2 CORINTHIANS 12
And so to Paul’s much-debated ‘thorn in the flesh’; what was it? We get around to that today. But first, Paul is well into his stride boasting (a little sarcastically) about amazing visions and revelations of heaven and of Jesus himself. Paul describes – actually in a tone of extreme modesty – a time when he was taken up to the Third Heaven and saw and heard some amazing things that he was not permitted to speak about (later on, of course, the Apostle John had the same kind of experiences and did write them down).
The phrase ‘Third Heaven’ is a reference not to the sky (the ‘First Heaven’), nor to outer space (the ‘Second Heaven’), but to the presence, the realm and rule of Almighty God himself. When this open vision occurred, we are not certain, but my own opinion is that it could have happened during the very understated incident in Acts 14:19-20, when Paul was apparently stoned to death on his First Missionary Journey in Lystra; he could well have had what today we would call an ‘out of body experience’ and was then returned to life in response to the prayers of his fellow-workers.
Paul was clearly easily tempted by the sin of pride and so God wanted an antidote to this to be present in Paul’s life 24/7. To counter any pride, God gave him the famous ‘thorn in the flesh’ – a messenger of Satan to torment him. Given what Paul has described in such detail in the previous chapter – a catalogue of persecutions, judicial punishments, shipwrecks, things generally going wrong, rejections etc etc, – it seems to me that these ‘weaknesses’ as he calls them are literally being caused by a demonic being whom God has permitted to cause Paul extreme hassle in his ministry. In our own lives it is often a succession of relatively ‘low grade’ problems that erodes our energies and our faith for God’s service – more so than a single large issue.
Naturally, Paul asks God to remove this irritation from his life, but Jesus refuses, on the basis that Paul will then have to rely on Him for success, rather than on Paul’s own natural abilities and intellect. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). Paul comes around to the fact that this ‘weakness’ is in fact the catalogue of insults, hardships, persecutions, difficulties, and temptations that he suffers on the mission field (as described in chapter 11 and summarised again in 12:10). This left no foothold for pride in Paul’s life – and so kept him from sinning.
When we are feeling weak and ineffective in God’s work, we should not be discouraged (unless we are actually indulging in deliberate sin), since this ‘clears the decks’ for the Holy Spirit to have his way and to take control. In our moments of greatest weakness, we are sometimes less inclined to resist what God wants to do in and through us; it is relatively simple to say: “Lord just take over and have your way today”. Of course, Paul was not weak in every sense, and he certainly showed great power as an apostle in signs and wonders and miracles to support his preaching of the gospel. If you claim to be a true apostle, then ask where you are seeing the overt power of the Spirit in your ministry!
The chapter ends with Paul, the ‘concerned parent’ again. He is not interested in being a burden to his spiritual children, but in lifting any burden from them. Using the human proverb that “Parents should save up for their children” (and not vice versa), Paul translates that into his desire to serve his disciples, spending his life on them and for them. Like a true father, he will not hesitate to discipline those of his children who have led themselves astray – a discipline born out of his intense love for them, and with the intention of bringing them back into line and back into true relationship with Christ. That’s all a good parent ever wants for all their children, biological or spiritual.