Paul, a theologian of the cross

Title: Paul, a theologian of the cross

Aim: To learn that believers never lack Jesus’ grace to endure any hardship they encounter.

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:1–11


Paul’s reason for writing 2 Corinthians


Although there is considerable certainty about Paul’s authorship of 2 Corinthians, many questions have arisen about the exact time of the writing. Most Bible scholars agree that the letter was penned in the mid-50s, probably later in the same year that the apostle wrote 1 Corinthians. 


One reason some have raised doubts about the dating of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s reference to a “painful visit” (2:1), which is not recorded in the Acts. Another reason is the apostle’s reference to a previous, sorrowful letter (2 Cor. 2:3-4) that has not been preserved.


For all that, taking into consideration the references in Acts and those in 1 and 2 Corinthians, the chronological sequence of events in Paul’s life may suggest how his relationship with the believers in Corinth developed over time. According to one reconstruction, 2 Corinthians was written in the fall of A.D. 55. 


Whatever the case for dating the letter, several references clearly identify the region of Macedonia (a Roman senatorial province encompassing much of northern Greece) as the general area where the apostle penned this epistle (7:5; 8:1; 9:2-4). Added onto the end of a few of the ancient manuscripts of the letter is a statement identifying Philippi in Macedonia as the place of the apostle’s writing. It is possible, however, that he penned the epistle either from Berea or Thessalonica.


Paul’s main purpose for writing 2 Corinthians was to refute the accusations false teachers made against him. These religious frauds had captured the attention of the church at Corinth (in actuality, a group of private household gatherings). 


The charlatans asserted that the apostle was untrustworthy and fickle, and that he ministered solely for self-elevation. However, Paul’s motivation in defending himself in this letter did not arise from self-interest or pride, but from his desire to protect the Corinthian Christians. 


The apostle’s integrity was intricately linked to the message of the gospel. So, a successful effort to discredit him would have inevitably led to an undermining of the faith preached in the city by him and members of his missionary team.


Paul had several other purposes in addressing this letter to the Corinthians. For instance, Titus had brought the apostle the welcomed news about the favorable response to his most recent letter, as well as disturbing news concerning the church (7:5-7). Also, Paul wanted to reply to the report he had received. Moreover, he wanted to encourage the believers in Corinth to complete their collection for Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem before the apostle’s upcoming visit. 


The false teachers had pointed to Paul’s change of itinerary as evidence of his being unreliable. So, the apostle sought to explain why he had modified his plans. 


Also, in the epistle, Paul called on his readers to distinguish between true and false teaching, to separate themselves from all idolatrous associations, and to pray for him and his ministry. In effect, the apostle instructed the believers in Corinth to depend on the Lord Jesus rather than themselves. 


Paul had found the Messiah’s mercy and strength to be more than adequate to meet the hardships and challenges associated with the apostle’s own ministry. Furthermore, he knew that the Redeemer offers to all believers this same empowerment and solace through the abiding presence of the Spirit.


Paul’s vision of the heavenly throne room, 2 Corinthians 12:1–6


Although Paul, in response to his detractors, carefully limited his boasting to the things the Lord Jesus had done through His bondservant’s ministry, Paul still felt he had to speak overtly about his work. The presence of false apostles at Corinth made it necessary for him to defend his ministry. 


While Paul never specifically identified the imposters, a portrait of them can be pieced together from 2 Corinthians. The spiritual frauds came from outside Corinth and needed letters of recommendation (3:1). Many Bible scholars believe they were from Judea. 


Paul complained about the pretenders invading his sphere of ministry (10:13-16). They preached a false gospel—one that may have deemphasized the Messiah’s role in the salvation of believers (11:4). The deceivers declared themselves to have spiritual authority that was superior to Paul’s (v. 5) and claimed to be apostles representing the Savior (v. 13).


The false teachers may have been seeking to earn a living from those to whom they preached and taught their counterfeit doctrine (vv. 7-9). The frauds were, in actuality, ministers of Satan, while masquerading as apostles of the Lord Jesus (vv. 14-15). 


The imposters may have been Judaizers, placing more emphasis on their Hebrew heritage than on the grace of the Messiah (v. 22). They were also guilty of putting the Corinthians in spiritual bondage (v. 20).


It was Paul’s intent to counter the self-commendations of the deceivers. Yet, in the process, the apostle ended up boasting about his weaknesses (v. 30). 


Paul noted that the Son had worked through His bondservant’s limitations and difficulties from the beginning of his ministry. Moreover, the Lord had always sustained Paul (vv. 31-33). 


Despite the apostle’s reluctance to continue boasting, there remained one more area where he felt it was necessary to counter the claims of his opponents in Corinth. If his rivals could boast about their visions and revelations, so could he (12:1), especially about being in the sacred presence of the Messiah’s heavenly throne room (v. 2). 


Scripture presents the spiritual realm as being just as real as the physical world. So, for Paul, there was no qualitative distinction between what he witnessed in day-to-day life and what the Lord Jesus unveiled to the apostle in a vision.


Visions were typically experienced while someone was awake. In contrast, dreams occurred while someone was asleep. In both cases, the divine goal was not to satisfy a person’s inquisitiveness, but to foster humility and holiness (2 Pet 3:10–14; 1 John 3:2–3).


Although the vision Paul bragged about was beyond anything the false apostles (or anyone else) could imagine, he noted that it was counterbalanced by a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) to keep him from becoming conceited. So, Paul’s weaknesses forced him to remain unpretentious and reliant on the Son despite any visions of the divine, celestial throne room His bondservant was privileged to undergo.


Paul’s reluctance to talk about his vision is evident by his reference to himself in the third person, as though he were speaking about someone else. This vision occurred 14 years earlier (about A.D. 41), after his conversion but before his first missionary journey. It is possible that he had this experience around the time he spent ministering in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26).


In the vision, Paul was caught up to “the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2) or “paradise” (v. 4). Contemporary Jewish writings subdivided the heavens into three or more layers (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6; Ps 148:4). It is unclear how much of this thinking Paul accepted, though his wording here suggests he embraced the Jewish belief in the plurality of the heavens. 


If the first heaven is the atmospheric sky and the second heaven denotes the more distant stars and planets, then the third heaven refers to the place where the triune God dwells. Paradise is the abode of blessedness for the righteous dead. For believers, it also signifies abiding in fellowship with the exalted Redeemer in unending glory (Luke 23:43; Rev 2:7). 


Though Paul was clear about what he saw, he was uncertain about whether he remained in his body or drifted out of it during this experience. The apostle wrote that only the Creator knew for sure what really happened to His bondservant (2 Cor 12:3). The fact that he was suddenly caught up into paradise may account for his equivocation about his state during this time. 


Paul entered the heavenly throne room when he received a revelation from the Lord Jesus (likely dealing with some unique aspect of Paul’s apostolic calling). He saw things so sacred and mysterious that he could not express them and heard words that he was not permitted to repeat (v. 4). 


The Messiah bestowed preceding experience on to Paul to fortify him for all the persecution he was to endure in the coming years. Undoubtedly, this vision served as a constant reminder to the apostle of the glory awaiting him after all his days of affliction on earth for proclaiming the gospel (Acts 9:15-16; Rom. 8:17).


Paul did not want his readers to form their opinion about him solely based on his vision. That the Savior had granted the apostle a brief look into glory did not add to his personal status or importance. His boasting was still in what the Redeemer could accomplish despite His bondservant’s weakness, not in any spectacular revelation (2 Cor. 12:5).


Paul would not be a fool for speaking the truth about his experience. Also, even though his vision of the celestial throne room was real, he did not want anyone’s estimate of him to be based on something that was impossible to verify. Additionally, Paul was warning the Corinthians against gullibly accepting the frauds’ claims to have had visions. 


In any case, Paul held himself back from boasting any more about his experience. Rather, he wanted his readers to remember something they could see for themselves, namely, how the Lord Jesus had worked through the apostle’s weakness (v. 6).


Paul’s thorn in the flesh, 2 Corinthians 12:7–11


Because of the extraordinary character of the revelations Paul had experienced, he could have been tempted to think more highly about himself than he ought. Yet, such an enticement was prevented as the Savior allowed the apostle to be tormented by a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7) to keep him humble. 


The above phrase could indicate something mental or physical as well as huge or tiny in nature. After implying that this affliction had come from the Messiah, Paul also called it a “messenger” from “Satan.” This could mean that the devil used an unnamed fiendish entity—whether demonic or human—to torment the apostle.


The obscurity of Paul’s language makes any identification of his vexation impossible. Even so, that has not kept interpreters from pulling in information from biblical and extrabiblical sources to venture a guess. 


For instance, some have suggested that Paul’s affliction may have been religious persecution that hindered his work and proved to be an embarrassment in his effort to reach the Gentiles with the gospel. Another theory states that the apostle’s problem could have been demonic oppression, impure thoughts, or some other type of temptation. 


Most ideas, however, relate Paul’s thorn in the flesh to some physical ailment. One popular view holds that severe nearsightedness was the problem. Others propose that it might have been epilepsy, a speech impediment, or a recurring illness, such as malaria.


How could Paul’s affliction—regardless of its nature—be both from the Son and Satan? One possibility is that the devil harassed Paul, while the Lord Jesus permitted as well as set limits on the extent of the tormenting He would allow. Ultimately, the apostle’s vexation was a case in which the Redeemer in His grace brought good out of evil. 


Paul implored the Messiah three times to remove this affliction (v. 8). Although the apostle’s request was legitimate, he did not receive the answer from the Savior that was desired. Instead, amid Paul’s excruciating suffering, the Lord Jesus revealed a profound truth. 


The Messiah declared that His “grace” (v. 9), or divine enabling, was enough for His bondservant, especially since Jesus’ “power” was somehow perfected in “weakness.” Put differently, the fullness of the Almighty’s strength is most evident in the limitations of human frailty. This one statement, which many consider to be the pinnacle of 2 Corinthians, sums up Paul’s cross-centered approach to ministry.


Although the Messiah refused to remove Paul’s affliction, Jesus promised the apostle that His bondservant would never lack the Spirit-endowed favor to endure the weakness brought about by any hardship. So, instead of being able to avoid tribulation in his life, the missionary-evangelist would be given strength to triumph over it. In turn, this became the focus of his boasting in the Lord Jesus.


Paul made general reference to his afflictions, which included infirmities, verbal and physical abuses, dire circumstances, persecutions, and calamities. All these he endured for the sake of the Redeemer, especially since He was glorified in Paul being weak. He was quite content with his infirmities so that he could be filled with the Lord Jesus’ resurrection power (v. 10).


Paul went on to tell his readers that they were responsible for coercing him into making this foolish speech (v. 11). The believers at Corinth knew as much about Paul’s character, ministry, and devotion to the Lord as any other church of that time. 


Yet, instead of coming to the apostle’s defense against his accusers, the Corinthians had readily accepted the claims of these false teachers. Since the church at Corinth had remained silent, Paul was forced to defend himself by boasting—something he certainly preferred not to do.


As Paul had done earlier (11:5), he claimed to be in no way inferior to the “super-apostles” (12:11). Some have taken this to refer to the original disciples of Jesus. A more likely view is that Paul was talking about the religious frauds in Corinth, who thought they were preeminent among the early church leaders. 


Paul’s ironic tone—both in 11:5 and 12:11—indicates that he was mocking the Corinthians for accepting the claims of those who made wildly exaggerated and spurious statements about themselves. The church at Corinth should have realized that the charlatans’ teaching was heretical.


Though Paul defended his rights as an apostle, he also referred to himself as “nothing” (12:11). By this he meant he was a nobody or someone having no importance at all (1 Cor 15:8–10). In making this statement, Jesus’ bondservant may have been citing one of his rivals’ charges against him. 


Additionally, Paul may have been pointing out that his apostolic calling and empowerment came from the Savior. The missionary-evangelist had neither devised his ministry nor appointed himself to it. So, even though Paul was nothing, the Redeemer’s grace to His bondservant was everything.


For thought and application


One of the dominant themes of 2 Corinthians is the Savior perfecting of His power in human infirmities. Paul referred to his weaknesses many times to demonstrate the working of the Son’s might in the apostle’s life. 


The greater Paul’s frailty, the greater the Lord Jesus’ display of strength in the apostle. Also, the more he suffered, the more the Messiah sustained and used His bondservant for His glory.


Our world prizes humanly-based power, whether it is the physical strength of athletes, the financial might of companies, the political clout of office-holders, or the military supremacy of armies. In contrast, Paul talked about human weakness being the basis for divine strength.


It is amazing that, amid all Paul’s hardships, he did not become resentful. In fact, the apostle welcomed them, for they provided the opportunity to display the Savior’s strength in the apostle’s life. He was content to perform a ministry that included all kinds of infirmities—as long as he was assured that the Lord Jesus worked through His bondservant’s afflictions to confirm his apostleship.


As with Paul, the Redeemer’s power is manifested in us despite our infirmities. He can turn even the most impossible situations into victories and use our greatest weaknesses and failures to promote His kingdom in the world. As we give everything over to the Son, including all the credit for our accomplishments, we will begin to see Him do marvelous things through our lives.


The Lord Jesus can work through the infirmities we face to bring about the deepest spiritual results. Ultimately, the success of any ministry depends not on our skills, strength, and smarts, but on the extent that the Redeemer operates through us. Furthermore, while our talents may impress other people, the Savior is most pleased by His working powerfully in us to accomplish His will.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.