go on. Help!”
(c) Three times. It is difficult to rank the crises Paul faced, but surely those times where he was stoned and left for dead or flogged within an inch of his life were among his lowest points (Acts 14:19, 2 Cor. 11:24). “The burdens laid upon us were so great and so heavy that we gave up all hope of staying alive” (2 Cor. 1:8, GNB). It’s not hard to imagine Paul crying out to God at those times.
(d) That it might leave me. Not a sickness, but the messenger from Satan or the demonic spirit that Paul sensed was behind the attacks on his life.
2 Corinthians 12:9
And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
(a) My grace is sufficient for you. Satan’s intent was to silence Paul through persecution. Paul’s response was to pray the persecution would go away. The Lord’s reply was, “I’m going to give you grace to enable you to overcome the persecution.” Jesus carries away our sicknesses (Matt. 8:17), but he doesn’t end our persecutions.
Jesus said those who followed him would be persecuted. He never said, “But if you pray I’ll make it stop.” Trials and tribulations are a fact of life, particularly for those who dare to go against the flow and preach the kingdom of God. Paul came to understand this. “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
(b) Weakness. The word for weakness (astheneia) means weakness. It is related to a word (asthenes) that means without strength. It does not necessarily mean sickness and such an interpretation would not fit the context. This letter does not record Paul’s physical ailments but the many hardships he faced from preaching the gospel in a hostile world. Paul faced opposition and afflictions everywhere he went (Acts 20:23).
2 Corinthians 12:10
Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
(a) I am well content. When Paul realized that his troubles weren’t going away, but God’s grace would help him endure, he became content. “I have learned” (Php. 4:11), and the lesson Paul learned is one we all would do well to learn. Formerly, Paul could not cope, then he learned that he could do all things, survive all things, and endure all things with the supernatural strength of Christ (Php. 4:13).
Paul did not take a perverse pleasure in pain and suffering, but he knew that life’s trials served to reveal the power of God (see 2 Cor. 4:16-18). Trust in your own endurance and you will eventually break. Life is bigger than you. But the good news is that Jesus is bigger than all and he has overcome the world. See entry for 1 John 5:5.
(b) When I am weak, then I am strong. When Paul got to the end of his resources, he made an amazing discovery; when we step aside (or fall down), God steps in.
Further reading: “Patient endurance”
2 Corinthians 12:13
For in what respect were you treated as inferior to the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not become a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!
(a) Treated as inferior. The only way Paul treated the Corinthians worse than other churches was he did not take any money from them (2 Cor. 11:8).
(b) Forgive me this wrong! Paul is speaking sarcastically. “I didn’t take anything from you? Forgive me for depriving you!” Yet there is also a sense in which the Corinthians were wronged. By not supporting Paul the super-apostle, they missed out on sharing in the rewards of his ministry.
There are blessings in giving and when we give to those in ministry we share in their rewards (Acts 20:35, Php. 4:17).
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