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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

2 Corinthians 12



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Verse 1

Visions and Revelations, 1-10.

2 Corinthians 12:1. I must needs glory, though it is not expedient;(1) but I will come to visions and revelations:—‘Distasteful it is to continue in a strain so unsuitable; but since I am forced to it, I proceed to relate what I experienced many years ago at the hand of the Lord Jesus’—for that He is “the Lord” here referred to will be evident as we proceed.

Verse 2

2 Corinthians 12:2. I know a man in Christ—not “knew” (as in the Authorised Version), which the word never signifies. In fact, the whole point of the statement lies in its being present: ‘I know such a man, and I could name him too;’ meaning himself, as will presently appear,—fourteen yean ago—(Gr. ‘before fourteen years,’ i.e., ‘fourteen years before now:’ the Latin and German idioms are the same here as the Greek). The date here given is not the date of the apostle’s knowledge of the man (as the Authorised Version implies), but of the rapture into the third heaven about to be related. Reckoning back from the date of this Epistle (A.D. 57), fourteen years would bring us to the year 43, “which coincides (as Plumptre says) with the period of his unrecorded activity,” when he was hurried away from Jerusalem to Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30) until Barnabas came for him, and brought him to Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). Hence the reference cannot be to his conversion, for that took place more than twenty years before; nor can it be to the vision which he had in the temple (Acts 22:17), for that occurred at a period nearer the time of this letter—not to say that the circumstances are quite different. Beyond doubt what is here recorded occurred during that quiet sojourn in the region of Tarsus, already referred to, when, though we know he was not idle in his Master’s service, the events of his activity are a blank in the history,—(whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up even to the third heaven. Why, it may be asked, does the apostle speak so enigmatically, and in the third person—why “he” and not “I”? The obvious answer is, that he could not bear extolling himself so nakedly as the use of the first person would express. For the same reason he wishes it to be known that since the thing happened so long ago, and he had never told it to any one, they might thus see how far he was from obtruding it as a ground of boasting. At the same time, as the event was probably the most marvellous that ever occurred to him since his conversion, he is careful to specify the precise time of its occurrence. As to the event itself, the first question is, What is meant by “caught up” or “rapt”? The idea conveyed by this strong word certainly goes beyond that of mere ‘trance’ or ‘ecstasy,’ in which all ordinary consciousness is in abeyance. Such was the state he was in while in the temple (Acts 22:17-18), and the state that Balaam and other prophets were thrown into (Numbers 24:4; Revelation 1:10 with 2 Corinthians 4:1). Had this been all that the apostle experienced, it is scarcely credible that he should have spoken of it as he does here, or (so to speak) made so much of it. We incline, therefore, to those who see more in it than this, namely, a possible local rapture in his entire person, such as beyond doubt is presupposed (in 1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16) as a thing not unfamiliar in the time of Elijah and Elisha, and which in the case of the Apostle Philip was an actual occurrence: see Acts 8:39-40 where the same word, rendered “caught away,” is used as by our apostle here. But we only say a “possible” rapture of this nature. Because, if the apostle himself declines to decide the question, it is not for us to do it for him. The next question is, What are we to understand by “the third heaven”? Were a plurality of heavens unfamiliar to the Bible, we might suppose nothing more to be meant here than the “heaven of heavens,” or more simply, into inconceivable nearness to God. But beyond doubt, something numerical in the conception of “the heavens” was familiar to the Jews and is recognised in the New Testament. Why not, then, recognise it here? though to refine upon it, as some ingenious critics do, serves no good purpose. Enough to understand it of a height of translation towards “the secret place of the Most High,” to which he was through life an utter stranger save at this time.

Verse 3-4

2 Corinthians 12:3-4. And I know such a man (whether in the body or out of the body,(1) I know not; God knoweth), how that he was caught up into Paradise. Are we to take this as expressive of a further transition, raising him to a still loftier region than “the third heaven” called “Paradise”? So thought several of the fathers, and so some of the best modern critics. But besides that this is not what we think would naturally be gathered from the words, the fatal objection to it is that in this case the apostle tells us only what passed in the higher sphere of “Paradise,” and nothing at all of what he experienced in the “third heaven.” Is this conceivable? Was anything in the mere translation to make the mention of it worth while? Why should he not have passed at once to the “Paradise” scene? To us (and we are far from being alone) it appears pretty clear that the rapture of the first statement is merely a preface to what is to be afterwards stated about it, and that what follows merely takes up again what was said before, with a slight diversity in the name of the region into which he was “caught up;” in other words, that “Paradise” and “the third heaven” are but two names for the same thing. The word Paradise is an oriental word signifying a garden or open park, and as such it is employed by the Septuagint in Genesis 2:8 to express the garden of Eden. It is here used in the same sense in which our Lord used it to the penitent malefactor (Luke 23:43), “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” Into this blessed dwelling-place of “the Lord” was the apostle “caught up”—how he knows not, and so we need not. In its final condition it is held forth in promise “to him that overcometh” as “Paradise restored” (Revelation 2:7),

and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter—paradoxical language, ‘speakings which may not be spoken.’ Things not in themselves unutterable (for how then, as Bengel says, could the apostle have heard them?), but so sublime and heavenly as to be unsuitable to this earthly state, and therefore not proper to be reported to Christians here. What, then, was the object of them? No doubt, first of all, to cheer himself under the bitter disappointment in his first experience as a convert at Jerusalem—so contrary to all his expectations as it doubtless was; and next, to brace him up for the whole heroic career of unparalleled self-sacrifice and unequalled success which lay before him as a missionary of the cross.

Verse 5

2 Corinthians 12:5. On behalf of such a one will I glory; but on mine own behalf I will not glory, save in my weaknesses. So entirely does he wish himself to be regarded as passive in this whole exalted scene, and his Master’s hand as exclusively in it, that he separates his personal self from the abstract “man in Christ” who had this experience, as if they had been two different persons. In this view, he feels that he can and will glory “on behalf of such a one;” but if he is to glory on his own account, it shall be of “his infirmities,” of which he is to speak more fully in the succeeding verses.

Verse 6

2 Corinthians 12:6. For if I should desire to glory, I should not be foolish; for I shall speak the truth: but I forbear, lest any man should account of me above that which he seeth me to be, or heareth from me: ‘I might, indeed, glory, and in doing so, I should not have to go beyond what is strictly true; but I will not, for I would have none to think of me otherwise than I was found and known to be when at Corinth, by personal observation both of my walk and of my speech.’ The apostle has a positive dread of being thought of above what every one who came in contact with him might see and know him to be. ‘O how little of this fear is there (exclaims Bengel) in most people, even divines!’

Verse 7

The thorn in the flesh and its lessons, 7-10.

2 Corinthians 12:7. And by reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelationwherefore (the sentence starts here in a new form), that I should not be exalted overmuch, there was given unto me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, that I should not be exalted over-much.(1)

What this “thorn in the flesh” was has exercised expositors sorely, and every solution must be conjectural. Spiritual temptations, which some of the Fathers and Romish expositors have imagined, are not to be thought of. Its being “a messenger of Satan” no more implies its being spiritual in its own nature than the obstacles which repeatedly prevented the apostle from visiting Thessalonica when he longed to do so are to be regarded as in their own nature diabolical, because he ascribes them to “Satan” (1 Thessalonians 4:18). Nor can persecutions be the thing here intended, for though such are frequently referred to in his Epistles, they are never spoken of in such terms as here. Beyond all doubt it was something physical, and something involving acute pain. The word in the original(1) signifies ‘anything pointed,’ a ‘stake’ or ‘thorn.’ The word occurs only here in the New Testament, but it is used four times in the LXX., in three of which it seems clearly to mean “thorn,”(2) and in one, probably, “a stake.”(3) In either sense, acute bodily pain is certainly meant. As for habitual sickness, sick headache, nervous trembling, and such like, these seem hardly compatible with that physical vigour which alone could have enabled the apostle to go through such exertions and endurances as are described in chap. 2 Corinthians 11:24-27. Two things seem to bring us a little nearer to it. Evidently it was something visible to others, and, as we shall see, the reverse of attractive. This suggests what has seemed to many, taken in connection with hints here and there, to point to acute inflammation of the eyes. And though one of the grounds on which this conjecture has sometimes been supported (the readiness of the Galatians to have “plucked out their own eyes and given to” their father in the faith, Galatians 4:15) is too far-fetched to have any real weight, a good deal may be said in support of it. The one thing which seems to point to something more extreme than this is, that the apostle himself describes it as something loathsome. To the credit of the Galatians he records it that “their temptation which was in his flesh(4) they despised not nor rejected;” but the Greek is (as in the margin of the Revised Version) ‘spat out;’ and it is difficult to suppose’ that mere inflammation of the eyes, however acute, would have been so described. This has led to the conjecture that epilepsy is what is here described. But that any such deplorable complaint appeared at Corinth, Ephesus, Jerusalem, or any important sphere of his labours, can hardly be supposed, consistently with no clear hint of it occurring either in the Acts or the Epistles. No doubt, this is so intermittent a complaint, that there are well-known cases of its non-occurrence from childhood onwards for forty years, and then breaking out; and it is conceivable that this occurred to the apostle when he was in Galatia. But we can hardly think this at all probable. We are constrained, therefore, to leave the question as we found it, in the region of pure conjecture. The one thing about it which is certain is its galling, humiliating effect, to express which he calls it “a messenger of Satan to buffet him.” This last word may point to the intermittent nature of the complaint, as some think; but the trial to him, which he bitterly felt it to be, evidently arose from its tendency to prejudice his hearers against him, and so against his ministry. To the Galatians he calls it “their temptation which was in his flesh,” and the very commendation which he bestows on them for rising above it, shews how he felt it to stand naturally in his way, and as such he regarded it as “a messenger of Satan,” subserving his interests.

So much did this sore trial exercise him, that he betook himself to prayer about it.

Verse 8

2 Corinthians 12:8. For (‘about’) this thing I besought the Lord—the Lord Christ, as is plain from the next verse,—thrice, that it might depart from me—therein following his Master when He prayed thrice that the cup might pass from Him; not three petitions merely, but at three successive times making this the subject of solemn entreaty.

Note.—Those who doubt whether the New Testament warrants prayer to Christ should have their doubts set at rest by this passage. A poor attempt has been made to set aside the argument here, by urging that the word beseech here used(1) is never employed to express prayer to God, and that it means not to invocate but rather to advocate.(2) But surely it is forgotten that our Lord, when He allowed Himself to be apprehended and Peter would have fought for Him, said, “Thinkest thou that I cannot beseech my Father (using the same word as here) and He shall even now send me twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). Besides, the question is not to whom any petition is addressed, but whether the word “beseeching” means petitioning for something by one person to another; and surely to ask such a question is absurd. Any one with his Greek Testament in his hand will find it so used dozens of times. If this, then, was what Paul did to Christ, and Christ so answered him as implied His right to be so addressed, and to give the fitting answer, then the New Testament warrant to pray to Christ is conclusively settled, and with it His supreme Personal Divinity. In the next verse this comes out with singular clearness.

Verse 9

2 Corinthians 12:9. And he hath said. It is not a single reply to the prayer as then offered, “but as continuing in force: He hath told me, and with this I must rest satisfied.”(1) My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness. “Grace,” see on 1 Corinthians 1:3, is here promised in the form of “strength” or “power,” not only to endure the sore trial of this “thorn in the flesh,” with all its natural effect on his ministry, but even to make this weakness a source of strength. And it is so couched as to meet every similar case. Cast in a gnomic form, it expresses a great general principle. The “my” of the received text, is an addition to the original text, which runs thus: “Strength is made perfect in weakness.” O how many myriads of burdened souls have had cause to exclaim, Blessed “thorn in the flesh”—be it what it might—which drew forth such a promise and such an assurance for all time!

Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the strength of Christ may rest upon me: ‘If this weakness of mine is only to add to my strength, bringing the strength of Christ as a glory down upon me (for such is the import of the choice word here employed(1)), then, instead of wishing it away, I will glory in it, and not in this only, but in all the “weaknesses” that may be meted out to me.’

Verse 10

2 Corinthians 12:10. Wherefore I take pleasure (‘I am well contented’) in weaknesses, in injuries ... for Christ’s sake. The sense is, not ‘injuries endured for Christ’s sake,’ but ‘I take pleasure in them for Christ’s sake;’

for when I am weak, then am I strong. Of course, this was true only when he recognised the hand of Christ in causing the weakness to remain which He could easily remove, in order that by His own strength resting upon him he might achieve a success which the removal of his weakness would not accomplish.

Verse 11

Self-Vindication resumed, 11-21.

2 Corinthians 12:11. I am become foolish: ye compelled me; for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing was I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I am nothing. See on chap. 2 Corinthians 11:5, ‘In myself I am nothing, but as an apostle of Christ, I am compelled to affirm, in face of the detraction to which I am subjected, that not even the chiefest of the apostles has outstripped me.’ Stronger language still is used in the First Epistle, yet along with the most affecting expressions of utter unworthiness in himself (1 Corinthians 15:9-11).

Verse 12

2 Corinthians 12:12. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, by signs, and wonders, and mighty works (Gr. ‘powers’). In Hebrews 2:4, these are given as evidences of apostleship, as in Acts 2:22, of the Divine mission of Christ Himself. “How at variance with this,” exclaims Meyer, “is the historical criticism which lays down à priori the negation of miracles!”

Verse 13

2 Corinthians 12:13. For what is there wherein ye were made inferior to (placed at a disadvantage as compared with) the rest of the churches, except it be that I myself was not a burden to you? forgive me this wrong. Cutting irony this!

Verse 14

2 Corinthians 12:14. Behold, this is the third time I am ready to come to you—not ‘I am a third time ready to do this’ (as a number of critics understand it), but ‘I am ready to come the third time.’ The former sense is forced on those who think the apostle paid but two visits to Corinth; but besides that this puts an unnatural sense upon the words, the apostle’s argument would thus have little point. Paley contends for this sense, building mainly on the silence of the Acts as to a third visit (Hor. Paul. iv. 11); but it is impossible to understand chap. 2 Corinthians 13:1 in any natural sense, if a real third visit was not meant,(1)and I will not be a burden to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. ‘As your spiritual parent allow me a parent’s privilege, not to be provided for by you, but to make provision for you, my children.’ The delicacy and tenderness of this touch are surpassing.

Verse 15

2 Corinthians 12:15. And I will most gladly spend and be spent (Gr. ‘spent out’) for your souls. If I love you more abundantly, am I loved the less?(1)

Verse 16

2 Corinthians 12:16. But me being crafty, I caught you with guile. ‘True (ye say), you took no money from us yourself, but you were crafty enough to get it through others.’ The answer to this base insinuation, which the apostle deems his detractors capable of, now follows.

Verse 17-18

2 Corinthians 12:17. Did I take advantage of you by any one of them whom I have sent unto you?

2 Corinthians 12:18. I exhorted (or charged) Titus, and I sent the brother with him (probably one of the two referred to in chap. 2 Corinthians 8:18; 2 Corinthians 8:22).

Did Titus take any advantage of you? ‘I appeal to facts: Did Titus and the companion I sent with him seek or get any compensation at your hands?’

walked we not by the same Spirit?—that Spirit by whose guidance all the servants of Christ act?—walked we not in the same steps?—I and those sent to you by me.

Verse 19

2 Corinthians 12:19. Ye think all this time(1) that we are excusing ourselves unto you. In this ye much mistake me.

In the sight of God speak we in Christ:—‘We look higher; having respect before the great Searcher of hearts, in every word we write, only to the Master whom we represent’ (the same words occur in chap. 2 Corinthians 2:17).

But all things, beloved, are for your edifying. ‘Your good throughout has been our object;’ and there was need.

Verse 20

2 Corinthians 12:20. For I fear, lest by any means, when I come, I should find you not such as I would, and should myself be found of you such as ye would not—lest my visit should be pleasant to neither party,—lest there should be(1) strife, jealousy, wraths, factions, backbitings, whisperings, tumults. That such a state of things should be apprehended reveals a condition in the Church of Corinth which might well justify the severest language which he employs in dealing with it. The list of things here specified seems to shew that the old cancer which festered in the Greek republics had found its way into the Christian community of this Greek city.

Verse 21

2 Corinthians 12:21. lest, when I come again, my God should humble me before you. So bound up was his comfort in this and all his churches with their spiritual prosperity, that the prospect of finding the church which of all others lay most at his heart in the deplorable condition here described, sickened him at the thought of it, and held out to him only humiliation, in place of delight, in visiting them,—and I should mourn for many of them that have sinned heretofore—falling back into those pollutions from which they had been delivered. Since chap. 7 seems to speak a different language, the conjecture that some interval took place between the writing of all that preceded the three last chapters and what we there find, and that disquieting news had in the interval reached the apostle, seems to amount almost to a certainty. See introduction to chap. 10,—and repented not of the uncleanness, and fornication, and lasciviousness which they committed. Missionaries who have been the happy instruments of rescuing sensual heathens from such vices as these, but find to their grief the same tendency, after a time, to return upon them, can best enter into the apostle’s feelings as here expressed, and will be the best expositors of them.


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". 1879-90.

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