Background Material and Sermon Helps
2 Corinthians 12:2-10 – Paul’s out of body experience, and his thorn in the flesh. My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Mark 6:1-13– A prophet is not without honor except in his own country. Jesus sends the twelve two-by-two.
Week 5: Powerful Weakness
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
I 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. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But 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, even 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. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but 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. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
Second Corinthians has several natural breaks. The lessons in our first three Sundays came from chapters 1-7, which constitute a sustained argument for reconciliation. Last week our lesson came from chapters 8-9, which contained an appeal to raise money for the poor in Jerusalem.
Chapters 10-13, from which comes our final lesson, form Paul’s strongest argument. In rhetoric, one moves from the smallest to the weightiest arguments. There is a significant shift in the tone now. Paul mounts an all out attack on his opponents. The difference is so marked some scholars believe these last three chapters are part of a different letter that has been grafted on to chapters 1-9.
Ben Witherington III, in Conflict and Community in Corinth, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, believes chapters 10-13 belong to the original letter. He shows that Paul has been bringing up these opponents all along. In chapter 1, Paul responds to an accusation of waffling on whether he’s coming or not. Who is making the accusation? In chapter 2 (verse 17), he says he and his companions are not peddlers of the gospel “like so many.” This is clearly a jab at someone. In chapter 3, he mentions those who need letters of recommendation, and so on. He’s been bringing it up subtly. Now he will go on a full frontal attack.
In chapter 10, Paul says, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’ Let such people understand that what we say by letter when absent, we will also do when present.” Paul is being critiqued in his absence.
In chapter 11:4-5, Paul says, “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.” He names his competition now. They are “super-apostles.” In verse 13 he calls them false apostles. He then boasts of his weakness: beatings and shipwrecks, hunger and thirst. He concludes with a most humiliating experience: escaping punishment by being let down the city wall in a basket. In Acts, Luke uses this story to illustrate Paul’s cleverness. Here Paul himself uses it to describe his weakness. Witherington points out the Romans gave an award for being first up the wall in a siege. Here Paul boasts of being the first down the wall.
This leads into our passage for today. Paul shares a vision story, an out-of-body (or possibly in-body experience, he’s not sure himself) experience, perhaps his version of his conversion. He tells it in the third person but it is clearly autobiographical. In this vision he is taken up into the third heaven, which he calls “paradise.” There was plenty of speculation in Paul’s day about how many levels heaven had.
Paul seems to be saying that even though his opponents have had amazing visions, he too has also had visions and revelations, he just doesn’t boast about them much. In order to keep him from getting to puffed-up about his revelations, God gave him a thorn in the flesh. We don’t know what this thorn in the flesh is, though there has been no small amount of speculation over the last 2000 years. In Galatians, Paul mentions a problem with his eyes, which may also tied back to his conversion experience, where he was struck blind for a time. This fits well. Paul, however, also uses the flesh to talk about our sinful nature, so he could be talking about a moral failing he has.
Paul prayed for the thorn to be taken away, but God said “No. My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This is central to Paul’s theology. The more pride one has, the more one is puffed-up, the less one is in Christ. For in Christ, the power of God is made perfect in our weakness. This counters ancient ideas about power and Roman theologies about how deity works. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthian 8:1)
Paul is not powerful. He is not a big person. The only description of him we have is as a small, bald person. In fact the word Paul means “small.” He may have had some eye problems as referenced in Galatians 4:15. He had walked all over the Empire and been beaten numerous times almost to death. The power of the gospel came through his weakness, not through his strength.
Likewise, the strength of the church comes not through our pride or insisting of our own way, but rather through our humility, gentleness, kindness, and willingness to bear the sufferings of those in need. When the church rises up and demands its own way, insisting on its rights in society, it misses the power of the love of Christ to which it is called.
Jesus is a suffering messiah with a crown of thorns. His power comes through weakness. Paul is a suffering apostle with a thorn in the flesh. His power comes through weakness. How will it be for you, for me, and for the church? In the wake of Independence Day, we should give thanks that we are free to love, free to serve, free to give our earth and lives away for the sake of the gospel.
If there has been any recurring theme throughout 2 Corinthians it has been the heart. Do not lose heart. Open your heart. As we conclude this study of 2 Corinthians, let us follow Christ who taught us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, as the two greatest commandments. Let us remember that we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, so that we can remember that the power comes not from us, but through us.
Texts and Themes
Pentecost 3B: June 14 – 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 – New Creation. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. We walk by faith and not by sight, at home in the body and away from the Lord.
Pentecost 5B: June 28 – 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 – Eager Generosity. The offering for the poor in Jerusalem. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.