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Thorns, Visions, Leaders, and Fellowship: 2 Corinthians 12

In Summary:
Well, we’ve reached one of the great “weird” chapters of the New Testament. 2 Corinthians 12 sees Paul speak of “a man” who was caught up to the third heaven and saw Paradise and heard “inexpressible words.” And then, Paul speaks of his thorn in the flesh, some unclear “messenger from Satan” that is there to keep him humble. It’s a perfectly clear chapter apart from that. Well, except for the identity of “the brother” that Paul sent with Titus. 2 Corinthians 12 provides fertile ground for speculation and imagination.

Which we will indulge in up to a point, but there comes a time to move from that to the more profitable exercise of exegesis: striving to understand the contents of the text. It is entirely possible to not understand a portion of a chapter and still grasp the overall meaning that God has put in the text. After all, while God requires us to have the Holy Spirit illuminate the text for us to fully understand the text, He didn’t give it to us to ponder, be confused by, and then never read. The word of God is given that we may know the Word of God in Christ Jesus.

So, we’ll put most of the speculations into the “In Nerdiness” section where it belongs and focus on the rest of the chapter.

Paul is continuing to defend his status and role as an apostle. A word might be useful here about why he needs to do this. At this point in the growth of the church, they have two primary sources for Truth in the church: the Jewish Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) and the teaching of the Apostles who told them about Jesus. The church is not yet in possession of the New Testament (not written, mostly, yet), so what they know about Jesus comes from the Apostles, the eyewitnesses of the Risen Jesus. That makes being considered an “Apostle” a big deal because your teaching is authoritative and trusted. Paul needs to demonstrate and hold his claim to this status so that his teaching about Jesus is considered accurate. And when you look at the folks who opposed Paul: the Judaizers who wanted to add Jewish law to the Gospel; the folks in Corinth from 1 Corinthians who were sexually immoral; the people who tried to use the Gospel for profit—it’s a good thing he did! The Truth remains the same, with or without defenders, but it is far easier to know it if someone trustworthy proclaims it!

In Focus:

For a focal verse, let us move past the visions and thorns and look long and hard at 2 Corinthians 12:20. Here, Paul expresses his concern that his arrival in Corinth will find the church tied up in jealousy, temper, disputes, arrogance, and a host of ego-driven problems. Ego-centrism is diametrically opposed to the Gospel: you cannot be full of self, driven by self, and serving only yourself and also follow Jesus Christ as Lord. It just does not work—and Paul is reminding the Corinthians of this.

He wants to settle as many of their disputes with him, and by extension, with each other, before he gets there so that his time with them is a time of building up, not breaking down. He then commands them to repent of impurity, immorality, and perversion before he gets there—because they cannot be right with each other until they get right with God!

In Practice:

What does this look like for us? After all, we have the Bible so we don’t necessarily need Apostles, right? I think the argument should be made that the Apostles are the eyewitnesses of the Risen Christ, and so we do not have Apostles, whether we need them or not. (And if we needed them, God would have loopholed them so we would have them. He didn’t, so we don’t.)

The issue at stake for us is two-fold: leadership and fellowship. Leadership first: while we are not dealing with the exact same qualifications as an Apostle of the first century, those who would lead a church today should look long and hard at what Paul uses to justify himself: his sacrifice, which was real. Not some nebulous “I could have made millions as a something else” sacrifice or a “look how hard this is, somebody bring me a Fresca” type of ranting, but rather as a “How can you think I’m doing this for myself when you see how much trouble it is? If this was for me, I’d mail it in, go fishing with somebody…” He has worked and shown himself to be true.

We need to consider the same thing in our leadership: too many times, we allow a natural gifting to overwhelm our good sense or a feeling of amazement at one great moment. But the moment does not always make the man: the church must be more aware of how they invest authority in leaders and must put more effort into preparing leaders.

Second, we must consider fellowship. There can be no true fellowship in the midst of strife, jealousy, disputes, slanders, and so forth—so what do we have in our churches? There are problems among us because we are not repentant of our sins, and that drives us to lash out at others rather than fix our own hearts. Let the impurity go from each one of us, and we might be astounded what God will do with our relationships with each other.

In Nerdiness: 

As discussed above:
1. “I know a man:” almost all of the commentaries I have take this as autobiographical, and just the manner of speaking in that era. Especially when Paul goes from “knowing a man” who had these visions to he, Paul, having a thorn so that he didn’t get arrogant because of the visions. Hard to figure that he got the thorn if he didn’t have the visions, true?

2. “The third heaven:” really? We want to talk about that, too? Sure thing: it is either the “third heaven” which is above the heaven the birds fly in and the heaven the stars are in and is, therefore, Eternity-type heaven, or there are levels to eternity that we don’t understand. Dante picked that view, for both Heaven and Hell. Either way, Paul has a vision of the unseen things, and he is not permitted to talk about it.

3. Okay, he cannot talk about it—he heard “inexpressible words.” That particular phrase is sometimes used to move speaking in “tongues” into speaking in “heavenly languages” which nobody understands, but that doesn’t work, because a human is not allowed to speak those words. No, we do not know what they are…and probably will be so engaged in the presence of Jesus in eternity that we’ll forget we care.

4. The Thorn in the Flesh, a Messenger from Satan! Paul’s great problem. It’s been suggested that he has poor eyesight, that he has some other illness, or that he has a relational issue. Perhaps this is his expression of frustration, “Why, Lord, do I have to keep battling the same stupid arguments about Judaizing or legalism, over, and over, and over again?” Whatever it was, it was not going away—and Paul had to cope with that. God does not solve all of our problems. He instead provides us Himself, and that is a far better solution.

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