A Thorn in our Flesh – 2 Corinthians 12&13

In the final defence of his authority, Paul painfully shares a personal out-of-body experience. He speaks about himself in the third person, lest anyone would think he was boasting about his experiences in Christ.

I 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. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (NIV)

Paul is forced to share a personal experience with Christ where he was taken up to heaven and inexpressible things were revealed to him. Our experiences with Christ are personal and are not to be revealed to others for the sake of boasting about ourselves. People boast that they were revealed things by God about the afterlife and most of that publicity is for personal fame rather than giving Glory to God. Paul had these visions nearly fourteen years prior to the time of writing this letter. He did not tell a soul about his experience but this feels like a last-ditch effort on his part. Paul takes this drastic step because of his anger towards the “super-apostles” who were questioning his every move and in the process negating the good work that God did through Paul in Corinth.

Messenger of satan

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.

2 Corinthians 12:7-8 (NIV)

Paul recollects the time when God sent a messenger of satan to torment him so that he may not become conceited. He does not reveal what is the exact nature of the torment but it can be either the challenges faced in his ministry or conflict within himself or literal physical pain in his body. Paul acknowledges that this thorn was sent by God to bring him back down to earth and correct his ways.

Most of us share this thought as we feel that God is trying to teach us a lesson and bring down our egos in the process. God is in total control and can use anyone to further His plan. We cannot question His methods but sending satan to torment us is not the only way God intervenes in our lives. It is usually the opposite that we through our disobedience and arrogance leave His fold to chart our own paths.

This is when satan becomes a thorn in our flesh and takes away our peace. It is Jesus who finds us and brings us back when we call on His name. This cycle of leaving God and being brought back is misconstrued by people as God tormenting them till they return to His fold. They are blindly participating in just a religion and not out of Love for their Creator but fear without any reverence.

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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)

The above verse is often quoted to provide comfort to the disheartened but the second part of the verse is seldom conveyed. It is a pity that most of us come to Christ only in our weakened state and are comforted by refrigerator magnets of the above verse in its partial form. We do not understand that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. All the testimonies that are shared are about God’s power being manifested during the time of an ordeal. God is not someone who shows up only during our troubles and fixes our problems and disappears. However, that is how we like to treat Him by keeping Him at an arm’s length.

Remember that Gideon’s army was actually stronger as their numbers reduced because God took the place of the warriors that had left. It is in our weakened stage that we choose to listen to God’s voice. The psalmist wrote that God is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18) but that does not mean that God is far from others. The more we draw close to Him the more we feel Him drawing closer to us (James 4:8). In our weakness, we acknowledge our inability to solve our problems and come to Him for answers. Being the loving Father that He is to us, He always answers our call and comforts us no matter what we have gotten ourselves into. God’s power is realised by us in our weakness.

That 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.

2 Corinthians 12:10 (NIV)

Final Warnings

Unlike his other letters which ended on a positive note, Paul is concluding his current letter to the Corinthians with stern warnings for his audience to change their ways. He was to visit them soon for the third time and promises that this one would be much harsher than his previous visits.

Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent to you? I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not walk in the same footsteps by the same Spirit?

2 Corinthians 12:17-18 (NIV)

Paul is reminding the people of Corinth that He brought them the word of God free of cost and was never a burden on them. Even the men that he sent to them did not exploit them but only built up their faith. He is trying to build credibility for himself and his associates through the work of God that they were able to carry out because of His Spirit.

This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others,

2 Corinthians 13:1-2 (NIV)

Paul was a by-the-book kind of guy and given his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament laws, he uses it as a template to follow when it came to administrative matters in the Church.

One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

Deuteronomy 19:15 (NIV)

Even Jesus reiterated the need for multiple testimonies when casting out someone from the Church (Matthew 18:19-20). Paul wanted to give all the offenders a chance to clear their names and did not want to take any decision in a rash manner.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you —unless, of course, you fail the test?

2 Corinthians 13:5 (NIV)

No one knows what is truly in our hearts except for God. But there is one more person who knows our deepest thoughts and that person is us. We know exactly how much faith we have in Christ. Some people have been fooling the world to depict themselves as righteous, that they have forgotten their true state. They have chosen to ignore the warning of God and go on living a lie because of fears of being cast out from their church or even their society.

We must examine ourselves periodically, not by the standards of this world or a self-help book or emulate the steps taught to us by people of God. Everyone has a distinct journey in Christ and we all are at different junctions. We must come to Christ and Him alone with an honest heart and let him remove the thorn from our hearts.

We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.

2 Corinthians 13:9-10 (NIV)

Discussion Questions

  • 12:7 – Does God send satan to torment us to prevent us from being conceited?
  • 12:9 – How is God’s power made perfect in our weakness?
  • 13:1- Why does Paul stress the need for two or three witnesses?
  • 13:5 – How can we test our faith?

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