2 Corinthians 12:1-10
12 I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But 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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 
After spending the last two weeks with what scholars call Paul’s “Fool’s Speech,” we have seen how distasteful the apostle considers human, worldly bragging. His enemies, the hyper-apostles, boasted of their important patrons, their giftedness as entertaining speakers, their Jewish ethnicity, and their ecstatic experiences. This forced the reluctant Paul to respond with his own resume, which quickly turned into a list of his sufferings and weaknesses.
In the passage before us, Paul has reached the climax of the “Fool’s Speech.” Here he’s called to counter the hyper-apostles’ claims of ecstatic experiences and secret revelations by describing his own surpassing experience. You sense his distaste for talking about himself in verse 1, “I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.” Knowing the danger of leaving the false teachers unanswered, he feels forced to write of one of his numerous ecstatic experiences that is far above anything the hyper-apostles could rightly claim.
It’s important to note upfront that Paul will not waste his time giving details of his ecstatic experience, but rather will emphasize his vision and revelation of the risen Messiah Jesus. He will immediately follow that up by an even greater boast in his weakness because he sees that as the greatest boast of all for any believer.
RAPTURE BOAST (2-6)
Paul takes up:
…the subject of “visions and revelations from the Lord” (v. 1), specifically the rapture of a man in Christ, some fourteen years ago, in which, however, the man “caught up” brought nothing back that he was free to tell (vv. 2–4). Should he choose to boast of that man, it would not be foolish; all that he says is true (v. 5). But he will boast of weaknesses, that is, about himself, lest they think “more” than they should of the man they have seen and heard (v. 6). Thus Paul does not deny the substance (that he had such experiences), but their significance! Contrary to the intruders’ hopes, such phenomena do not authenticate ministry.
While on the one hand there is no benefit in it, yet on the other he will proceed to “visions and revelations.” Paul signals immediately that such things are irrelevant in the present discussion on his legitimacy as an apostle. Notice how Paul’s description of this ecstatic experience is minimalistic and written mostly using a third-person perspective:
2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.
Twice Paul refers to himself in the third person using near identical phrases. But in verse 7, he switches to the first person to identify himself as the recipient of this rapturous revelation. His use of the third person shows his discomfort and embarrassment and having to share anything from his ecstatic resume because he believed such things to be of little profit to the congregation. Paul did not consider private ecstasy with God to be of public importance to his ministry.
This private ecstatic rapture into heaven happened 14 years before Paul wrote this letter, about AD 42 when Paul was either still in Tarsus or had just arrived in Antioch before his first missionary journey. Paul’s rapture into heaven was important to his preparation for missionary service and the suffering he would endure. But he clearly believed this was a subjective individual experience that was of no profit to others. Otherwise, it would have been a part of his personal testimony given so often in Acts.
The apostle Paul could not say whether he had been raptured bodily into heaven like Enoch or Elijah, or whether it was simply an out of the body rapture of his human spirit (Gen 5:24; Heb. 11:5; 2 Ki. 2:11; Mark 9:4). All he knew was that this experience happened and, in one form or another, he had been there. It’s likely that Paul mentions the possibility of a bodily rapture into heaven to counter the Gnostic teachings of some of the hyper-apostles. Certain strains of Greek philosophy taught that anything regarding the physical, bodily realm was bad. To them, a human body in a purely spiritual realm would have been impossible.
Paul frames his statement in a poetic parallel so that the phrases “the third heaven” and “paradise” are intended to mean that he was taken into the very presence of God. In the Old Testament, the word “paradise” was interpreted as either the literal or figurative presence of God among his people. It has the same use in the New Testament. In Luke 23:43, we read of Jesus promising the repentant thief presence in Paradise. In Revelation 2:7, the Spirit promises, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God.”
Paul describes the height or distance of his rapture as being caught up “as far as the 3rd heaven.” the 1st heaven would be the clouds and the sky. The 2nd heaven would be the stars in the distance of space. So, the 3rd heaven into which Paul was caught up, is the place of Paradise because Paradise is wherever God dwells. There Paul saw the resurrected, ascended, and glorified Christ and the souls of the redeemed “at home with the Lord” (5:8).
During his rapture, Paul heard things “beyond utterance,” things he completely understood but could not repeat. What Jesus told Paul was for him alone to hear. It was a private conversation for Paul’s benefit, likely to encourage the apostle and equip him for all his suffering to come.
Apart from the Book of Revelation there is nothing else to compare with Paul’s experience. Paul was given his own personal view of the glory to come in the consummation of all things when Christ returns. It would sustain him through his beatings and shipwrecks and betrayals and heartaches that rose and fell with the fortunes of his churches.
Most of us, had we been granted an ecstatic experience like Paul’s, wouldn’t be able to contain ourselves. In our day, we would write a bestseller: My Trip to Heaven and Back. We would go on the Christian speaker circuit and teach things like 5 Steps to Achieve Your Own Personal Rapture, or Your Best Rapture Now. We would sell out churches and venues and sign our books, and calendars, and personal rapture devotionals for long lines of followers who, aside from their modern clothing, would look exactly like the Corinthians fawning over the hyper-apostles.
Our books and devotionals and lectures would be given the status of divine revelation. We could build an entire denomination out of our experience and fund a Christian college to which parents would pay ridiculous amounts of money to ensure that their children we’re taken care of in a wholesome environment. We might even get the financing for a Rapture-themed amusement park!
The apostle Paul, however, would have taken his private ecstatic experience to the grave were it not for the necessity to boast in it for the sake of the Corinthian church. His boasting is modest and restrained as he continues his story in the self-effacing third person in verses 5 and 6:
5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.
Paul would have been completely justified in writing more about his amazing experience. But he refuses to do so and boasts further in his weakness instead. He wanted to ensure that authority in the church would never be based on ecstatic experience but on the actions and words of its leaders. Paul refuses to be assessed by any other standard than what he does and what he teaches. That’s crucial wisdom for the modern church. No matter how great any modern speaker’s claim to visions and ecstasies, nothing can replace Christ-centered conduct and speech as indications of a true faith.
THORNY BOAST (7-10)
In verses 7-10, Paul switches from the third person account to the first person to leave no doubt that he is speaking about his own experience. He says the revelation given to him was so personally uplifting that he needed a humbling thorn in his flesh: “7 So to keep me from becoming conceited [hyper-uplifted] because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited [hyper-uplifted].”
Note how Paul takes the word “hyper” used by the false teachers to describe themselves and turns it against them. Paul says that his thorn in the flesh came as a consequence of his great revelations (plural!). That is a swipe at the arrogance of the hyper-apostles who themselves claimed to have received secret knowledge and great revelations and yet glory in their seemingly trouble-free existence.
Paul Barnett writes:
The verb tenses should be noted. The skolops was “given” (a completed action—aorist tense) in order that, as a messenger of Satan, it might continue to “buffet” (present tense) Paul lest he continue to be “over-uplifted” (present tense). Like his opponents, he has experienced “visions and revelations from the Lord … an abundance of revelations.” But unlike them he has not remained “over-uplifted”; God brought him down to earth by his skolops, and kept him there, buffeting him.
Ever since Paul wrote this letter, people have speculated about what his “thorn in the flesh” was. Was the “thorn” a who or a what? Was it a person? Was it a situation? Was it a physical ailment? Was it some sort of psychosis? The speculation as to what was Paul’s thorn has murdered many trees and spilled swimming pools of ink over the centuries. The simple fact is the apostle Paul, and the Holy Spirit did not tell us. So, speculation is completely useless. The anonymity of the thorn (skolops) is actually a good thing. It allows us to make abroad application to all of our afflictions that God ordains for us.
What we can know is that while the thorn was the work of Satan, it was God who allowed it. God gave the ecstatic experience of revelations to Paul, and he was also responsible for the agony of his thorn. In his divine wisdom, God knew Paul needed this particular affliction to keep the apostle firmly pegged and tethered to the ground rather than being hyper-uplifted. There may be some word play going on in this text since the Greek word skolops could be translated as a stake, a tent peg, or a thorn. The apostle was caught up to the highest heaven but then staked firmly upon the ground.
That turned the argument of Paul’s enemies on its head because the very thing they loathed in Paul and claimed was evidence that God was not with him was actually the proof of Paul’s transcending superiority of ecstatic experiences. What a perfect rebuke of the hyper-apostles who worshiped health and wealth and saw affliction and weakness as the absence of God’s blessing. That does not suggest that Paul enjoyed his thorn in the flesh.
Clearly, he did not enjoy his suffering. He writes, “8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.” Paul’s threefold prayer is a parallel to the threefold prayer of the suffering Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup of God’s wrath be removed (Mk. 14:41). “Three times” is likely an idiomatic expression for repeated prayer. He pleads with Messiah Jesus risen from the dead just as Christ pleaded with the Father in the garden.
As the Father answered the Son in the garden, so the Son answered Paul in his petitions with a loving but negative response. This is something to notice. Whenever Messiah Jesus declines our desperate pleadings, his answer is full of his perfect, compassion and goodness and love. His answers are only superficially negative because our affliction is intended to bring God’s blessings.
“9 But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” Earlier Paul related that in Asia he had been “beyond power … crushed” (1:8), how, more generally, as a mere “jar of clay,” he was dependent on “the all-surpassing power of God” (4:7). Now he declares that “[Christ’s] power is made perfect in weakness.” Power in weakness runs as a thread throughout the letter, reaching its most powerful expression here. Christ’s reply is the climax of the “Fool’s Speech” and the summit of the entire letter.
The grand theme of second Corinthians is authentic new covenant ministry. That is why the series is entitled The Heart of Ministry. The recurring motif of authentic new covenant ministry is power in weakness. At the beginning of this letter, Paul introduced his experience of weakness and the source of all true ministerial strength:
8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
Paul’s helpless weakness was the platform for resurrection power. Recall in 2:14 he explained how his being led in weakness to death in a Roman victory parade displayed the upside-down power of the gospel, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”  Our weakness makes the scent of Christ full of saving power.
The most eloquent statement of this power in weakness motif came in 4:7-12:
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. 
Then, in 6:4-10, we see an example of endurance in weakness at work:
…4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. 
Paul’s constant repetition of the theme of power in weakness is meant to tether our souls to the hyper-love and hyper-power of Christ in us, the hope of glory. Simply put, power in weakness is shorthand for the cross of Christ. Crucifixion must come before resurrection, suffering before glory, Gethsemane before the empty tomb. Paul’s thorn was essential to his ongoing human weakness and the experience of Christ’s unlimited and unwavering power.
With that understanding we come to Paul’s greatest boast ever: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (9b). Paul’s hesitance falls away and there is no sense of his playing the fool. Now, he boasts with enthusiasm of his complete human weakness, his thorn, his beatings, his hardships, his betrayals, his sleepless nights, his hunger and thirst. Why? “So that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Don’t miss that beautiful phrase, “rest upon me.” This is the vocabulary of the Tabernacle where God pitched his tent with his people (Ex. 40:34). John uses the same words in his gospel (1:14) when he writes of Jesus that, “the Word became flesh and to dwelt among us” (lit., “tabernacled/pitched his tent among us”). Paul employs this image to teach that Christ pitches his tent with his people in their weakness, not in their human wisdom, power, or strength.
Our default mode is to live our lives in the power of our human observation, rather than God’s divine revelation. Human observation reasons that God pitches his tent with the famous and powerful and eloquent – those who can command large crowds as they jet from place to place enjoying the spotlight of center stage. But Christ is pleased to display his power in the last, the last, the least, the little, and the dead.
This brings us to Paul’s approach to life, the universe, and everything, “10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” The driving phrase is, “For the sake of Christ.” There’s no contentment in affliction and misery in and of themselves. There is no virtue in suffering. But believers can find contentment in suffering for Christ’s sake when we take Paul’s paradox to heart: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Remember the formula is NOT: my weakness plus Christ’s strength equals MY power. The formula is: my weakness plus Christ’s strength equals HIS power. Whatever we believe our strengths to be, God does not need them. He uses our weakness, our afflictions, our inadequacy’s, our disabilities, our failures, and our fears. More, he wants us to boast of our weaknesses because that is where Christ pitches his tent in us.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 12:1–10.
 Barnett, 556. Emphasis added.
 Barnett, 568.
 Id., 572.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 1:8–9.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 2:14.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 4:7–12.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 6:4–10.