12. Paul's Vision, Thorn, and Final Words (2 Corinthians 12-13)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Paul is obviously embarrassed to continue to boast though he realizes that in order to reestablish his apostolic authority with the Corinthians, he must lay out all of his credentials.

"I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained...." (12:1a)

In the previous lesson, we studied Paul's boasting about his sufferings as an apostle (11:21-33). These were designed to prove that the so-called "super apostles" hadn't sacrificed for the gospel's sake. Paul thought it important to link suffering with apostleship, since his opponents spoke eloquently and espoused a "success" image that had completely overtaken the Corinthians.

In this passage, Paul shares an amazing personal revelation and links it with weakness. Paul's authenticity as an apostle is in no way compromised by his own weaknesses and afflictions!

We're covering two chapters in this final lesson, but most of chapter 13 is concluding remarks that we will cover rather quickly.

Visions and Revelations in the New Testament (12:1)

"I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord." (12:1)

"Visions" in verse 1 is optasia, "an event of a transcendent character that impresses itself vividly on the mind, a vision, celestial sight."[419] "Revelations" is apokalypsis, literally, "uncovering," here, "making fully known, revelation, disclosure."[420]

While visions and revelations may not be as prominent today -- at least in American congregations -- they were common in the New Testament era. Paul himself had a vision of Christ at his conversion (Acts 22:6-11; 26:12-20; Galatians 1:15-16), had a vision that constituted his "Macedonian call" (Acts 16:9-10), and was encouraged by a vision while in Corinth some years previously (Acts 18:9-10). He contended that his gospel, as well, had been given by revelation (Galatians 1:12).

Boasting of Visions and Revelations (12:2-4)

"2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know -- God knows. 3 And I know that this man -- whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows -- 4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell." (12:2-4)

It's interesting that Paul begins as if the person he is talking about were someone else, though by verses 5-7 it becomes clear that he is talking about himself.

This was a vision of "the third heaven" (12:2), that is, "paradise." In his prayer at the dedication of the temple, Solomon differentiates between heaven and highest heaven (1 Kings 8:27). Some of Paul's first century Jewish contemporaries saw heaven with three, five, or seven levels. But rather than become dogmatic about the structure of heaven, it's probably more helpful to see Paul's third heaven as "an ordinary Hebrew superlative."[421] The term "Paradise" is paradeisos, from an Old Persian word, then Hebrew, then transliterated into Greek. It means, "enclosure, garden," and pictures the restoration of the Garden of Eden in the end times. Here it refers to "a transcendent place of blessedness,"[422] essentially a synonym for heaven (Luke 23:43; Revelation 2:7).

Paul isn't sure whether this was an out-of-body experience or not. But he did hear secrets there that he could not repeat.[423] Kruse observes:

"Paul's account of his rapture differs markedly from other such accounts from the ancient world, both in its brevity and the absence of any descriptions of what he saw. Paul refers only to what he heard."[424]

Boasting of the Truth (12:5-6)

"5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say." (12:5-6)

Paul seems to separate the man who had seen the vision 14 years previously from the person he is today -- one who boasts about his weaknesses. He certainly is not using the vision itself for ammunition against his opponents: I saw a vision, so I am superior. Rather he is telling the story in order to explain what God has shown him about power in weakness.

Paul's Thorn in the Flesh (12:7)

These amazing visions that Paul had seen required him to be humble.

"To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me." (12:7)

Paul was in danger of pride from these astounding[425] revelations. "Conceited" (NIV), "too elated" (NRSV), "exalted above measure" (KJV) is hyperairō, "to have an undue sense of one's self-importance, rise up, exalt oneself, be elated."[426] To prevent pride, Paul "was given" a "thorn in the flesh." But what that thorn was and why it was given has caused a great deal of theological controversy.

Part of the controversy centers around the ministry of healing by prayer. To oversimplify the issues a bit, some who teach healing are unwilling to acknowledge that St. Paul could have been sick. Some who don't believe in healing by prayer look to this verse to prove that God can use their sickness for some positive purpose -- while the healing faction sees sickness as an evil from Satan. Those are the landmines in the road. Now let's try to work carefully through an interpretation that is true to this text and to the larger teaching of scripture.

Was the Thorn a Sickness?

A definition of "thorn" doesn't help us. It's just an annoying pointed object[427] -- a symbol of something else that is painful and annoying. But what can we learn from this verse?

  1. "Was given" is the aorist passive of didōmi, an extremely common verb meaning, "to give." It can indicate anything from warm generosity to "cause to happen," and all in between. Often when we see this use of the passive voice, it is implied that God is the force behind the event. Certainly, God allowed this thorn in the flesh, just as he allows sin and sickness to exist in our fallen world. But did he actively send it in order to keep Paul humble? That's the question. This may be just splitting hairs, trying to absolve God from agency for what we deem to be evil.[428] See Romans 8:28 and Genesis 50:20.
  2. The thorn is called "a messenger" of Satan. "Messenger" is angelos, "spirit-being, angel." Often this word refers to one of God's angels, but here the word refers to an "evil spirit."[429]
  3. Satan is closely identified with this messenger. This isn't just any messenger, but Satan's messenger or agent.[430]
  4. The purpose of the thorn was to "torment" (NIV, NRSV) or "buffet" (KJV). The verb is kolaphizō, literally, "to strike sharply, especially with the hand, strike with the fist, beat, cuff," here figuratively, "to cause physical impairment, torment."[431]
  5. "Weakness" in verse 9 is astheneia, "sickness, disease," then more generally, "incapacity for something or experience of limitation, weakness."[432] The word could mean "sickness, disease," or the more general "weakness," depending upon the context. When Paul was in Galatia, he had some kind of physical weakness -- perhaps an eye ailment, though we can't be sure.

"You know that it was because of a physical (sarx) infirmity (astheneia) that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me." (Galatians 4:13-15, NRSV)

  1. Paul's body is affected by this thorn or weakness, since both here and in Galatians the weakness is closely related to sarx, which refers here to "the material that covers the bones of a human or animal body, flesh."[433]  

From this analysis, I can't escape the conclusion personally that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was some kind of physical ailment or disease that afflicted his body.

Is Sickness from Satan?

This isn't the place to argue for or against the proposition that Satan brings sickness, not God. That would require a detailed argument that ultimately depends upon the underlying assumptions that the interpreter makes. However, let me make a few observations:

  1. Jesus' healing miracles were signs of the Kingdom (Luke 10:9), that healing is part of the salvation he brought. It is not necessary to contend that there is "healing in the atonement" to see that the word "saved" (sōzō) is used in the gospels for physical healing sometimes (Matthew 9:21-22; Mark 5:23, 28, 34; 6:56; 10:52; Luke 8:36, 48, 50; 17:19; 18:42; Acts 4:9; 14:9).
  2. Jesus rebuked Satan and evil spirits in order to bring about healing in many cases, which would be consistent with them being the immediate cause of the illness (Luke 4:35, 39, 41; 9:42).
  3. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the sick and to cast out demons, and expected this kind of healing and deliverance activity to continue (Mark 16:17-18, longer ending; Luke 9:1; 10:9, 17).
  4. Healing and works of miracles are gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:9-10, 28), and we have no indication that they are to pass away until Jesus comes and brings perfection into our fallen world (1 Corinthians 13:10). Indeed, a fair-minded view of history indicates that these gifts continued in the early church, as well as throughout church history. Some people in our own day exercise the gift of healing, sometimes with great power and effect.
  5. God didn't heal all sicknesses -- even in the apostolic circle (Romans 8:18, 23; 2 Corinthians 4:16; Philippians 2:27; 1 Timothy 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:20).
  6. A healer's own sickness is not incompatible with a powerful healing ministry. For example, those familiar with the life of British Pentecostal healer Smith Wigglesworth (1859-1947) know that through Christ's power he performed mighty healings while he himself was in intense pain from kidney stones.

I don't know all the answers to the paradoxes raised and obvious inconsistencies of these observations. But I know when Christ comes he will replace our imperfect ministry of healing with the resounding wholeness of resurrection bodies. Resurrection is the ultimate physical healing.

Based on my exegesis of 12:7-10, I conclude that by the "thorn in the flesh," Paul was referring to some kind of physical ailment. And, instead of healing it, God used it to work in Paul's character. Can God heal? Yes, absolutely and often! Does he always heal? No. Can God use physical ailments to form Christ's character in us. Yes, I think that's the meaning of this passage.

Q1. (2 Corinthians 12:7) Why was this "thorn in the flesh" given to Paul? What purpose did God want to achieve through this in Paul's character? How can something be both used by God and be caused by Satan's destructive work? How does this verse relate to Romans 8:28 and Genesis 50:20?

My Power Is Made Perfect in Weakness (12:8-9a)

No matter what kind of sickness Paul had, he certainly didn't want it. Moreover, he came to God again and again in earnest prayer for healing.

"Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me." (12:8)

"Pleaded" (NIV), "appealed to" (NRSV), "besought" (KJV) is parakaleō, here, "to make a strong request for something, request, implore, entreat."[434] This was earnest, believing prayer. For two of these prayer sessions, God gave him no answer. But on the third, God answered.

"But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'" (12:9a)

"Grace," of course, is charis, which has the basic idea of "a beneficent disposition toward someone, favor." But in some passages, the connotation seems to be "exceptional effect produced by generosity, favor." In some places, Danker notes, "charis is evidently to be understood in a very concrete sense. It is hardly to be differentiated from dynamis (‘power') or from gnōsis (‘knowledge'] or doxa [‘glory']."[435] 

"Sufficient" is arkeō, It is an old Greek word, rich in meaning, says Robertson.[436] The basic idea is "to be possessed of unfailing strength." Then "to be strong, to suffice, to be enough" (as against any danger, hence, "to defend, ward off," used in Homer).[437]

"For" (gar) introduces the cause or reason for this statement.[438]

"My Power," literally, "the power" is the noun dynamis (from which we get our words "dynamo" and "dynamic"), which means, "potential for functioning in some way, power, might, strength, force, capability."[439] With God, power can be a synonym for any of his deeds of power and his unlimited resources, such as the signs of an apostle -- signs, wonders and miracles (12:12).

"In weakness," astheneia, the word we discussed above, which could refer to sickness or any other kind of weakness -- physical, psychological, financial, you name it.

"Is made perfect," is the passive of the verb teleō, which has the basic meaning of "bring to an end, finish, complete." Here it carries the connotation, "find consummation, reach perfection."[440] When you're playing tennis there is a sweet spot on the racket that will send back the perfect shot. When playing sports you can get in "the zone" or "a groove" where you play at your best or beyond. Our weakness and dependence on God creates God's "sweet spot" in which he

"is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us." (Ephesians 3:20, KJV)

God's Power in Us

Let's pause for a moment and consider some of the scriptures that speak of God's mighty power in us.

"He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint." (Isaiah 40:29-31)

"I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.... I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:11b-13)

"I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know ... his incomparably great power for[441] us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead...." (Ephesians 1:18-20)

"I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being." (Ephesians 3:16)

 "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power." (Ephesians 6:10)

 "... Being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience...." (Colossians 1:11)

 "So that we may present everyone perfect in Christ ... I labor, struggling with all his energy (energeia), which so powerfully works in me." (Colossians 1:28-29)

When I Weak, then I Am Strong (12:9b-10)

The answer God gave was "No" -- not the answer Paul was seeking. But when God's answer came, it seems that Paul cherished it the rest of his life. For he says,

"9b Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults,[442] in hardships,[443] in persecutions,[444] in difficulties.[445] For when I am weak, then I am strong." (12:9-10)

 Have you ever had a revelation from God that seemed to open your eyes all at once so you suddenly had understanding where before it didn't make any sense? For Paul, this was one of those times.

Instead of resenting God's answer, he exulted in it. "I will boast all the more gladly[446] about my weaknesses," he says. In the next verse he "delights" in all the things we would normally complain about. Eudokeō means, "to take pleasure or find satisfaction in something, be well pleased, take delight, like, approve."[447]

Now, when he encounters weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties, he gets excited because he knows that, "when I am weak, then I am strong" (12:10b). These are no longer problems to Paul, but opportunities in which to see God's power in action.

In the last century, Watchman Nee (1903-1972) wrote a book entitled, The Normal Christian Life (1938-1939), in which he contended that what was "normal" in the early church that we should expect as the norm today. O Lord, bring such a profound revelation to our hearts that your power in our weakness might be our norm, not something out-of-the-ordinary!

If Paul's word sounds a bit strange to us, it is! We don't see many people who have such a faith and enthusiasm for God that Paul had. Perhaps God will transform you into this kind of person who delights in weakness (and its attendant power) so you can be an encouragement and inspiration to your church.

Q2. (2 Corinthians 12:10) What was the life-changing lesson that Paul learned from God when God denied his prayer? How does our self-sufficiency limit God's power through our lives? Can we become dependent upon God without having to experience some "thorn in the flesh" ourselves?

The Signs of an Apostle (12:11-12)

Now Paul resumes talking about his boastings that began with 11:16. He feels a little embarrassed that he had to recount all his sufferings and weaknesses, but it was necessary.

"I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the ‘super-apostles,' even though I am nothing." (12:11)

Paul has been seeking to demonstrate that he is a true apostle, in spite of the accusations and slander of the "super-apostles" that had gained sway in Corinth. Now he mentions the miraculous power that God has used through him.

"The things that mark an apostle -- signs, wonders and miracles -- were done[448] among you with great perseverance." (12:12)

  • "Signs" is the plural of sēmeion, "an event that is an indication or confirmation of intervention by transcendent powers, miracle, portent."[449] 
  • "Wonders" is teras, "something that astounds because of transcendent association, prodigy, portent, omen, wonder."[450]  
  • "Miracles" (NIV), "mighty works/deeds" (NRSV, KJV) is dynamis, "a deed that exhibits ability to function powerfully, deed of power, miracle, wonder."[451]

These power gifts were performed not just once in a while, but "with great perseverance." "Perseverance" (NIV), "patience" (NRSV, KJV) is hypomonē, "the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty, patience, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance."[452]

Paul says that signs, wonders, and miracles "mark" an apostle. They are "signs" or indications that a person is an apostle.[453] Does this mean that a person who ministers with frequent signs, wonders, and miracles is an apostle? Not necessarily, but it could be. We know that, "Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people" (Acts 6:8), and he seemed to be a servant of the church or deacon, rather than an apostle. Philip the Evangelist did "miraculous signs" at Samaria (Acts 8:6-7), but he wasn't recognized as an apostle.

Does this mean that all apostles will operate in signs, wonders, and miracles? Not necessarily, but it's likely. Paul's point is, however, that God hadn't performed these signs through the so-called "super-apostles," but he had through Paul. This was another proof that he was indeed a genuine apostle.

Expending His Resources for the Corinthians (12:13-15)

One of the issues that the Corinthians apparently found difficult to understand was why Paul didn't ask support from them during his ministry there, but rather worked with his hands or received support from other churches. He had explained himself in 1 Corinthians 9:3-18, as well as previously in this letter. But he feels he needs to mention it again -- with a bit of irony.

"13 How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong! 14 Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden[454] to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less? (12:13-15)

The "super-apostles," however, were after the Corinthians' money. Paul needed to differentiate himself from them once again. The irony is on the surface.

"16 Be that as it may, I have not been a burden[455] to you. Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery! 17 Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent you? 18 I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not act in the same spirit and follow the same course?" (12:16-18)

"Exploit" (NIV), "take advantage of" (NRSV), "make a gain" (KJV) is pleonekteō, "to take advantage of, exploit, outwit, defraud, cheat someone.[456]

19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending[457] ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening."[458] (12:16-19)

This is not just a defense, says Paul -- as if he needed to defend himself to them! He has gone into detail to help bring them understanding and clarity and therefore strengthen them. Sometimes maturity comes through hard lessons.

Concern for the Corinthians' Sin and Disorder (12:20-21)

Paul shifts gears again. He has established afresh his apostolic credentials. Now he warns them that he will fully exercise his apostolic authority to set things in order when he comes again.

"For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be." (12:20)

When I return, he is saying, I won't be that "meek" Paul that you might expect me to be.

The Corinthians' arrogance towards Paul has been based on the premise that somehow they (and their "super-apostles") are superior to Paul. Not so, says Paul. You have serious sin in your midst that you haven't dealt with.

"I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder." (12:20)

These are the sins Paul initially singles out:

  • "Quarreling" (NIV, NRSV), "debates" (KJV) is eris, "engagement in rivalry, especially with reference to positions taken in a matter, strife, discord, contention."[459]
  • "Jealousy" (NIV, NRSV), "envyings" (KJV) is zēlos, here, "intense negative feelings over another's achievements or success, jealousy, envy."[460] 
  • "Outbursts of anger" (NIV), "anger" (NRSV), "wraths" (KJV) is thymos, "a state of intense displeasure, anger, wrath, rage, indignation," in the plural, "outbursts of anger."[461] 
  • "Factions" (NIV), "selfishness" (NRSV), "strifes" (KJV).[462] In 1 Corinthians 1:11-12; 3:1-9; and 11:18 Paul had rebuked them for their various factions -- Paul, Apollos, Christ, rich, poor, etc.
  • "Slander" (NIV, NRSV), "backbitings" (KJV) is katalalia, "the act of speaking ill of another, evil speech, slander, defamation, detraction."[463]  
  • "Gossip" (NIV, NRSV), "whisperings" (KJV) is psithyrismos, "derogatory information about someone that is offered in a tone of confidentiality, (secret) gossip, tale-bearing," from psithyrizō, "to whisper."[464] 
  • "Arrogance" (NIV), "conceit" (NRSV), "swellings" (KJV) is physiōsis, elsewhere a medical technical term, literally, "inflated or bloated condition," here, "swelled-headedness, pride, conceit."[465] 
  • "Disorder" (NIV, NRSV), "tumults" (KJV) is akatastasia. In 6:5 regarding Paul's troubles it was translated, "unsettled state of affairs, disturbance, tumult," perhaps of a riot. But here it is probably, "opposition to established authority, disorder, unruliness."[466] 

If you were to be honest, how many of these would you find prevalent in your congregation -- not just in one or two people? Their presence indicates a dysfunctional congregation, a kind of organizational sickness.

Q3. (2 Corinthians 12:20) How do you "cure" a church of these kinds of behaviors and sins? How can a "love offensive" begin to change the spirit of a dysfunctional congregation? What is the role of church discipline in a dysfunctional congregation?

Paul isn't finished. Now he talks about sexual sins:

"... Many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged."[467] (12:21b)

  • "Impurity" (NIV, NRSV), "uncleanness" (KJV) is akatharsia, "a state of moral corruption, immorality, vileness," used especially of sexual sins.[468] Addiction to pornography, for example, would fit in this category.
  • "Sexual sin" (NIV), "sexual immorality" (NRSV), "fornication" (KJV) is porneia, a generic term referring to "unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication."[469] This word would also encompass homosexual acts.
  • "Debauchery" (NIV), "licentiousness" (NRSV), "lasciviousness" (KJV) is aselgeia, "lack of self-constraint which involves one in conduct that violates all bounds of what is socially acceptable, self-abandonment," especially used of sexual excesses.[470]

  Sometimes I've heard people minimize sexual sins as no worse than any other sin -- probably to justify their own practices. Friends, we have to take seriously God's word. In a previous letter, Paul taught this church:

"9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

God will forgive the repentant, but not those who continue in these known sins without any real struggle to leave them.

The Pain of Correction (12:21a)

Now we come to a curious sentence:

"I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier[471] and have not repented...." (12:21a)

What does he mean that God will "humble" him? The verb tapeinoō in this context means, "to cause someone to lose prestige or status, humble, humiliate, abase."[472] I think he is referring to the public grief that he will be expressing during this apostolic correction process. "Be grieved" (NIV), "have to mourn" (NRSV), "bewail" (KJV) is pentheō, "to engage in mourning for one who is dead, ordinarily with traditional rites, mourn over."[473] To be acutely grieved in public is humiliating, something you try to avoid. But Paul is incapable of correcting without feeling and expressing the pain in his heart that his children in the Lord have been recaptured by previous sins and haven't repented.

You never believe your parents when they say, when preparing to spank you, "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you." But when you're a parent, you understand. That's what's going on here.

Paul's Promise to Set Things in Order (13:1-3a)

Paul has shared his heart. Now he prepares them for an official hearing before the whole church and the judgment of those who persist in sin.

"This will be my third visit to you. ‘Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'" (13:1)

He is quoting from the Mosaic Law that established procedures in Israelite criminal hearings:

"One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." (Deuteronomy 19:15)

It's kind of like a police officer reading a person being arrested his "Miranda rights." Perhaps the Corinthians are getting the idea that Paul is serious. Now he continues his warning with a verb used to refer to the warnings uttered by the Old Testament prophets[474] -- warnings that were fulfilled in terrible finality upon God's sinning people:

"2 I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it[475] while absent: On my return[476] I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, 3 since you are demanding[477] proof[478] that Christ is speaking through me." (13:2-3a)

 Paul says he won't be lenient at the trial.[479] "Spare" (NIV, KJV), "be lenient" (NRSV) is pheidomai, "to save from loss or discomfort, spare someone or something."[480] They are demanding proof that he is an apostle? Well, this will be that proof!

Weakness and Strength (13:3b-14)

Earlier in the letter it seemed like Paul was on the defensive, taking pains to explain himself. But clearly he is on the offensive now. Make no mistake: Christ will act with power through me when I come, says Paul.

"3b He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. 4 For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God's power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God's power we will live with him to serve you." (13:13b-14)

Paul is alluding here to the Corinthians' perception that Paul is weak when he is with them, but only powerful in his letters (10:10).

See If You Will Stand the Test (13:5-8)

Up to this point it seems clear that the Corinthians had been examining Paul -- and perhaps the "super-apostles" -- with regard to their credentials as true apostles. Now Paul turns the tables on them. You should be examining yourselves, he says, not me.

"5 Examine[481] yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test[482] yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you -- unless, of course, you fail the test[483]? 6 And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test." (13:5-6)

Notice that being "in the faith" and "Christ Jesus is in you" are two sides of the same coin, both ways of saying that a person is an authentic Christian. Paul expects that when they see their own faith, they'll realize that they are in Christ precisely because of Paul, their Apostle, and that for this reason he doesn't "fail the test."

"7 Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong. Not that people will see that we have stood the test but that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. 8 For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth." (13:7-8)

Whether or not I am proved genuine, says Paul in verse 7b, I want you to do what is right. Barrett says, "Paul is not out to get a verdict in his favor at any cost, but wishes the truth, whether it is favorable to him or not, to prevail."[484]

Authority for Building You Up (13:9-10)

Paul's heart is for his converts, the Corinthians.

"For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect." (13:9, NRSV)

His goal is not for himself, but for their perfection or maturity[485] in Christ. It's for this very reason -- that he seeks their best interest -- that he writes this sometimes forceful letter, so that they can get back on course without his having to intervene severely in person.

"10 This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh[486] in my use[487] of authority -- the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down." (13:9-10)

Paul's purpose is to build them up, not condemn them, but they need to understand that he bears apostolic authority from God.[488]

Concluding Words (13:11-13)

Having delivered his message from God, Paul now offers some closing thoughts.

"Finally, brothers, good-by. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you." (13:11)

He delivers four brief commands.

  1. Put things in order (NRSV), "mend your ways" (RSV).[489]
  2. Heed my appeal.[490]
  3. Be of one mind.[491]
  4. Live in peace.[492]

The Corinthian church has been in some chaos and disagreement, with some siding with the "super-apostles" and others siding with Paul. He calls them to unity and peace.

"12 Greet[493] one another with a holy kiss. 13 All the saints send their greetings." (13:12-13)

In America, men don't usually show affection to other men with a kiss, though the expression exists in parts of Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. However, we see kissing several times as an expression of affectionate greeting and respect in Luke's gospel:

  • A guest upon entering a home (Luke 7:45).
  • The woman thankful for forgiveness (Luke 7:38, 45).
  • The father of a son returning home (Luke 15:20).
  • The greeting of a friend (Luke 22:47-48).

 Paul wants his greeting to them to be conveyed with the affection of a kiss at the conclusion of several of his letters,[494] but with the qualification of a "holy kiss," that is, a kiss without any erotic implications.

Q4. (2 Corinthians 13:12) What is the equivalent of a "holy kiss" in your congregation and culture? Why is a warm familial greeting so important in a healthy congregation? Why do people sometimes resist being greeted warmly?

Trinitarian Benediction (13:14)

Paul concludes with a unique Trinitarian blessing, often used in formal benedictions in our day.

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." (13:14)

It isn't often in the New Testament that you see all three members of the Godhead spoken of in this co-equal way all together. The other main references are:

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...." (Matthew 28:19)

"... Chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood...." (1 Peter 1:2)

Jehovah's Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals claim that since the word "Trinity" isn't used in the Bible, the concept can't be real. I disagree. As I have written elsewhere, the New Testament can't be understood properly without some understanding of the relationship between the three members of the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[495] When you try to cram them all into one Person, you end up distorting the Scriptures by forcing them to say things they don't say. While we're foolish to pretend that we really understand God in Three Persons, yet this is the best explanation we have that is based on the evidence of the New Testament.

Paul's blessing is threefold -- one for each Person of the Godhead:

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." (13:14)

  1. Grace (charis), that is, unmerited favor from Jesus Christ, who gave up his own life to redeem us and make us heirs of God and co-heirs with him for eternity. He did what he didn't have to do for our sakes. That, dear friends, is grace writ large!
  2. Love, flowing unselfish from the throne of the Father. Most love has some elements of altruism, but is essentially selfish. But not agapē love. Our salvation is the result of God loving the world so much that he sent Jesus to save us (John 3:16).
  3. Fellowship that comes from the Holy Spirit is koinōnia, that is sharing, partnership, a relationship that we have in common. The Holy Spirit connects us to God, reveals Christ to us, and is to us a Counselor and Comforter. The fellowship we have with one another results from the Holy Spirit whom we have in common.

2 Corinthians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Also available in e-book and paperback

At times, 2 Corinthians has been a turbulent letter because of the rocky relationship caused by false apostles between the apostle and his converts. But it has been rich. Because of Paul's ministry to the deficiencies of the Corinthians, you and I are richer. We have understood some of God's abundant gifts: the sealing of the Spirit, living letters written on our hearts, unveiled faces beholding God's glory, the treasure we have in clay jars, the new creation, the ministry of reconciliation, the generous reaping of the giver, and the ability to rejoice -- yes, even exult -- in our weaknesses. Thank you, Paul. Thank you, Lord. Amen!


Father, thank you for this wonderful letter that has blessed me so much over these last months. Thank you for maturing me as I've studied and meditated and prayed and pondered. Thank you for all the glorious riches you have bestowed on us in Christ Jesus. Thank you for your patience with us, who are at once new creations and yet still growing creatures that seek your perfection. Thank you. In Jesus' name, we thank you. Amen.

Key Verses

"He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'" (2 Corinthians 12:9a)

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." (2 Corinthians 13:14)

End Notes

[419] Optasia, BDAG 712. A vision is where a deity permits a human being to see, either of the deity personally or of something else usually hidden from mortals.

[420] Apokalypsis, BDAG 112, 1b.

[421] Kruse, p. 201.

[422] Paradeisos, BDAG 762, 2.

[423] "Inexpressible" (NIV), "things that are not to be told" (NRSV), "unspeakable" (KJV) is the adjective arrētos. The basic meaning is "of something that cannot be expressed, since it is beyond human powers, inexpressible." It is common in ancient inscriptions related to mystery religions describing things too sacred to be divulged (Kruse, p. 203). Here it means, "something that must not be expressed, since it is holy, not to be spoken" (BDAG 134, 2). "Permitted" (NIV, NRSV), "lawful" (KJV) is the impersonal verb exesti, "to be authorized for the doing of something, it is right, is authorized, is permitted, is proper" (BDAG 348, 1d).

[424] Kruse, p. 204.

[425] "Surpassingly great" (NIV), "exceptional character" (NRSV), "abundance" (KJV) is the adjective hyperbolē (from which we get our word "hyperbole"), "state of exceeding to an extraordinary degree a point on a scale of extent, excess, extraordinary quality / character" (BDAG 1032).

[426] Hyperairō, BDAG 1031.

[427] "Thorn" is skolops, "originally, "anything pointed," such as a "(pointed) stake," then "something that causes serious annoyance, thorn, splinter, etc.," specifically of an injurious foreign body (BDAG 930).

[428] Imagine the controversy over God sending a lying spirit to Saul (1 Kings 22:23-23; 2 Chronicles 18:21-22). It disturbs our theology.

[429] Angelos, BDAG 9, 2c.

[430] Probably the genitive of possession. H.E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Macmillan, 1927, 1955), §85-86, §90(2).

[431] Kolaphizō, BDAG 555, 2.

[432] Astheneia, BDAG 142, 2a.

[433] Sarx, BDAG 914, 1.

[434] Parakaleō, BDAG 765, 3.

[435] Charis, BDAG 1079, 4.

[436] Robertson, Word Pictures, in loc.

[437] Arkeō, Thayer 73. "Be enough, sufficient, adequate" (BDAG 133). "To be strong enough, suffice" (Liddell-Scott).

[438] Gar, BDAG 189, 1a.

[439] Dynamis, BDAG 262, 1a.

[440] Teleō, BDAG 997, 1.

[441] Eis, "extension involving a goal or place, into, in, toward, to" (BDAG 288, 1). KJV translates it here as "to us-ward," clumsy but evocative. "In us" (RSV), "toward us" (NASB), "for us" (NIV, NRSV).

[442] "Insults" (NIV, NRSV), "reproaches" (KJV) is hybris (from which we get our word "hubris," exaggerated pride or self-confidence), "insolence, arrogance," then "the experience of insolence, shame, insult, mistreatment" (BDAG 1022, 2).

[443] "Hardships" (NIV, NRSV), "necessities" (KJV) is anankē, "a state of distress or trouble, distress, calamity, pressure," or even, "compulsion by forcible means, torture" (BDAG 61, 2 and 3).

[444] "Persecutions" is diōgmos, "a program or process designed to harass and oppress someone, persecution" (BDAG 253).

[445] "Difficulties" (NIV), "calamities" (NRSV), "distresses" (KJV) is stenochōria, literally, "narrowness," but here figuratively, "a set of stressful circumstances, distress, difficulty, anguish, trouble" (BDAG 943).

[446] "Most gladly" (KJV) is hēdeōs, "pertaining to being pleased in connection with something, gladly" (BDAG 434).

[447] Eudokeō, BDAG 404, 2b.

[448] "Done" (NIV), "performed" (NRSV), "worked" (KJV) is katergazomai, "to bring about a result by doing something, achieve, accomplish, do something" (BDAG 533, 2).

[449] Sēmeion, BDAG 920, 2aα.

[450] Teras, BDAG 999.

[451] Dynamis, BDAG 263, 3.

[452] Hypomonē, BDAG 1039, 1.

[453] Sēmeion is used here in a different sense than it is used later in the verse. Here it means, "a sign or distinguishing mark whereby something. is known, sign, token, indication" (BDAG 920, 1).

[454] "Be a burden" (NIV, NRSV), "be burdensome" (KJV) is katanarkaō, "burden, be a burden to" (BDAG 522).

[455] Katabareō, "burden, be a burden to" (BDAG 514).

[456] Pleonekteō, BDAG 824, 1a.

[457] "Defending" (NIV, NRSV), "excuse" (KJV) is apologeomai, "to speak in one's own defense against charges presumed to be false, defend oneself" (BDAG 117).

[458] "Strengthening" (NIV), "building you up" (NRSV), "edifying" (KJV) is oikodomē, "edifying, edification, building up" (BDAG 696, 1bα).

[459] Eris, BDAG 392.

[460] Zēlos, BDAG 427, 2.

[461] Thymos, BDAG 462, 2.

[462] Prior to the New Testament, the word eritheia was found only in Aristotle where it denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means. Two possible translations are: (1) strife, contentiousness or (2) selfishness, selfish ambition. So in our passage, where it occurs in the plural, it is either "disputes" or "outbreaks of selfishness" (BDAG 392).

[463] Katalalia, BDAG 519.

[464] Psithyrismos, BDAG 1098.

[465] Physiōsis, BDAG 1070.

[466] Akatastasia, BDAG 35.

[467] "Indulged" (NIV), "practiced" (NRSV), "committed" (KJV) is prassō, "to bring about or accomplish something through activity, do, accomplish," here, "do, commit something" (BDAG 860, 1a).

[468] Akatharsia, BDAG 34, 2. From a-, "not" + kathairō, "to cleanse."

[469] Porneia, BDAG 854, 1.

[470] Aselgeia, BDAG 142.

[471] "Sinned earlier" (NIV) is proamartanō, "sin beforehand" from pro-, "before" + harmatanō, "to sin" (BDAG 865).

[472] Tapeinoō, BDAG 990, 2b.

[473] Pentheō, BDAG 795, 2.

[474] "Warning" (NIV, NRSV), "told" (KJV) is proeipon, "to tell beforehand, foretell, tell or proclaim beforehand, warn, of prophetic utterances concerning future events and circumstances" (BDAG 867, 1).

[475] "Repeat" (NIV), "warn" (NRSV), "foretell" (KJV) is prolegō, "to say something in advance of an event, tell beforehand or in advance" (BDAG 872, 1).

[476] "On my return" (NIV), "if I come again" (NRSV, KJV) is known in Greek as a Third Class Condition, sometimes known as a "More Probable Future Condition."

[477] "Demanding" (NIV), "desire" (NRSV), "seek" (KJV) is zēteō, "search for," here in the sense of, "ask for, request, demand something" (BDAG 428, 4).

[478] "Proof" is dokimē, "the experience of going through a test with special reference to the result, standing a test, character," here "desire proof or evidence" (BDAG 256, 2).

[479] Jesus refers to this sort of trial in Matthew 18:17.

[480] Pheidomai, BDAG 1051, 1. The verb is also used similarly in 1:23 and in 12:6 in the sense of "refrain."

[481] "Examine" is peirazō, "to endeavor to discover the nature or character of something by testing, try, make trial of, put to the test" (BDAG 702, 2a).

[482] "Test" (NIV), "prove" (KJV) is dokimazō, "to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine." (BDAG 255, 1). "Examine yourself" is also found in 1 Corinthians 11:28. "Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else" (Galatians 6:4).

[483] "Fail (to meet) the test" (NIV, NRSV), "be reprobate" (KJV) is adokimos, "not standing the test," then "unqualified, worthless, base" (BDAG 21). Also 1 Corinthians 9:27.

[484] Barrett, p. 339.

[485] "Perfection" (NIV, KJV), "become perfect" (NRSV) is katartisis, literally, "a training, discipling, instructing," from kartizō, "to fit, equip." Here it refers to "the process of perfecting, maturation" (BDAG 526; Thayer 336; Robertson, Word Pictures, in loc.).

[486] "Harsh" (NIV), "severe" (NRSV), "sharpness" (KJV) is the adverb apotomōs, "severely, rigorously" (BDAG 124). See Titus 1:13.

[487] "Be" or "use" is chraomai, can carry three meanings which might be appropriate here: (1) "make use of, employ," (2) "act proceed," or (3) "treat a person in a certain way" (BDAG 1087, 2 or 3). NIV, NRSV, and KJV translations all seem to adopt definition 1.

[488] "Authority" (NIV, NRSV), "power" (KJV) is exousia, "authority, capability," here, "the right to control or command, authority, absolute power, warrant" (BDAG 353, 3). Also used in this sense in 10:8.

[489] "Aim for perfection" (NIV), "put things in order" (NRSV), "mend your ways" (RSV), "be perfect" (KJV) is katartizō, the root of katartisis in 13:9 -- "to cause to be in a condition to function well, put in order, restore," here probably, "mend your ways" (BDAG 526, 1a).

[490] "Listen to my appeal" (NIV, NRSV margin, "encourage one another"), "be of good comfort" (KJV) is parakaleō, probably with the passive sense, "be comforted, receive comfort" through words, or a favorable change in the situation (BDAG 764, 4).

[491] "Be of one mind" (NIV, KJV), "agree with one another" (NRSV) uses the verb phroneō, "to have an opinion with regard to something, think, form or hold an opinion, judge" (BDAG 1065, 1).

[492] "Live in peace" is eirēneuō, "to be at peace," generally of ending a state of enmity or hostilities, here probably, "keep the peace" (BDAG 287, 2b).

[493] "Greet" is aspazomai, "to engage in hospitable recognition of another (with varying degrees of intimacy), greet, welcome someone," here, "wish to be remembered, greet, send greetings" (BDAG 144, 1a).

[494] Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. Also 1 Peter 5:14.

[495] Ralph F. Wilson, "Four Reasons Why I Believe in the Trinity" (www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/trinity.htm).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text