2 Corinthians 12
Paul sees heaven
A 14-year-old vision of heaven1 I’ve got to keep bragging. I know it won’t do any good, but I’m going to move on to tell you about some visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 Fourteen years ago a man I know who’s a follower of the Messiah was somehow transported all the way up to the third heaven. I don’t know if this was an out-of-body experience. Only God knows. 3 As I said, I can’t tell you if this was an out-of-body experience or not. Only God knows. 4 Here’s what I can tell you. Somehow he was transported up into paradise. There, he heard words so sacred that humans aren’t allowed to speak them. 5 I’m going to brag about this man. As for me, however, the only bragging I’m going to do is about my weakness. 6 But even if I did brag about myself, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with it because I’d limit myself to the truth. I’m not going to brag, though. I don’t want people to give me credit for what I’ve done. I want them to give me credit for what they witness in the life I live and the words I speak.
Paul’s mysterious problem7 What was revealed to me is so extraordinary that I needed something to keep me humble. I was given a thorn in the side. It’s like a demon assigned to torture me, to keep me from getting too full of myself. 8 I asked the Lord to free me from this problem. I pleaded with him three times. 9 Each time he answered, “My kindness is all you need. My power gets more done in weakness.” Since the Messiah’s power is working through me, I’m happy to brag about my weaknesses. 10 I’m perfectly content with weaknesses, insults, tough times, persecution, or any other trouble I have to suffer because of the Messiah. Here’s why: when I’m weak, I’m strong.
Paul’s proof that he’s an apostle11 Look at me. I’m acting like an idiot. But doggone if you didn’t drive me to it. You people ought to be singing my praises. I admit I’m little more than nothing. But there’s no way I’m something less than those “super apostles.” 12 I proved I was a true apostle. You saw it in the signs, the wonders, and the miracles when I was with you. 13 Tell me, people, in what way did I treat you like a stepchild of a church, less important than the others? I admit that I didn’t accept any money from you because I didn’t want to become a burden. Forgive me for doing something as terrible as that. 14 Listen to me. I’m ready to come and visit you for the third time. I’ll not be a financial burden. I don’t want what you have. I want you. Children don’t save money for their parents. Parents save money for their children. 15 I’ll spend everything I have—myself included—for the sake of your souls. And I’ll be happy to do it.
Paul says he’s not a con artist16 So it’s established, we all know I wasn’t a burden to you. But I was a sneaky liar and a con man who won your confidence. 17 No way. I did not take advantage of you, nor did any of the associates I sent. Right? 18 I sent Titus to visit you. And I sent a believer with him. Titus didn’t take advantage of you, did he? Can’t you see the same spirit in both of us? Can’t you see that we both act in the same way? 19 Do you think we’ve been writing this so you can hear us defend ourselves? That’s not what’s going on. We’re speaking as followers of the Messiah, with God as our witness. Everything we’re doing, dear friends, is to strengthen your faith.
Paul’s fear of visiting Corinth again20 I’m afraid of what might happen the next time I come to see you. I might get upset by what I find. You might get upset with me. There might be arguments, jealousy, flaring tempers, selfishness, behind-the-back insults, gossip, conceit, and people whipping up trouble. 21 I’m afraid that when I come again God will make me feel ashamed. I’m afraid I’ll find myself feeling a deep loss for those people who have sinned, and who haven’t asked for forgiveness. I’m talking about those people still living shameful lives and indulging in sex sins and other filthy behavior.
Most Bible experts agree that Paul knew this man very well because Paul was the man. Scholars guess that Paul used the third-person voice because he felt uncomfortable bragging about what he’s about to say. In 12:7, Paul refers to himself as the person who received revelations from God: “What was revealed to me is so extraordinary.”
Bible experts debate how many heavens people in ancient times believed there were. Some Jewish and Christian writings outside the Bible talk about seven heavens. Yet some Bible experts say that Paul is thinking of the “third heaven” as the top-of-the-line heaven—the ultimate heaven. The clue is that he says the person was transported “all the way up.” This location is another way of referring to “paradise” (12:4). Whether it was heaven’s ground-floor or the penthouse, it was a place too wonderful to describe.
Bible writers report Paul having several visions or mystical experiences (Galatians 2:2; Acts 13:4; 18:9-10). If Paul wrote this letter in about AD 55, the experience he’s talking about here may have happened before he started his public ministry in Antioch of Syria (Acts 11:25).
Paul never identifies what his problem was. Bible experts can only guess. Guesses have included problems that were physical, emotional, or even spiritual. Physical: epilepsy, malaria, poor eyesight, speech impediment. Emotional; anger, depression, bipolar disorder. Spiritual: temptation.
More literally, “angel of Satan.”
Often translated “grace.”
Paul talks about a man he knows who had what sounds like a vision or an out-of-body experience (12:2-4). Yet it seems pretty clear, given the context, that he’s talking about himself. And he seems to say as much later: “What was revealed to me is so extraordinary” (12:7). Why do you think he would speak in the third-person like that, referring to himself as someone else?
Stories about out-of-body experiences show up in articles and books today, as events that still happen. They are most often associated with near-death experiences. What do you think about these? Are they real, or are they more likely some form of hallucination?
Paul’s problem is perhaps best known as his “thorn in the flesh.” He describes it as a persistent problem that keeps him humble. Of the following guesses reported in the footnote, which ones do you think are most likely the problem he suffered?
- Physical: epilepsy, malaria, poor eyesight, speech impediment.
- Emotional; anger, depression, bipolar disorder.
- Spiritual: temptation.
Some Christians in Corinth apparently accused Paul of somehow exploiting them. Or as Paul described it, the people said he was “a sneaky liar and a con man” (12:16). Paul denies this. But what kind of behavior do you think the people had in mind when they levied charges against him?
Paul closes this chapter by saying he’s afraid of what might happen the next time he comes to visit. How do you think the people may have reacted (12:20-21)?
LIFE APPLICATION. When Paul asked God to free him from the mysterious problem he called “a thorn in my side” (12:7), God gave what might sound like a pretty strange answer: “My kindness is all you need. My power gets more done in weakness” (12:9). What do you think would be an example of that in life, either in Paul’s day or today?