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2 Corinthians 12:1-10 – Paul Reports a Vision and a Thorn in the Flesh

Summary

Paul concludes his "Fool's Speech" with the report of a profound mystical experience, an agonizing physical problem, and a word from the Lord that "my grace is sufficient for you" (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Analysis

What is sometimes called "The Fool's Speech" begins at 2 Corinthians 11:16 and continues through much of chapter 12. In 2 Corinthians 12:1, Paul says that he will go on to boast of "visions and revelations of the Lord." He then speaks in the third person about someone who was caught up to the third heaven and who saw and heard things that ought not to be shared with other humans. Paul is describing a mystical experience that is presumably like those boasted about by his opponents.

The rhetoric is convoluted: at one point Paul makes it sound as if he is telling someone else's story, saying, "On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses" (2 Corinthians 12:5). The rest of the speech, however, leaves little doubt that Paul is speaking, though in a roundabout way, of his own experience.

That he is speaking of his own visions is confirmed when he writes, "to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me" (2 Corinthians 12:7). The idea that the righteous might be of particular interest to Satan has roots in the Old Testament book of Job and other Jewish writings. Here Paul puts himself in that position. The passive voice verb ("a thorn was given me") leaves open the question of who was responsible for this hardship to Paul. Both Satan and God make use of it: with it, Satan torments Paul, and God spares him from becoming too elated over the visions he has been permitted to see.

"Thorn" is, of course, a metaphor. The fact that Paul calls it a "thorn in the flesh" has led to speculation that the problem was an illness or chronic physical condition. Theories abound concerning what precisely was Paul's problem: everything from eye disease to homosexuality has been proposed. All of these theories are pure speculation: Paul speaks nowhere else of this condition and says nothing specific about it here. It is impossible to say anything with certainty about the precise nature of the problem. For Paul's argument, it does not matter what the problem is. His point is that his repeated appeals to the Lord about it do not result in its being taken away. Rather, Paul hears from the Lord: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9a).

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Paul’s Visions and Revelations

12It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep* me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.* 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power* is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

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10 February 2011

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