Chris Thayer is the Director of Discipleship at Good Shepherd Church in Charlotte, NC where he oversees adult life groups and Biblical education. On Thursdays I share his weekly “Thayer’s Thoughts” for small group leaders, which are based on the previous Sunday’s sermon. Click HERE to watch or listen to the accompanying sermon.
2 Corinthians 11-12 is confusing. I had to read it many times to work out what exactly Paul was trying to say. He baffled me by boasting right after he said he didn’t want to, calling himself a fool for doing so, talking about himself in the third person (12:2-5), and (for good measure) throwing in “the third heaven.” It felt like he was trying to confuse me!
One of the reasons this passage is difficult to grasp is that Paul is arguing for a view of authority and power that is inherently counter-intuitive to how we think. Not only that, but he does it in a tongue in cheek manner. He’s sarcastic about something that makes sense (according to the world’s view) while arguing for something that doesn’t (God’s power is made perfect in weakness). The concept is confusing enough, but Paul argues for it in a way that (to modern ears) brings even more confusion. So what’s going on?
Apparently there were people in Corinth who were bragging about their “spiritual” prowess. They boasted in themselves: who they were, what they had seen, and what they had done. In the eyes of the Corinthians, these boasts gave them more credit as “apostles” than Paul who “lowered” himself in the eyes of the Corinthians as he brought them the message of Jesus. Paul refused to boast in himself, because it wasn’t about him. However, the Corinthians valued the messenger based on these ‘boasts.’ So Paul’s lack of boasting caused the them to doubt Paul and the Gospel he delivered. While Paul didn’t care about how they viewed him, he was concerned that they would trade following the true Jesus for the fake Jesus they were being peddled.
In order to show the so-called ’apostles’ ministry for the sham it was and correct the Corinthians method for measurement: Paul takes on the persona of one of these ‘fools’ and begrudgingly plays their game. He boasts about his qualifications as an apostle. However, before he gets far at all—he boasts in what shows him as being weak. By doing so, even in his ‘boasting’ he puts God’s strength on display (11:24-33). Paul continues this until he gets to the area of visions and revelations (an area that the so-called ’apostles’ are putting great stock in).
When Paul reaches this juncture in his rhetorical argument, he chooses to talk about himself in the third person. He refers to himself as “a man,” preferring to not place himself directly in the position of the one having the vision and so distance himself from it. Paul could legitimately boast about this event, he says, because it would be true. However, he chooses instead to boast about his weaknesses. This way “no one will think more of [him] than is warranted by what [he does or says]” (2 Corinthians 12:5-6).
Paul then concludes this argument by saying that so he wouldn’t boast: he was given a ’thorn in his flesh’ that the Lord did not remove from him. Instead God proclaimed: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Paul gives us a practical example of what it means to live as Jesus called us to: as little children. People who give up their rights, their power, their authority. To such as these belongs the Kingdom of heaven. Through them His power is made perfect in weakness. When we are weak, then we are strong.