2 Corinthians 11:30-12:10 — Boasting in Weakness

Paul began his “foolish” boasting by identifying how, as a minister of Christ, he endured hardships, dangers, threats, and loss for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation. In effect, he boasted in his endurance, and through this endurance he suffered “more” (hyper) than the “super (hyper) apostles.” Instead of listing his credentials, he preferred to list his sufferings for the gospel of the crucified Messiah.

But Paul is not finished. He finds it necessary to boast even further.

  • “If I must (dei) boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30)
  • “It is necessary (dei) to boast; nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 12:1).

It is rather curious that in one breath Paul is determined to boast about his weaknesses but then finds it necessary to boast about his visions and revelations. The latter does not seem, at first glance, to be a weakness. We may suppose that the “super-apostles” boasted in their visions and revelations as a sign of strength, as a credential.

Paul, however, thinks of his boasts about visions and revelations as a way of boasting in his weakness. This will become apparent in 2 Corinthians 12:9 because, in some way, Paul believes his boast about his vision is actually a boast about his weakness.

  • “I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

His weakness is ultimately a “thorn in the flesh” that both torments and humbles him (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Paul’s first boast in weakness is found in 2 Corinthians 11:30-33. Paul reminds his readers that his preference is to boast in his weakness—and he assures them this is true by invoking the presence and knowledge of God. This functions like a doxological oath. He calls upon God to bear witness to his truth-telling.

In some way, Paul’s description of the Damascus incident is a form of boasting in weakness. Perhaps the “super-apostles” used this as example of Paul’s inferiority. Paul had to escape from a political threat in a humiliating manner. Does that sound like a minister of the Messiah? But Paul boasts in it, and his boast is one in weakness. The weakness is the humiliation of a secret escape over the wall in a basket. That would stand in contrast to a triumphant exit from the city due to his success and good standing with the authorities. Apparently, Paul’s preaching in Damascus created a significant enough disturbance that it caught the attention of the authorities there which led to his humiliating exit (cf. Acts 9:23-25). His escape was, in the eyes of some, humiliating and thus a weakness. But Paul boasts in such weaknesses as a servant of the crucified Messiah who labors in the ministry of reconciliation.

At the same time, perhaps there is a subtle comparison with other heroes who escape over walls, like the spies Rahab helped (Joshua 2:15), or David whom Michal helped (1 Samuel 19:12). Perhaps Paul is reminding us that basket escapes are signs of God’s power even if they are mocked as human weakness. God triumphs through human weakness.

Secondly, Paul feels the necessity to boast about his visions and revelations. On the surface, that appears more arrogant than humbling, more of a strength than a weakness. While some might glory in their visions, Paul approaches such boasting with deep hesitation, even to the point that he thinks it practically fruitless to actually boast about this sort of thing.

Paul’s hesitation is revealed in his use of third-person language. While some believe Paul is describing someone else because he uses the third-person (“I know a person in Christ . . .”), I think it much more likely that Paul uses this approach to take the potential egotistical edge off the boast. Talking about himself in the third-person is his way of toning down the boast, which he is hesitant to do in the first place. After all, it does not appear to be much of a boast to say, “I know this other person who had a vision” as if knowing the other person gives Paul some reason to boast or gives him status in the eyes of the “super-apostles.”

What was this event? Paul’s description in many respects is vague and ambiguous except that he can date it to fourteen years ago (sometime around 41-42 A.D., which may locate him in Arabia or even Damascus itself). Though the dating identifies it as a meaningful specific moment in his life, he is not sure if he was in his body or out of his body, and he cannot repeat what he heard. There is not much value in this revelation for the body of Christ if Paul cannot tell what he heard, and the emphasis is on what Paul “heard” rather than on what Paul may have seen. Apparently, what he heard was for his own benefit rather than for the edification of the body of Christ. This was a private, individual experience rather than one intended for the edification of any community of believers. In this way, it was an experience that assured Paul that his service to the ministry of reconciliation was known to God and honored by God because God gave Paul access to a special place.

The repetition found in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 functions as a Hebraic parallelism, a function of Hebrew poetry.

  • “was caught up to the third heaven
  • “was caught up into Paradise

Second Temple Jewish literature is filled with thorough descriptions of ascents into the different levels of heaven. Some had seven heavens; others had three heavens. These ascents are often quite specific and long in their accounts—who they talked with, what they saw, and what they heard among other things.

Paul, however, is quite different. There are no details. In fact, he is uncertain about many things, but he does know that he ascended into the third heaven which is, by virtue of the parallelism, Paradise. This is a heavenly encounter with God in the presence of the angels and, presumably, the righteous dead. But Paul does not specify. He does not share details, and he does not promote his vision because it would not benefit or edify the church. His ascent into the third heaven is more a personal, mystical experience than one designed to edify the church since Paul cannot even repeat what he heard.

In fact, Paul does not linger but moves quickly to the point that he wants to make. He doesn’t want to boast about his Paradise experience. Rather, he tells us that story so he can boast in his weakness. Paul has other revelations about which he could boast, especially their “exceptional character” (hyperbolē). There was room for Paul to trump the super (hyper)-apostles because his own revelations were hyper or exceptional.

We might imagine that the “super-apostles” focused on their revelations and visions. They used them as self-authentification and the promotion of their own ministry. It is part of there self-commendation. Indeed, this happens today as some promote their visions as their authentification and for the promotion of their own ministries and congregations. Visions, in this way, become an ego-trip rather than serving the body of Christ.

Instead of dwelling on the details of his vision, Paul raises up his weakness, his “thorn in the flesh,” with which we may assume the Corinthians were quite familiar. Perhaps they were so familiar that they used it against Paul, or it created an obstacle between Corinthian expectations and Paul’s claims because this thorn did not fit what one would think should characterize a “minister of Christ.”

What do we know about this thorn (or stake!) in the flesh?

  1. It is not a mere irritant but has a debilitating quality. It is not a “thorn” like in the Lion’s paw but a stake in the flesh. It is substantive rather than simply annoying.
  2. It was “given”—it seems by God as this may be what many call a “theological passive” where God is the assumed subject of the verb.
  3. The disability, whatever it is, torments Paul like a “messenger of Satan.” In other words, it has a negative impact on Paul’s ministry; it is a way for Satan to hinder his ministry.
  4. God is sovereign over this stake in the flesh. God can remove it or not; it lies within the will of God. God decides.
  5. Paul prays to Jesus (reading “Lord” as the Messiah) for its removal “three times.” Ultimately, the divine answer to Paul’s prayer for its removal is “No.” Probably, “three times” is not a specific number but a number that reflects a repetitive and frequent request.
  6. Paul identifies at least one specific revelation from Christ:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” The revelation in which Paul boasts (if we can call it that) is not some fantastic wonder or miracle but the willingness to experience weakness for the sake of the ministry of Jesus.

We don’t know what this “thorn in the flesh” was. We are not certain if it is physical (“flesh”), psychological (perhaps a mental illness of some sort), or external (persecutors and opponents). Most tend toward the physical, but it must be something so apparent and unattractive that it hinders Paul’s ministry in some way. In fact, perhaps his detractors used it as evidence of his inferiority. Would not God remove this disability if he were an authentic “minister of Christ”? This has led some to suggest that perhaps it was some sort of speech impediment like stuttering or something analogous. That may be true, but no one really knows, though it seems we may assume the Corinthians knew.

But, again, Paul’s interest is not in the details but in the weakness. This is his boast. He boasts in the weakness of this thorn in the flesh by which the grace of God humbles him and perfects him. His ministry is effective by the power of Christ rather than by the rhetorical blasts of a cultured and admirable tongue (if that is the nature of the thorn).

Consequently, Paul is “content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever” he is “weak,” then is he “strong.”

His weaknesses are his strengths because they display the power of Christ. His ministry, conducted through a weak, earthen vessel, is effective because of what God is doing rather than because of his own strengths, skills, talents, and power. To boast in weakness is to boast in God’s work, and that is the only boasting that truly honors God.

2 Responses to “2 Corinthians 11:30-12:10 — Boasting in Weakness”

  1.   Robert A. Abney Says:

    I have benefited from your insights into Paul’s life as given
    in 2 Corinthians.

    Are there any plans to print these lessons into book form?
    Many would benefit from this. If not, how could one obtain
    the complete series of lessons in printed form?

    Thank you
    Robert Abney

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