Paul's Vision and His Thorn
1I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2I 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. 3And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. 5I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6Even 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.
7To 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. 8Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
One of the things that really gains a lot of respect for one another among teachers is to have a great deal of education and degrees in your area of expertise. Teachers are usually quick to share with one another what degrees they have and talk about their ongoing education. Not necessarily in a bragging manner, but it’s just regarded highly, and so is talked about quite a bit. I knew one teacher, though, who never seemed too concerned about that; he just went about his business of being a very good teacher. He only wanted to be considered as a good teacher based on his actual success in the classroom. What most of the other teachers didn’t know, because he never discussed it, was the fact that this teacher didn’t just have a masters degree in education, he had two doctorates degrees. Yet, he rarely, if ever, mentioned them because, although he valued what he had gained from them, he just didn’t find them valuable in the discussion of whether or not he was an effective teacher.
In Corinth, visions, revelations, and receiving a "word" from God were highly valued. It appears that Paul’s opponents were claiming experiences of visions, revelations, and special "words" from God as part of their claim to apostolic authority. They talked about them quite a bit and used them to justify their status as those who would claim leadership in the Church in Corinth. In the previous example, we noted that the teachers didn’t necessarily brag about their education but did value it. Conversely, the super apostles in Corinth did brag and boast about these visions. In fact, it would seem that one of their many criticisms of Paul was that he did not have any of these incredible visual experiences, at least he never talked about it.
So, even though he is reluctant, Paul will, because of the situation forced upon him, continue to talk about his boasts in the Lord. Even though he questions the overall effectiveness of this strategy, he will engage in it for a time to counter the boasting of his detractors. Yet, even in talking about the visions and revelations that Paul has received, he demonstrates that he is reluctant to really talk about them or take much stock in them establishing his apostolic authority. First, is the fact that he has apparently not mentioned these visions before, even though he had spent quite a bit of time in Corinth. Second, is that he puts this passage in the third person, intentionally making it vague and demonstrating further his reluctance to appeal to this aspect of his spirituality. Finally, is the fact that, although he does talk about his visions, he does not give any details. Paul simply refuses to appeal to these revelations as important for establishing his authority or his approval by God. The Corinthians must be content with what they can see and hear in Paul’s earthly ministry. This stands in sharp contrast to his opponents who were quick to share their experiences as a key to their authority to preach the gospel.
Paul did not want to take this debate beyond what could be evaluated objectively, so he downplayed his experiences. Yet, once again, he has taken the ground out from under the feet of his opponents. Here is another area in which they attacked Paul and now he turns the tables one more time. They value visions, Paul has had authentic visions of the type that they could never claim, yet he doesn’t try to add a bunch of fabricated details to make it sound better. He was allowed into the third heaven (the realm of God’s presence in the Jewish understanding), but he wasn’t even sure the details of it all; he didn’t even know whether he was in the body or out of the body. Here is another area in which Paul could easily surpass the boasts of his opponents if he so chose, but he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t need to play their game in order to establish his authority. He could play that game and would win, but no, rather than boasting about these wonderful things, Paul will once again take his boasts back to his own weakness and suffering.
The NIV omits the fact that in verse 7, Paul actually twice says, "To keep me from becoming conceited," stressing the importance and purpose of his thorn in the flesh. He has been allowed, by God, to suffer so as to keep him humble. This would have been shocking to Paul’s Corinthian opponents, who would have always blamed illness and suffering on the individual in question; it would have been blamed on their own lack of faith. Once again, though, Paul has brilliantly turned the tables. He is arguing that that the very cause of the weakness that his opponents have decried is the very types of visions that they valued so highly. He has taken the most effective argument that his opponents had against him and systematically dismantled it one piece at a time. Paul has shown one more way in which his suffering and weakness are not signs that he has been rejected by God, rather they are markers of his apostolic authenticity and approval by God. The more often that an apostle has ascended to the throne of God, the more his pride will need to be stifled by earthly suffering.
Because of his incredible visions and access to the throne of God, Paul has been given a thorn in his flesh. He initially did what anyone who believes in the sovereignty of God would do, he pleaded with God to take it away. The references to three prayers is most likely a Jewish figure of speech, implying that he had prayed repeatedly, but had since ceased. There has been endless speculation as to what Paul’s thorn was, but it is impossible to know, and we should not miss the fact that Paul has intentionally not named it. The language most appropriately leads us to believe that it was some sort of ongoing illness. But Paul does not want any sort of medical diagnosis, he is only concerned with the theological origin, which was sent by Satan and allowed by God. Paul has learned the key to the Christian life. The more that we learn to accept our weakness and frailty, the more we learn to rely on Christ. The more we learn to set ourselves to the side, the more the transforming power of Christ can come into our lives. Paul has realized the great dichotomy of the Christian life. When we rely on our strength, we are weak because we are limited to abilities of the flesh. When we embrace our weakness and reject the strength of the flesh, the true power of Christ explodes in our lives.
Paul had all kind of impressive spiritual experiences, but he knew that spirituality wasn’t what was most important. The most important thing was God’s grace released in his life. Have you embraced your own weaknesses so that God’s strength and grace can be fully released in your life? In what areas of your life are you still trying to rely on your own strengths, talents, and abilities?