Commentary on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
In a world defined by power, weaknesses are not always welcome, yet the apostle Paul highlights the centrality and benefits of weaknesses through which God is manifested (2 Corinthians 12:10). In the face of worldly challenges, Christians, like Paul, should expect God to come through. When the world confronts Christians, and asks us to prove the existence of God or God’s presence in our lives, we have to be careful not lift up our “visions and revelations,” but rather have the humility to testify about our experiences of God’s grace and compassion in seasons of sicknesses, exclusions, isolations, death of loved ones, and all painful life episodes.
When pressed between a rock and hard place, one must also give a testimony of divine experiences, as Paul does in 2 Corinthians 12: 2. The use of the pronoun “I” in verse 2 is shrouded in gracious irony and sarcasm. Paul does not want to boast about himself, but invites listeners to know that “14 years ago,” he had an apocalyptic experience. While Christian believers are not always called to boast about our divine encounters, there are times when it is appropriate to let our opponents know.
While these experiences are not a measure of one’s calling and vocation, the world at times compels preachers to be apologists of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is something to note in the way Paul frames his experiences of God’s manifestations. Verses 3-7 are seasoned with humility, helping 21st-century Bible readers and Christian believers know that the virtues of humility and self-surrender are instruments for transformation and formation of Christian communities. In the same manner, we also recognize the passive form in which Paul expresses his experiences of the divine. The passive form points to the fact that these experiences are God’s doing and initiative. Thus, egotism is excluded and has no part in one’s ministry.
Instead of being viewed through mystical experiences, Paul wants to be evaluated on the basis of personal faith relationship with God, and also wants to be known for what he preaches, that is the proclamation of the cross of Jesus Christ (verse 6). In other words, Paul’s point is that prophetic or spiritual experiences should not be exalted in ways that put a spotlight on him. Yet, in our world and maybe in the world of 2 Corinthians people, reputation and personal honor are valued, but Paul signals that personal glory must be kept in check.
A question for readers of this chapter revolves around miracles, signs and wonders, in which most Pentecostal denominations and even Global South Christianity are in many ways grounded. In other words, we should perhaps give these miracles prominence, and failure to do so would also stifle the energy behind church revival and growth in many parts of the world. In the spirit of this chapter, miracles, signs and wonders are benchmarks to strengthen and transform Christian communities and their followers (verse 12). For behind all these spiritual and divine manifestations, believers are invited to expect more from God, and welcome seasons of vulnerability. In the message of Paul, it is in vulnerable situations that we experience the fruits of our faith relationship with God.
While the season of Pentecost is a time when people are to encounter the Holy Spirit, it is amazing that we read of Paul’s physical struggles with what he calls “a thorn in the flesh.” It seems as though Paul is saying, the more we experience God’s “visions and revelations,” the more we get afflictions in and on our bodies. Balancing these two developments sounds illogical, but that is what the apostle Paul invites us to wrestle with. Paul’s testimony is stunning to many readers, because it is not an accidental event, but that intentionally God placed this “thorn,” and its purpose was to humble the recipient. More so, Paul informs us that three times he pleaded with God to remove the thorn from his flesh, but each time he was overruled.
The question for 21st-century readers is: What do we do when God says no? Or what happens to our callings, faith, and our walk with other believers, when God does not grant our prayer requests? The years 2020-2021 have indeed brought a “thorn in the flesh,” not just to one person, but the entire global world. The point of God’s intentionality is challenging and daunting, yet the apostle Paul sees it as a sacred space. First, we have to surmise on what the notion of “thorn in the flesh,” points to in both Paul’s time and in ours. Could it be that various forms of life’s challenges fall in the category of thorns in the flesh, whose purpose is to keep humanity grounded and dependent on God?
I want to suggest that any form of a mysterious apocalypse is filled with hope in God who is at work in the present moment, and this same God will finally reveal sovereign saving power. In some ways, I am persuaded to read 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10 as prophecy, summoning 21st-century Christians to endure any form of physical, ministerial, missional, and theological suffering. Second, the notion of “a messenger of Satan,” is worth exploring because many Christians remain naïve in their perception of the Devil.
It is perhaps fair to say that Paul’s painful experiences reminded him of the presence of Satan who in some languages is referred to as the opponent. In all the catalogues of Paul’s daunting challenges, Satan was an ever-present enemy, one he endured for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hence, being aware or being fully knowledgeable about Satan allows one to be in prayer constantly. The danger of many Christians is that of living in a bubble, Satan-free zone, yet Paul reminds us that afflictions are inevitable. While there are some lessons on being naïve and aware of the Devil, Christians should be vigilant, as Paul’s says in verses 8-9, and pray persistently.
The relationship between God and Paul is fascinating, and in praying three times, God still overruled the apostle. In the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14: 32–42), Jesus Christ prayed for the cup to be removed, but he was overruled. Hence, in our prayer life and faith walk with God, there are some afflictions we have to live with and endure, for in them we will experience God’s grace. Deliverance is not just positive and instant, but God’s presence in our suffering is the answer we most need. The pandemic has brought untold afflictions in the world, but God’s grace is still available, for it is in seasons, moments, and predicaments that God’s amazing grace and compassion are experienced.