2. Corinthians 12 – Paul’s visions and revelations

Pasi Hujanen
Reija Becks

Read or listen the Second Epistle to the Corinthians - chapter 12 online (ESV, Bible Gateway)

Not everything can be told – 2 Cor. 12:1-6

Reluctantly, Paul continues to boast (verse 1). It is impossible to know whether Paul brings up his visions because of the Corinthians’ visions or because of the visions of Paul's opponents and the emphasis laid on those, or whether Paul just wants to point out that the Holy Spirit had done miraculous things in his life, too. In the First Corinthians (1 Cor. 12), Paul had already calmed the Corinthians' excessive enthusiasm for prophecy. That could suggest that various kinds of visions played a major role in the spiritual life of the Corinthians (see also Col. 2:18-19).

Although Paul speaks as if about another man (verses 2 and 5), it was nevertheless Paul, and this is revealed in verse 7. Perhaps Paul wants to emphasize with his wording that it was an action of God in which Paul was only the object God’s action.

This vision took place around the year 40, when Paul was in Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:25-26). So, the vision is not about what happened on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19).

The third heaven (verse 2) and paradise (verses 3-4) are the same thing. At that time, Judaism had two conceptions of the structure of heaven: there were either three or seven "layers" (paradise being the third or fourth "layer"). Apparently, Paul means "the highest heaven," the place closest to God.

Paradise is mentioned only three times in the New Testament: in addition to this (2 Cor. 12:4), also in Luke 23:43 and Revelation 2:7. See also Luke 16:22-31. Paul does not want to analyse his vision (verses 2 and 3-4). It was something he cannot and does not want to explain. Also, he had no permission to talk about some of what he saw (verses 3-4, cf. Rev. 10:4).

Paul wanted the Corinthians to receive him as he is, not what he was before (verse 6). That is why he did not emphasize his spiritual experiences. They would not have been of any help to the Corinthians. They would not have brought them any closer to God. Paul wanted to proclaim the gospel (1 Cor. 2:1-5) because it has the power of God for salvation – 2 Cor. 12:7-10

A thorn in the flesh – 2 Cor. 12:7-10

The fact that Paul – then Saul the Jew – had persecuted Christians (1 Cor. 15:9) reminded him that he too was saved by grace. That Paul had tried to become righteous by his own deeds helped him to understand grace more deeply. The temptation to be proud was so strong that God had given Paul a "thorn in the flesh" (verse 7). God wanted to “balance” Paul’s miraculous experiences with sufferings. They reminded Paul that he would not be able to cope on his own – without God's help.

What was that thorn? The church fathers Chrysostom and Augustine and the reformer Martin Luther thought that it was the people harassing and persecuting Paul (cf. verse 10). Even Paul could not proclaim the gospel without raising opposition.

More recent Biblical study thinks that some disease (see Gal. 6:17) is the most likely explanation. There are several guesses about what the disease might be. Paul's general condition must have been quite good, otherwise he would not have been able to go on his long missionary journeys, so diseases that weaken the general condition are hardly possible. One suggestion to consider is eye disease, although the mention in Gal. 4:15 of giving eyes to Paul can be just a figure of speech.

Ultimately, the fact that Paul’s “thorn” remains unclear is a good thing. If we knew exactly what it was, it would be tempting to think that nothing else can be a "thorn in the flesh." The Corinthians may have known what Paul was talking about, but we are left with speculation.

The "thorn" was the work of both Satan and God. Through it, Satan tried to stop Paul from preaching the gospel, but God took it into his own use. Through it, God made Paul dependent on God. Through it, God kept Paul close to himself. Some sin to which Paul easily fell cannot be the "thorn" here, there is no question about it. God never commits himself to sin. On the contrary: God wants to set us free from sin, not bind us to it (compare verses 8 and 9).

Sometimes it is thought that God also sets his own free from all their diseases. There is a story about a young Christian who claimed that a true Christian is never ill. An experienced missionary replied to him, "I have one serious illness, and God might allow me another one to keep me close to himself."

Signs and wonders – 2 Cor. 12:11-13

Paul ends his boasting and once again complains that he had to do something so foolish. Out of love for the Corinthian church, he was willing to humble himself.

Verse 12 reveals once again that Luke was able to tell in the Acts only a fraction of the events known to him. Luke does not report on any miracles in Corinth.

Jesus promised that his followers would do the same signs and miracles as he (Matt. 10:8; Mark 16:17-18), even greater than Jesus did (John 14:12). Various miracles marked the work of the apostles (Rom. 15:18-19; Heb. 2:3-4). One of their meanings was that they helped to distinguish between true and false apostles. The fact that Paul did not emphasize the miracles he did shows that what was most important to Paul was the content of his work – the gospel – not the forms of proclaiming it. The Corinthians themselves were the best testimony of Paul being an apostle (verse 11). He was the founder of their church.

The "injustice" that Paul had not taken money from the Corinthians was easily remedied: the Corinthians could support Paul's work indirectly, by giving a generous gift to help the poor in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8-9). Again, Paul was not primarily interested in money, but in what was best for the Corinthians (verse 14).

It is worth remembering that not all the signs and wonders of the apostolic age felt positive. Would we agree to accept as God's will such signs as the death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and Elymas going blind? (Acts 13:6-12). God’s actions in the world of fallen people can also bring judgement, even though modern people do not want to hear the proclamation of judgement.

The shepherd and the sheep – 2 Cor. 12:14-18

A true shepherd is interested in what is best for the sheep, not in his own interests (verses 14 and 15). Christ is the only perfect shepherd (John 10:1-13). Paul sought to follow the example of Christ, and so should all the pastors of the church. Church members should not keep addressing all the shortcomings of the shepherd. Such can take away the joy of work. Church members need to understand that this world and all the people are imperfect.

Had Paul been accused of taking to himself the money collected for the poor of the Jerusalem church? (Verses 16 and 17, see also 2 Cor. 7:2). It may be that because of such accusations – or to prevent them – Paul did not conduct the collection alone, but together with other Christians. Even today, it is important that Christian fundraising is done so that there will be no accusations of financial misconduct.

Verse 18 speaks of Titus' previous journey (2 Cor. 7:13-14), not of the journey when he took Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and arranged the practicalities of the collection (2 Cor. 8:18-24).

Cause for self-examination – 2 Cor. 12:19-21

At the beginning of the letter (2 Cor. 1:15-24), Paul explained why he had not visited Corinth despite his promises. Now he is preparing the congregation for his third visit.

Verse 19 may seem surprising. Did Paul not defend himself? Yes, in a way, but not before the Corinthians, but before God. Paul did not stand before the court of the Corinthian church but before God’s court.
 For us, too, the most important judgement is God's judgement. People make mistakes in judging us – sometimes they many consider us better and other times worse than we are. God's judgement is always just and right. In addition, it is final and cannot be appealed.

In his letters, Paul sought to strengthen the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 3:9; 14:1-5; 2 Cor. 10:8). Paul did not want to abandon his "problem child". Of course, Paul could have focused on the other churches he had founded, but he could not forsake the church of Corinth because he loved it despite its shortcomings (verse 19). Luckily, neither does God forsake a sinner, who time after time does against the will of God. If only good people could get to heaven, it would be empty.

If the Corinthian Christians did not repent, they would encounter a sad but at the same time severe Paul (2 Cor. 10:2). The practice of sin had continued for some time (cf. 2 Cor. 13:2), so it was not a matter of some occasional falls.

The sins in verse 20 are sins of "good people." Therefore, they are often very difficult to address. The sins of verse 21 are sins of “public sinners” and are easier to address. However, before God, there is no difference between sins.

In Philippians, Paul forbids to worry (Phil. 4:6), yet he himself worries (verse 21). How can Paul be so contradictory? In Philippians, Paul speaks of worldly anxiety (cf. Matt. 6:25-34). Here, he worries because he does not want to see the Corinthian church go astray and eventually perish. You need to worry if there is danger of eternal perdition.

In verse 21, Paul says that God may “humble” him before the Corinthians. Apparently, this suggests that if the repentance required by Paul did not occur, all of Paul's work in Corinth would be challenged. Then he would have to be ashamed of his failure before God.