Manuscript readings for the opening words of verse 1 vary. Many manuscripts, including P46 (about 200 CE), read, “Boasting is necessary.” Others say, “but boasting,” “if boasting is necessary,” or “boasting indeed.” Based on the oldest extant manuscript evidence, Paul may be understood as saying that he had been forced to boast because of the arrogant claims the false apostles had made. So, with his own boasting, he intended to expose them as having nothing to brag about when compared to him. Nevertheless, he recognized that such boasting was not beneficial, for it provided no proof of genuine apostleship and did not reflect Christ’s example. Neither the one doing the bragging nor the community of believers that heard the bragging would have gained anything of value from it. (12:1)
To establish credibility as God’s highly favored ones, the false apostles may have boasted about the visions they had received. This may explain why the apostle went on “to visions and revelations of the Lord.” The manner in which he did so differed from that of his detractors. (12:1)
Paul earlier indicated that he would only boast about matters relating to his weakness or helplessness (11:30), but boasting about personal visions and revelations that had come from the Lord Jesus Christ would not have pertained to his weakness. Possibly for this reason, he distanced himself from the extraordinary vision he next mentioned, speaking about it in the third person singular (not the first person singular) and stressing his ignorance regarding the manner in which it occurred. The apostle spoke of knowing a “man in Christ” (a man at one with the Son of God as a member of his body) who was caught up to the “third heaven.” This had taken place fourteen years before the apostle wrote this letter to the Corinthians. Paul mentioned that he did not know whether this “man’s” being taken to the third heaven occurred while he was “in the body” or “out of the body,” adding, “God knows.” This suggests that the experience proved to be so real that Paul had no idea just how it happened. The “third heaven” likely is to be understood to denote the highest heaven, the location where God and his Son are. (12:2)
The apostle repeated the point about knowing such a man but his not knowing whether the transfer to the third heaven took place in or out of the body. Again the apostle acknowledged, “God knows.” (12:3)
The paradise Paul mentioned must be a heavenly one, for the designation “paradise” parallels the expression “third heaven” and is used in the identical context. The unutterable words that a man could not lawfully speak probably refer to a personal revelation, possibly one that served to strengthen Paul for the trials and hardships he would face when carrying out his commission as an apostle to the non-Jewish peoples. The content of what had been disclosed to Paul was unutterable in that it was not to be made known to others. Something similar is mentioned in Revelation (10:4), where the directive is given not to write down the utterances of the seven thunders. (12:4; see the Notes section regarding “third heaven” and “paradise.”)
Continuing to distance himself from the extraordinary experience and not using it as a basis for personal boasting, Paul said that he would boast about the man who was caught up to the third heaven but would not boast about himself, with the exception of his own weaknesses. It had not been on account of personal merit that Paul had been granted the special revelation that he had mentioned, and so he refused to boast regarding it in a manner that would have called attention to himself and exalted him in the eyes of others. For proof about his being a divinely commissioned apostle, he called attention to his weaknesses, which weaknesses revealed that God and Christ were granting him the strength to endure. Instead of elevating himself, he honored God and Christ, acknowledging his helplessness and his need for divine aid. (12:5)
Paul could have boasted about matters other than his weaknesses. If he had ever wanted to do so, he would not have resorted to exaggerated or unfounded claims that would have exposed him to be without good sense. He would have spoken the truth without any embellishments. Nevertheless, the apostle chose not to boast, not wanting others to attribute more to him than what they could personally see in him and hear from him as he carried out his apostolic commission. (12:6) While acknowledging that he had received extraordinary revelations, he did not call attention to these to promote himself or to have others elevate him on that basis. (12:7)
Paul was aware that his having been granted surpassingly great revelations could have made him proud. He mentioned having been given a “thorn in the flesh” that kept any feelings of superiority in check. Paul personified this “thorn” as an “angel,” messenger, or agent of Satan, which struck or tormented him. The apostle saw in the “thorn” the restraining factor that kept him from becoming too exalted. (12:7; see the Notes section.)
Based on the context, there is no way to determine the nature of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” It could have been a physical affliction or the trouble his detractors continued to make for him. Whatever he had to bear in the flesh or his physical organism proved to be very trying. His distress was comparable to his being submitted to relentless beating. (12:7)
Paul three times appealed to the Lord Jesus Christ to be relieved of the “thorn.” Understandably, the apostle directed his entreaties to the Lord, for he endured the afflicted state while in his service. Furthermore, the revelations Jesus Christ granted the apostle made it possible for him to make his appeals in a very personal way. (12:8)
It must have been during the course of the revelations that Paul heard the Lord’s response that his gracious favor was sufficient for him. Explaining why the thorn would not be taken away, the Lord added, “For [my] power is made complete in weakness.” Through human weakness, frailty, or helplessness, Jesus Christ would reveal his power in a complete sense, for his cause would be advanced and would triumph even though the human instruments being used were in themselves weak like fragile earthen pots. (12:9; see the Notes section.)
In view of the Lord’s response, Paul found delight in submitting to his will and most gladly chose to boast in weaknesses rather than to continue asking for the “thorn” to be removed. His focus on his weaknesses would make it possible for the “power of Christ” to reside with him or, according to another rendering of the Greek text, “tent over [him].” Christ’s power would be manifested as being at work in him, enabling him to accomplish what would have been impossible on account of the limitations his weaknesses imposed. (12:9)
The weaknesses included all the factors that made the carrying out of his commission as an apostle difficult. For Christ and what he enabled him to do, Paul was content to bear his weaknesses. These included “insults” (malicious attacks and slander by detractors), “necessities” (hardships or times when he found himself suffering want), “persecutions” (being hounded by hostile unbelievers who violently attacked him or attempted to kill him), and “straits” (distress and affliction of various kinds). While Paul appeared weak or helpless, he proved to be powerful on account of what Christ did for him. (12:10)
By resorting to boasting, the apostle had become as a person without good sense or reason. The Corinthians had forced him to do so, for they had not come to his defense when his detractors demeaned him. They should have commended him, for in no way had he been inferior to the “super apostles” who spoke against him. Even if Paul was “nothing” (either meaning that if the Corinthians considered him as a nobody or that he was nothing apart from the gracious divine favor he had been granted), he, in relation to the detractors, was not inferior in a single respect. (12:11)
While he had been with them, the Corinthians witnessed the workings of the signs of an apostle among them. These signs were performed “in all patience” or “endurance,” indicating that the working of divine power was evident while Paul experienced and endured distress patiently. The Corinthians saw signs, wonders, and mighty deeds. Paul did not choose to provide details about these manifestations that verified his having divine backing, for the Corinthians knew what he meant. (12:12)
He then raised a question that should have jolted them to their senses. “For in what [way] were you made less than the rest of the congregations, except that I did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong.” It would have been inconceivable for them to think Paul had wronged them by not being a financial burden to them. There was nothing for which they needed to forgive the apostle, for he had not treated the Corinthian congregation as being inferior to other communities of believers among whom he had labored. (12:13)
At this point, Paul directed attention to his planned visit. “Look! This is [the] third [time] I am ready to come to you, and I will not be a burden.” His words are often understood to mean that he had twice before been in Corinth, the first visit being when the community of believers came into existence and the second one being the painful visit that is not mentioned in the book of Acts but is interpreted to have been referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:1. Another possibility is that this was the third time Paul had made preparations to return to Corinth, but circumstances prevented him from making the two previously planned visits. Whereas the Corinthians knew what he meant, we today cannot be certain, and the exact significance of his words have no real relevance for us. (12:14)
As had been the case while he had been in Corinth before, the apostle determined not to be a burden to the community of believers but intended to take care of his own needs. “For,” as he explained, he did not seek what belonged to them, but he did seek the Corinthians, expending himself in efforts to further their spiritual well-being. This was in keeping with the principle that children are not the ones who make provision for their parents but that parents are the ones who make provision for their children. (12:14) Through Paul’s labors in the service of Christ, the Corinthians had become believers and, in that sense, the apostle had become their father, and they were as children to him for whom he had deep love and concern. (1 Corinthians 4:15)
In view of his great love for the Corinthians, he most gladly was willing to spend himself and to be completely spent for them (for their “souls”). Paul would not spare himself in any way in doing what he could to further their spiritual welfare. He then asked them, “If I love you more, should I be loved less?” It would have been a serious flaw for the Corinthians to love the apostle less because he loved them so much as to sacrifice himself fully for them. (12:15)
Although Paul had cared for his own needs, not burdening the Corinthians, there were those among them who maintained that he was crafty and had deceitfully trapped them. The “super apostles” must have been responsible for undermining Paul’s faithful service, creating doubt and suspicion about him. Whenever possible, they must have tried putting an evil construction on everything he did and said. They may have asserted that he cleverly refused to avail himself of financial support in order to profit from believers in another way. Possibly the “super apostles” suggested that Paul would use part of the contributed funds for the poor believers in Jerusalem for his own purposes. (12:16)
With pointed questions, the apostle reminded the Corinthians that he had not exploited them through anyone whom he had sent to them. He had urged Titus to go to Corinth and had sent another brother with him. “Did Titus,” Paul asked, “exploit you? Did we [Titus and I] not walk in the same spirit? [Did we] not [follow in] the same footsteps?” The Corinthians knew that Titus had not taken advantage of them. In “spirit,” disposition, or attitude, he did not differ from Paul. Like the apostle, he proved to be no burden to them. His conduct matched the apostle’s footsteps. (12:17, 18; see the Notes section.)
Paul’s words may have prompted some to conclude that he was defending himself. Anticipating this faulty reasoning, he said, “Have you been thinking all this time that we are defending ourselves before you?” Stressing that this was not his objective, the apostle continued, “Before God in Christ we are speaking. Everything, however, beloved ones, is for your upbuilding.” (12:19; see the Notes section.)
For Paul, it was not a matter of personal defense or vindication. He recognized himself as speaking before God “in Christ” or as a believer in a relationship of oneness with the Son of God as a member of his body, and he looked to God as the one who judges all matters aright. All that the apostle had done and said served for the spiritual upbuilding of the Corinthians, for his words and deeds were motivated by deep love for them and an earnest desire to help them to be found divinely approved. It would have been spiritually injurious for any of them to continue entertaining a twisted view of a genuine apostle and one whose exemplary conduct revealed him to be a faithful servant of God and Christ. Misrepresenting Paul would also have meant misrepresenting God and Christ, for the apostle faithfully imitated them in word and action. (12:19)
In view of the undesirable developments that had come to Paul’s attention, he feared that, upon his arrival in Corinth, he would find the believers there in a condition he did not wish and that they would find him to be as they would not desire. Instead of seeing a united community of believers that genuinely cared for one another in a spirit of love, he feared that he would find quarreling or rivalry, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, cases of defamation or slander, whisperings (instances of defaming others in secret), manifestations of swelled-headedness or conceit, and disorders or improprieties. If his apprehension proved to be warranted, the Corinthians would find Paul not as they wished, for he would be forced to undertake strong disciplinary measures. (12:20)
Paul contemplated the possibility that, upon his arrival in Corinth, God might humiliate him among the believers there and that he would have to grieve over those who had previously sinned but had not repented of their unclean practices, sexual immorality, and unbridled conduct or unrestrained debauchery. His humiliation would refer to the shame and bitter disappointment he would feel because his earnest efforts to aid the Corinthian believers had not produced the desired results. (12:21; regarding how the Greek word for “again” [pálin] can affect the meaning of the verse, see the Notes section.)
Chapter 8 of the apocryphal work known as 2 Enoch or the Slavonic Enoch (possibly dating from the late first century CE), represents paradise as being in the third heaven. Another apocryphal work (frequently conjectured to have originated in the first century CE), known as the Apocalypse of Moses, does also. “The Father of all, sitting on his holy throne, stretched out his hand, and took Adam and handed him over to the archangel Michael, saying: ‘Lift him up into paradise unto the third heaven.’” (37:5) Later (in 40:2), there is another mention of “paradise in the third heaven.”
In verse 7, the concluding words about becoming too exalted are missing in a number of ancient manuscripts, but do have he support of the oldest extant manuscript (P46, c. 200 CE), fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, and numerous other manuscripts.
In connection with “power” (verse 9), numerous ancient manuscripts do not include the pronoun “my” and so could be understood to refer to God’s power. In view of the complete oneness existing between the Son of God and his Father, the reading “power” or “my power” is immaterial to the basic meaning.
In verse 18, some have understood the “spirit” to mean God’s spirit. The reference to the “same footsteps” for Paul and Titus makes it more likely that the spirit denotes the same disposition or attitude.
The phrase “all this time” (in verse 19) is a rendering of the Greek word pálai, which term can mean “long ago,” “formerly,” or “already.” There are numerous other manuscripts that say pálin (“again”).
The word pálin (in verse 21), meaning “again,” can relate either to Paul’s again being in Corinth or to his again being humiliated. This difference is reflected in the renderings of modern translations. “I fear that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, immorality, and licentiousness they practiced.” (NAB) “I am afraid that when I come my God may humiliate me again in your presence, that I may have cause to grieve over many who were sinning before and have not repented of their unclean lives, their fornication and sensuality.” (REB) If the reference is to again being humbled, this would lend support to the view that the apostle had previously made a visit that proved to be distressing for him.