2 Corinthians 12

The remark with which the Apostle opens chapter 12 again indicates that this speaking about himself was repugnant to him, though he found himself impelled to do it. The New Translation renders it, "Well, it is not of profit to me to boast," so his thought may have been that what he had to say about himself brought no profit or credit to him. The beatings, the perils, the hunger, the thirst, the nakedness, the infirmities, of which he had just spoken were not the kind of experiences which are considered profitable, according to the standards of the world. And now that he proceeds to speak of what he had received of the Lord, in the form of visions and revelations, there was still no credit to him; for it was not exactly as an apostle that he received them, and much less as a man in the flesh, but as "a man in Christ."

In making this distinction we are not splitting hairs, for Paul himself makes it, and lays very definite stress upon it. Note how verses 2-5 carry on the thought, "A man in Christ . . . such an one . . . such a man . . . such an one . . ." These heavenly revelations were given to such a man as that. Who and what then is this "man in Christ"?

Without any question Paul was alluding to a marvellous experience in his own history, but he carefully eliminates the personal element from his story in order to impress us with the fact that the experience was only possible for him inasmuch as he was "such a man" as "a man in Christ." Eliminating the personal element he was able thus to abstract in his mind that which he was in the very essence of his being by the work of God in new creation. Elsewhere he has told us that, "We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works" (Eph. 2: 10); and in our own epistle he has already said, "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature" (v. 17). It is evident therefore that every true believer in the Lord Jesus is "a man in Christ." Consequently every one of us ought to be very eager to take in its significance.

By natural birth we are men in Adam: that is, we enter upon his life, and are of his race and order, inheriting his sinful characteristics; though in different individuals they come out in different ways and degrees. By the grace of God in new creation the believer enters upon the life of the risen Christ, and is of His race and order. The new life he has received has its own characteristics, even those which in all their perfect beauty were seen in Christ Himself. True, in various individual believers these characteristics are only seen in differing ways and degrees, and only partially in the best.

But that is because each individual believer, while under observation in this world, still has the flesh in him, and that, whenever permitted to operate, obscures and contradicts the features of the life of Christ. Still our many failures must not be allowed to obscure the fact that a "man in Christ" is what each of us is; and that by an act of God.

When the Lord comes, and we are "clothed upon with our house which is from heaven," the last link that we have with the first Adam will have disappeared. Our very bodies then will be of a new creation order. There will be nothing about us which is not new creation, and hence all need for abstract thinking in connection with this matter will have passed away. We shall no longer have to differentiate and speak of "such an one," for there will be no other kind of "one" entering into the question. How glorious that will be!

Still at present we have to speak as Paul speaks here; and how delightful it is to find that a man in Christ can be caught up into Paradise, even the third heaven, and yet feel at home there and receive communications from God, of a character beyond anything that could possibly be known in this world. How great a contrast for the Apostle between such an experience as this and all those experiences he endured in his life of service, of which we have just been hearing. In them he was "let down," and that in the most undignified way. In this he was "caught up," and that to Paradise. Such an experience must have been in itself a big recompense for his sufferings, and it was only a foretaste of greater things and eternal, which were to come. No wonder he spoke to us, in chapter 4, of the "far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory," which awaits us.

That glory awaits us when we too are caught up as predicted in 1 Thessalonians 4: 17. When all the saints are thus caught up-the Apostle Paul amongst them-they will be clothed in bodies of glory; there is no shadow of uncertainty as to that. There was uncertainty about this experience of Paul's as he tells us twice over. He did not know whether it was supernatural experience, in the nature of a vision, granted to him while still in the body; that is, still a living man in this world: or whether he was out of the body; that is, that he died, his spirit passing into the presence of the Lord, and then subsequently he was brought back to life here. This remark of his, coupled with the date he gives us, makes it quite possible that the experience was granted to him when he suffered the stoning recorded in Acts 14. He must have been in an insensible condition for some time; since all thought him dead, and his apparent lifeless body was dragged out of the town.

The wonderful experience was his, though he was uncertain what exactly was his condition when he had it. Incidentally this shows us that the "falling asleep" of a saint does not mean the sleep of the soul. If the death of a saint involves his total unconsciousness until the coming of the Lord, then the Apostle would have been in no uncertainty. He would have said, "I must have been in the body for I was conscious: had I been out of the body I should have had no consciousness at all."

This man in Christ was caught up to the third heaven; that is, the immediate presence of God, of which the holiest in the tabernacle was a type. We have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, and Paul found that as a man in Christ he had free access into the third heaven, which he identifies with Paradise, into which the thief went with Christ. During his sojourn there he found himself in touch with a range of things entirely outside anything known in this world. He heard, "unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter."

This does not mean that he heard mysterious utterances quite unintelligible to him, but that the things he heard, and doubtless understood in some degree, were so exalted as to be beyond us in our present condition. The things spoken about in the third heaven cannot be communicated to us. We have no language in which they can be expressed. And further, if it were possible to convey to us a little of that "eternal weight of glory" it would only crush us in our present condition of weakness. Hence Paul was not allowed to utter the things he heard, even if he could have found words in which to clothe the things revealed. This vision and revelation from the Lord was a special privilege conferred upon him, and for his own illumination and strengthening.

In all this there was nothing in which Paul could boast, as he makes so plain in verse 5. Circumstances had been permitted to push him into a position where he was constrained to speak of this wonderful experience, as to which he had kept silence for fourteen years, yet even so, though there was much that he might mention keeping strictly within the bounds of truth (which was more than his opponents always did), he would say nothing except as to his infirmities.

This leads him to reveal the fact that when he resumed his active life in this world he came under a special disciplinary dealing on God's part, of a kind that was designed to deliver him from dangers that threatened. The flesh in Paul was unchanged as to its evil tendencies even after such an experience as this. How easy for him to be lifted up with pride and self-exaltation, and thus invite a sorrowful fall. So the thorn in flesh was given to act as a kind of counterpoise. Paradise and its unspeakable words on the one hand, but the thorn and its buffetings on the other.

It is said that "thorn" hardly gives in any adequate way the sense, and that "stake" would be better. We do not think much of thorns and easily extricate them, but a stake in the flesh is a far more serious thing and thoroughly crippling in its effects. What in particular Paul alluded to we do not know, though a good deal of discussion has centred round the point. Probably it is purposely left vague in order that all our thought may be concentrated on the fact that any affliction, even of the most damaging kind, may be turned into an occasion of spiritual preservation and gain.

The thorn, whatever it was, affected his body for the good of his soul. Its action is described as a "buffeting." It came from Satan, for it is described as "a messenger," or "an angel" of Satan, and it is his mode of attack when a devoted and faithful saint is in question. He blinds the minds of the unbelieving as we were told in chapter 4. He aims at corrupting the simple and unestablished, as 2 Cor. 11 showed. But for Paul who had been caught up into the third heaven a different line of attack was followed, and the devil dealt him heavy blows that fell upon his body.

We should have said rather that the devil was permitted to deal him heavy blows, for all that happened was beneath the hand of God. It was with Paul as it had been long before with Job: three causes are discernible. The third causes were fire from heaven, whirlwind, evil men, in the case of Job, and the thorn in the flesh in the case of Paul. Behind these in each case lay the power and animus of Satan; but behind him as the first cause there was the hand of God. Job's safety and blessing lay in his turning away from the third causes, and even from the second cause, that he might accept all from the hand of God; and so too it was with Paul.

Very naturally Paul betook himself to prayer. It was intense prayer: he not only requested but besought. It was repeated, for he besought the Lord thrice. Yet for all that his desire was not granted. Instead of having the thorn removed he received the assurance of abundant grace; such grace that the thorn would become an asset rather than a liability, a means of blessing rather than a hindrance. The Lord answered his prayer, but not according to his thought. He gave him rather that which was better. The grace bestowed more than counterbalanced the thorn.

We must lay great stress in our minds upon the little word, "MY." The thorn was a messenger of Satan, but the grace was Christ's. The Lord's reply to Paul was, "My grace is sufficient for thee." The Lord and His grace are infinite, sufficient for ten thousand times ten thousand of His saints- surely then sufficient for Paul, or for any one of us, no matter what we may have to face. But He added, "My strength is made perfect in weakness." If the thorn served to augment and emphasize Paul's weakness it thereby opened the way for a fuller and more perfect display of the grace of the Lord.

Without a question all this is right in the teeth of our natural thoughts. We should connect the thought of power and strength with every kind of mental and bodily fitness. We should say-I will glory in my fitness that the power of Christ may rest upon me. When I am tuned up to concert pitch then I am strong. Our thoughts however are wrong: the Divine way is right. We may wish to present ourselves to the Lord for service saying, "Just as I am; young, strong, and free . . ." Paul has to learn to come saying, "Just as I am; old, battered, weak . . ." It is very certain that the Lord accomplished a great deal more through Paul than He is ever going to do through you or me.

The thorn in the flesh, then, worked good in two ways. First, it checked that tendency to pride that otherwise might have overcome Paul and wrought such mischief. Second, it cast him so fully upon the Lord that it became a medium through which abundant supplies of grace were received by him.

This being so, the Apostle had learned to take pleasure in these various forms of adversity. In Romans 5 he tells us how he boasted in tribulations because he knew what they were designed to effect in the sphere of Christian character. Here he takes pleasure in tribulations because he had discovered them to be the way by which the power of Christ became operative through him in service. The very weakness into which he was plunged made him a suitable medium for the outflow of that power.

And in this, as well as in other things, Paul was a pattern to us who follow him. This was God's way at the beginning of the dispensation, and it is still His way at the end. Fashions and customs and many other things which lie upon the surface of affairs do indeed vary, but the underlying facts and principles do not vary. Consequently there is no other way of power for us. Does not this fact go a long way to explain the lack of power so sadly evident, and so often deplored, today?

Having let us into the secret, as to the revelations he had from the Lord on the one hand, and the discipline which came upon him from the Lord on the other, the Apostle utters his closing appeal. He ought really to have been commended of the Corinthians seeing they were his converts, instead of which he was forced into defending his apostleship before them. Though nothing in himself, he was behind the very chiefest apostles in nothing. As to this he could appeal to his whole career, and more particularly to his life and service when amongst them.

Paul's estimate of himself was-I am nothing. Let us be instructed by this. We sometimes sing,

"O keep us, love divine, near Thee,

That we our nothingness may know."

The desire is a good one. We never do realize our nothingness more effectively than when we are filled with divine love. In the passage before us the confession "I am nothing," follows the setting forth of the all-sufficient grace of Christ.

Yet this man who was nothing had been called to apostleship in surpassing measure, and the signs of it were very evident; not only in wonders and mighty deeds but also and firstly in patience-a patience which he was now displaying in abundant measure in his dealings with the Corinthians. When he was in their midst he carefully abstained from being in any way a financial burden to them, though he had taken help from other churches. He speaks again with a tinge of irony in saying, "forgive me this wrong." He purposed to continue on the same lines. Inasmuch as he was their spiritual father he proposed to provide for them, rather than counting upon their providing for him.

Verse 15 is very beautiful. Paul was indeed a father in Christ, his heart well saturated with divine love, hence he could love the unloving, even as God does. The natural tendency of our hearts is just the opposite of this. We are perhaps kindly disposed towards certain persons, and show them various favours. They receive all, but are cool and unappreciative. We are annoyed, and declare we will have done with them! But it was not thus with Paul. Even if things got so bad that their response only decreased as love increased, he would go on expressing his love in the most practical way of all. He would spend and be spent for them. A little of this lovely spirit we see in 1 Samuel 12: 23. A good deal more of it we see in the passage before us. But the thing itself is seen supremely in God Himself, as displayed by the Lord Jesus Christ.

The same spirit had been seen in those associated with the Apostle in his labours, as Titus and others. Yet this loving spirit did not mean indifference to evil, and a condoning of things that were not right; and so there follow very plain words as to the sin which he feared was still to be found amongst them, which would merit very severe judgment if he again came into their midst.

Sin breaks out in many ways, but two forms of it were very prevalent at Corinth, as verses 20 and 21 bear witness. First, there were all those disturbing features that spring from self-assertiveness and the envy and jealousy thereby generated. Second, self-gratification and the licentiousness that springs from it, in its varying forms. The Apostle feared that both these things were still rife at Corinth and unrepented of; and that if he came on this proposed third visit he would be full of grief in their midst and have to act in judgment. We may observe that he speaks of his humiliation and sorrow (2 Cor. 12: 21) before he speaks of his authority in judgment (2 Cor. 13: 2).