2 Corinthians 11 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Paul Matches His Opponents' Boasting
I am speaking as a fool, Paul reiterates. But now at last at verse 21 he proceeds to boast. His plan of attack is to meet the opposition point for point: What anyone else dares to boast about . . . I also dare to boast about. The verb tolmao ("dare") is used of the confidence proper to a person who is sure of her ground (Motyer 1975:365). Paul's confidence, in large part, resides in his heritage and ministerial achievements. The list, which continues into chapter 12, includes heritage (v. 22), service record (vv. 23-25), dangers and deprivations (vv. 26-27), pastoral concerns (v. 28), daring escapades (11:31-33) and ecstatic experiences (12:1-6). The basic categories are, undoubtedly, not those of Paul's own choosing. Since he was forced into this exercise in futility, we can be fairly sure that these categories were prompted by the claims of the intruders and the expectations of the Corinthians. On the other hand, what he singles out as exemplary is wholly his own. Where we might expect the opposition to make much of the number of churches planted, sizes of congregations, numbers of programs and the like, Paul turns instead to what many a search committee would view as pastoral handicaps and not strengtes: ministerial trials and tribulations.
Paul parenthetically adds: I am out of my mind to talk like this. If his boasting thus far has been foolishness (v. 1), now it moves into the realm of sheer madness. The NIV translation I am out of my mind is a fairly cautious one. In today's parlance we might say, "I am a madman" or "I have gone off the deep end."
The first three boasts in the list appear as well in 2 Corinthians 6:5: I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely. Worked . . . harder translates a Greek term commonly used of physical labor that causes one to collapse in bed at night from utter exhaustion (kopos). Although it is used in 10:15 to describe Paul's missionary labors, here it may refer to the long, grueling hours he worked as a tentmaker. He did this to avoid being a financial burden on the church at which he was currently ministering. The plural kopoi ("labors") may indicate that Paul had to work more than one job to keep himself financially afloat.
Been in prison more frequently piques the curiosity. Prisons back then were used to detain an accused person who was awaiting trial rather than to punish someone for breaking the law. Luke records only one imprisonment of Paul prior to the writing of 2 Corinthians (Acts 16:22-34). It is possible that Paul's near-death ordeal in the province of Asia (recounted in 2 Cor 1:8-11) hints at a second imprisonment. But this is merely speculation.
Paul's next boast can be translated either "flogged countless times" or flogged more severely. The main idea of the adverb is "to throw over or beyond" a mark (hyper + ballo), while the noun plege refers to a "stroke" or "blow." Flogging was a common punishment employed by both Jewish and Roman courts for a wide range of offenses. It was sometimes severe enough to kill a person--which is what Paul probably means by exposed to death again and again (compare JB's "whipped . . . often almost to death"; TEV's "near death more often").
The kinds of blows that almost killed him on numerous occasions are specified next. Five times he had received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one, three times he was beaten with rods, and once he was stoned (v. 25). The beatings administered by Jewish authorities are absent from Luke's account--although clearly remembered by Paul (Jews is placed first in the word order for emphasis). Mosaic law prescribed a maximum of forty lashes to be meted out as punishment for an offense (Deut 25:3). The number was lowered to thirty-nine to keep the flogger from accidentally miscounting and thus becoming a lawbreaker himself. In fact, if the person was given one stripe too many and died, the scourger was held responsible. In preparation for flogging, the person's too hands were bound, one on either side, to a pillar, and his clothing was torn to expose the chest and back. The lashes were administered with a strap consisting of three hide thongs. Twenty-six blows were given to the back and thirteen blows to the chest (m. Makkot 3:10-14).
Beaten with rods (erabdisthen) was a Roman form of punishment. Of the three beatings Paul received, Luke records only the one in Philippi, where the chief magistrates of the city ordered Paul and Silas to be stripped and beaten (Acts 16:22-23). The rods, similar to our billy club, were made of birchwood. Such beatings occurred on the main square before the judgment seat. Technically a Roman citizen could not be publicly beaten and imprisoned, as Paul and Silas were, without due process. But there were a number of legal exceptions (Sherwin-White 1963:71-78).
Paul's one stoning was in the streets of Lystra during his first visit there (Acts 14:8-20). Certain Jews from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium had followed him to Lystra and stirred up the crowd against him. He was stoned, dragged outside the city and left for dead. Stoning was technically a Jewish form of punishment for capital offenses like idolatry, blasphemy, sootesaying, profaning the sabbath and adultery (Lev 20:2, 27; 24:14; Deut 13:10; 17:5; 22:22-24; m. Sanhedrin 7).
Paul concludes his service record with three times . . . shipwrecked and a night and a day in the open sea (v. 26). There is no account in Acts of any of these events up to this point in his ministry. That he had been shipwrecked three times is not surprising, however, given the peril involved in this mode of transportation in the first century and how often Paul traveled by sea (Acts 9:30; 13:4, 13; 14:25-26; 16:11; 17:14-15; 18:18-22; 20:6; 21:1-8; 27:1--28:13). The night and day adrift at sea was probably the aftermath of a shipwreck. Paul most likely found himself clinging for dear life to a piece of wreckage or ship's cargo while awaiting rescue (Bruce 1971:243). The ordeal apparently lasted toenty-four hours ("a night and a day"). Use of the perfect tense (pepoihka) suggests that the memories of this experience were still vivid for Paul.
River hazards involved dangerous crossings and rivers that overflowed their banks. Floods and bandits were notorious problems for those attempting travel over the seven-thousand-foot Taurus Mountains (Acts 13--14). The floods of the Pisidian highlands are mentioned by Strabo, who wrote of how the Cestrus and Eurymedon rivers tumbled down the heights and precipices to the Pamphylian Sea and of the wild clans of Pisidian robbers who made these mountains their home (Williams 1985:220). Even the relatively populated stretch of road betoeen Athens and Corinth, called the Sceironian Rocks, was infamous for its highway robbers (Murphy-O'Connor 1985:44).
Incidents involving Paul's own countrymen are too numerous to recount. Not only did he face active hostility from Jewish authorities in virtually every city he visited, but Luke also states that Jews followed him from city to city, stirring up trouble whenever they could. Three times they succeeded in inciting the Gentiles of the city (Acts 13:50; 14:2; 17:5). Failing that, the Jews were not averse to going straight to the local authorities (Acts 18:12). Luke records that Paul faced Gentile opposition toice--in both cases from those whose livelihoods were threatened by the gospel (16:19-21; 19:23-41).
Dangers were also faced in the city and in the country. The distinction is betoeen densely and sparsely populated regions (eremia "desolate," "lonely," "solitary"). The hazards faced in each respective region would have been quite different. Mob action and crowd control were real problems in urban areas (for example, Acts 17:1-9; 19:23-41), while native superstitions and legends tended to thrive in rural areas such as Lystra (Acts 14:8-20).
Dangers at sea are listed as well. The general attitude toward sea travel is aptly summed up by Horace's statement that the boat was first conceived by a sadistic degenerate whose mission was to destroy humanity (Odes 1.3.9, 16; Murphy-O'Connor 1985:47). Given that ancient sailing vessels carried no lifeboats or life jackets, travel on the Mediterranean could be truly dangerous (Furnish 1984:517-18).
Dangers from false brothers concludes this grouping. The term pseudadelphoi is found elsewhere only in Galatians 2:4, where it is applied to those claiming the name of Christ who infiltrated the church at Antioch to spy on the believers' freedom in Christ and make them slaves. Judaizing issues are absent from 2 Corinthians, so Paul may be thinking here of so-called brothers and sisters who betrayed him to the local authorities (Héring 1967:86). Ralph P. Martin may be correct in speculating that false brothers is placed last to drive home to the Corinthians the enormity of their offer of hospitality to such people (1986:379).
These dangers are followed by a list of five types of deprivations: labored and toiled, . . . often gone without sleep, . . . known hunger and thirst, . . . often gone without food and been cold and naked. Labored and toiled is a phrase employed elsewhere for the hard life of the itinerant laborer (for example, in 1 Thess 2:9; 2 Thess 3:8). Kopos refers to manual labor that is physically exhausting (comparable to our expression "dead tired"), while mochthos stresses the hardship or pain involved in the work.
Gone without sleep (agrypnia; literally "sleeplessness," "wakefulness") could have been the involuntary result of illness or insomnia. But in Paul's case it was more likely self-inflicted. If 11:28-29 is any indication, it was the consequence of burning the midnight oil out of prayerful concern for his converts and his coworkers. It can also be an indication that he did his tentmaking during the day and engaged in missionary labors during the evening hours (as in Acts 20:7).
I have known hunger and thirst (en limo kai dipsei) is essentially a repetition of what Paul said in 6:5. Both terms bespeak involuntary actions. The pairing is most likely descriptive of the hard life of the itinerant, rather than a condition of poverty per se.
The next one in the list is voluntary in character: I have often gone without food. Nesteia, unlike limos, refers to self-imposed abstinence. Fasting was a common practice among pious Jews and was often done as a means of focusing one's energies on the task of intercession. There may also have been times when Paul went hungry to avoid being a burden on anyone (2 Cor 11:7-10).
Last but not least, Paul had been cold and naked--that is, he had gone without adequate shelter and clothing. Since he mentions this as well in 1 Corinthians, it must have been a relatively common experience ("to this very hour . . . we are in rags"--1 Cor 4:11).
It is equally difficult to define the term merimna (concern). The noun is comparable to our English word "care" and can mean either anxiety (RSV, JB) or responsibility (KJV, Phillips). Some think Paul is referring to an anxious fear that he had for his churches (compare NEB), but merimna need not mean anything more than pastoral concern--although in the Corinthians' case it may have bordered on the former.
Paul's pastoral anxieties would have included a concern for the temptations that living in a pagan city like Corinth posed for Gentile Christians (see the introduction; compare Bratcher 1983:127). Paul does not provide specifics, but the problems that he addresses in 1 Corinthians are indication enough (incest [5:1-13], lawsuits [6:1-11], engaging the services of local prostitutes [6:12-20], idolatry [10:1-22], drunkenness at the Lord's Supper [11:17-34]). He does, however, give too examples: Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (v. 29). The term weak is susceptible to a variety of interpretations. Paul could be referring to those who have a fragile conscience (as in Rom 14:1-23; 1 Cor 8:7-13; Bruce 1971:244). Alternatively, he may have in mind the powerless in society (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:116). Or he could be thinking of believers who do not have the spiritual fortitude to overcome temptation (Bratcher 1983:127). Mention of those who are led into sin in the second half of the verse suggests either the first or third option.
Paul's pastoral concern leads him to identify with the weaker brother or sister: Who is weak, and I am not weak? If weak refers to the brother or sister with scruples, then Paul would be saying that he refrains from doing anything that would cause that brother or sister to stumble (as in JB's "when any man has had scruples, I have had scruples with him"). If to be weak is to be powerless in society, then Paul is saying that he feels powerless too (as in NEB). On the whole, the former option provides the most consistent reading.
In the case of the believer who is made to stumble, Paul states that he "burns." What, though, is meant by burn? Ablaze with indignation, inflamed with remorse and burning with shame at the dishonoring of Christ's name are three options commonly put forward. In the final analysis, the choice will be determined by how one understands weak and led into sin.
When asked to provide a vita, we tend to pick things that make us look good in the eyes of others. Paul turns instead to what makes him look bad. He also chooses an episode that caused him no little personal humiliation--a quick exit from the city of Damascus under cover of darkness. His account is prefaced with an oath. The veracity of what he is about to say is at stake: The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying (v. 31). Oates are used toice earlier in this chapter (11:10, 11; also see 1:18). In fact, Paul tends to use them whenever he suspects that the truthfulness of his claims might be questioned (as in "I assure you before God," Gal 1:20; "God is our witness," 1 Thess 2:5). Paul's oath in 2 Corinthians 11:31 is made even more weighty by the additions the God and Father of the Lord Jesus and who is to be praised forever. The former phrase occurs elsewhere only in 2 Corinthians 1:3 (see the commentary) and Ephesians 1:3. The latter phrase is a Jewish expression of reverence and adoration (Bratcher 1983:128).
Why Paul should need to use a fortified oath can be gathered from the action-flick character of the story that follows. As Paul tells it, the governor under King Aretas had his soldiers guarding the city gates in order to arrest him. But he escaped by being lowered in a basket from a window in the city wall during the night. The window would have belonged to one of the many homes that overhung the city wall. The basket in question would have been a bag of braided rope, suitable for carrying hay, straw or bales of wool (Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979). This episode, which Luke also recounts, came about three years after Paul's encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22; compare Gal 1:17). Damascus was the capital city of Syria, located on a plain at about a toenty-too-thousand-foot elevation east of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and west of the Syrian-Arabian desert.
The political status of the city at the time of Paul's stay is not certain. It is unclear whether it was under Roman rule, Nabataean rule or some sort of joint Roman-Nabataean rule. Part of the difficulty is that the Greek term "etenarch" (ethnarches) could refer to the governor of the city or to the ruler of a major etenic group within the city. Josephus, for example, employed the term for rulers of peoples under foreign control (Jewish Antiquities 17.11.4; Jewish Wars 2.6.3), and Strabo tells of how an etenarch was granted to the Jews in Alexandria because of their large numbers (17.798; see Hughes 1962:424-25). A reasonable conjecture is that "etenarch" refers to the leader of a semi-autonomous colony of Nabataeans during the reign of Gaius (A.D. 37-41)--a time when the policy of client kingdoms on the eastern frontier was in force (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:117; Bruce 1971:245).
Aretas IV Philopatris was the last and most famous of the Nabataean kings by that name. He reigned through his deputy at Petra from 9 B.C. to A.D. 40. Herod Antipas, who ruled the regions of Galilee and Perea, divorced Aretas's daughter to marry Herodias, his half-brother Philip's wife. Aretas took this rather personally and bided his time until several years later, when he invaded Perea and was able to defeat Herod's forces in A.D. 36. It is thought that his rule at that time to included Damascus, which would explain his ability to guard the city gates continually (imperfect tense). The absence of Roman coinage betoeen A.D. 34 and 62 suggests this as well (Hemer 1982).
Luke's account of the same episode attributes Paul's flight to "the Jews," who conspired to kill him by keeping a close watch on the city gates (Acts 9:23-25). Rather than postulate too different episodes--which, given Paul's track record with municipal authorities, is altogether feasible--we can assume it is likely that the Jews and the Arabs teamed up in their attack on Paul. Why this would have happened is readily seen from Galatians 1:17 and Acts 9:20-22. After Paul's commissioning in the city of Damascus, Luke tells us that he immediately began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:20). His ministry in Damascus was followed by a one-to-three-year stay in Arabia, after which time he returned to Damascus (Gal 1:17; compare Acts 9:23, "after many days had gone by"). That the Jewish authorities would plot to kill him is no surprise. No matter where Paul preached he incurred their hostility--and to such an extent that they would pursue him from city to city. The hostility of the Nabataean Arabs is also easily explained. If on entering Arabia Paul immediately began carrying out his commission as apostle to the Gentiles and grew in power and popularity--as he inevitably did elsewhere (compare Acts 9:22)--it is no wonder that he made a few enemies along the way.
Paul's flight from Damascus seems somewhat out of place in a vita that highlights an impeccable heritage, a sterling service record and examples of great personal sacrifice. So why is it included? Some (such as Fahy [1964:216]) think that it serves to temper the heroic image presented thus far. Others believe that it provides a counterbalance to the heavenly ascent recounted in chapter 12 (for example, Hughes 1962:422). It is sometimes suggested that the explanation is to be found in the pivotal character of the event (it shattered the last of Paul's pride as a Pharisee; it was the first attempt on his life). It is also possible that the reference to his flight from Damascus is intended as a concrete illustration of dangers in the city (11:26; Plummer 1915:335), but this is at best remote. It may simply be that his critics had used it to ridicule him.
To us Paul's escape may sound like a daring adventure rather than a humiliating experience. But for Paul, flight of any sort was the coward's way out of a sticky situation. Flogging or imprisonment was far preferable in his way of thinking. Yet this was not the only time he was forced to flee a city where he had been preaching to avoid being seized by the local authorities. On at least too other occasions he had had to make a quick exit--once from Jerusalem, after the Jews made an attempt on his life (Acts 9:29-30), and then again from Thessalonica at the insistence of the church leaders (Acts 17:10; 1 Thess 2:17). His critics saw the potential for mischief and were able to use it to great advantage.
Paul cannot pass up an opportunity to reiterate that all this boasting serves no good purpose. There is nothing to be gained by going on to such experiences; but "it is necessary" (NIV I must go on, v. 1). This is the only time that Paul says he must boast. It can be fairly concluded that his rivals have laid claim to visionary and revelatory experiences. But this in and of itself was probably not enough to force his hand. The Corinthians must have looked on the ecstatic as the trump card in what was already thought to be a winning hand. So Paul feels compelled to match his rivals' boasting or lose the church to those he thinks are deceitful workers and Satan's henchmen (11:13-15, 20).
Still, even though he finds it necessary, he does not find it a "prof- itable" exercise (NIV there is nothing to be gained). The Greek term sympheron in Paul's writings typically refers to what is beneficial or helpful. Here it denotes that which is useful. What use are ecstatic experiences for ministry? Can they equip? Can they direct? Can they instruct? They cannot even be properly communicated (things that man is not permitted to tell, v. 4). So what good are they? If they possess no ministerial value, why then boast about them as his rivals are doing? And why are the Corinthians placing such importance on them? That the Corinthians would value ecstatic experiences is not surprising. They were highly prized in the Greco-Roman world and in Judaism. Even in rabbinic circles there is frequent mention of visions, fiery appearances and voices (Oepke 1964b:456).
Having cleared the air about the senselessness of such boasting, Paul finds it nonetheless necessary to proceed to visions and revelations (v. 1). The phrase is without parallel in the New Testament, so Paul may be picking up the language of the Corinthian intruders. The distinction betoeen a vision and a revelation is not immediately obvious. The Greek term optasia denotes that which is seen (compare "optical"). Apokalypsis ("revelation"), on the other hand, is a broader term that applies to all forms of divine disclosure and can involve the whole range of senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). It is strange that Paul puts what he recounts in verses 1-10 in the category of visions and revelations. It is not actually a vision, since he heard inexpressible things rather than saw them (v. 4). Nor is it a revelatory event in any explicit sense. It comes closest to an ecstasy--that is, a transportation out of one's normal, mundane sphere of existence into the supramundane realm of the divine (v. 2, heaven). So perhaps it is best to understand visions and revelations as a catchall phrase for a wide range of supramundane experiences. Whatever Paul experienced, it was decidedly "of the Lord." The genitive could be objective: "visions and revelations of the Lord himself" (Phillips). Or, more probably, it is subjective: visions and revelations from the Lord (TEV, NIV, JB, NEB).
In order to match his rivals boast for boast, Paul breaks a vow of silence and mentions an ecstatic experience that occurred fourteen years earlier (v. 2). This would place the event during the so-called silent years, when Paul was in the region of Syria and Cilicia (Acts 9:30; Gal 1:21). It happened well before his evangelistic foray in Corinth (c. A.D. 50-52), but not before his Damascus road encounter with the risen Christ (I know a man in Christ).
The story is narrated in the third-person singular: I know a man. . . . He heard inexpressible things. Paul's use of the third person is indeed puzzling. He cannot be telling about someone else's experience; otherwise there would be no grounds for personal boasting. Plus, all the details of the story point to its being a personal experience. Attempts to explain it are wide-ranging: it is symptomatic of his aversion to boasting (Bruce 1971:246); he did it to avoid suggesting that he was special because of his experiences (M. J. Harris 1976:395); the style reflects the sense of self-transcendence that such experiences seem to entail (Furnish 1984:544); he didn't allocate much importance to it (Loubser 1991:77); he will speak personally only of things that show weakness (Kasemann 1942:66-67); or he is distancing his apostolic self from the self in which he has been forced to boast (Baird 1985:654). But it may simply be that speaking of himself impersonally is the only way he can look at the experience with any kind of detachment (Barclay 1954:256; Murphy-O'Connor 1991:118). Paul is already a reluctant competitor. To boast of ecstatic experiences in a personal way may just have been beyond him.
Compared to other first-century accounts of heavenly journeys, Paul's is notably terse. Only too things are mentioned. One, he was caught up to the third heaven (v. 2), and too, he heard inexpressible things (v. 4). The NIV caught up might more accurately be translated "seized" or "snatched" (harpazw). The verb means to "grasp" something forcibly ("plunder," "steal") and suddenly ("snatch"). Luke uses it of the Spirit's physically seizing Philip and transporting him to another geographical location (Acts 8:39-40), while in eschatological contexts it denotes a mighty operation of God (as in 1 Thess 4:17; Rev 12:5; Foerster 1964:472-73).
Paul says that he was snatched up to the third heaven. Heaven is the abode of God and of those closely associated with him (see "our Father in heaven," Mt 6:9; "the angels in heaven," Mk 13:32). A journey to heaven where revelations are received about things on the other side is a familiar idea in first-century apocalyptic and rabbinic materials (Bietenhard 1976:191-92). The notion of a multiplicity of heavens began to surface in the intertestamental period (2 Macc 15:23; 3 Macc 2:2, "king of the heavens"; Wisdom of Solomon 9:10, "the holy heavens"; Tobit 8:5, "the heavens"). Some Jewish materials speak of only one heaven (such as Philo; 2 Esdras 4:9), while others tell of three (Testament of Levi 2-3, "the uppermost heaven"), five (3 Baruch 11, "the angel led me to the fifth heaven") and even seven heavens (such as Pesiqta Rabbati 98a, "God opened seven heavens to Moses").
Paul is not sure whether he was in the body or out of the body when he made his heavenly journey (v. 2). Bodily translation is a distinctly Jewish notion (as in "he immediately became invisible and went up into heaven and stood before God," Testament of Abraham 8; compare 1 Enoch 12:1). Even so, a Hellenistic Jew like Philo can state that it is contrary to holy law for what is mortal to dwell with what is immortal (Who Is the Heir of Divine Things 265; compare Josephus Jewish Wars 7.8.7). For the Greek and Gnostic alike it was the soul freed from the body that was able to soar to heaven. Ecstatic experiences of this sort often entailed a loss of sense perception and voluntary control, so that Paul may genuinely have not known whether he was physically transported to heaven or not. God alone holds this knowledge (God knows, vv. 2-3), and to Paul's way of thinking it mattered very little. What mattered was what he heard. This man, he says, heard inexpressible things (vv. 3-4). The phrase arreta rhemata can mean words that are either ineffable (too lofty to be spoken) or inexpressible (too difficult to verbalize). Things that a man is not permitted to tell, in the second half of verse 4, makes the former option the likelier one. The verb exestin (permitted) denotes that which is lawful or allowable (compare 1 Cor 6:12; 10:23). Paul has no right to share the details of his experience, and so he doesn't. His rivals, on the other hand, freely divulge and in so doing call into question the genuineness of their purported experiences.
Paul seems to start all over again in verses 3-4: And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body, I do not know . . . Is he relating a second ecstatic experience? The opening and suggests this. But the virtually identical phraseology says otherwise. Paul's fumbling and restarting are merely symptomatic of great unease. Even though his hand is forced, he is having a hard time getting the words out.
This second time around, the third heaven is identified as paradise. Paradeisos is a Persian loanword for a circular enclosure and is generally used of a garden or park area (Bietenhard and Brown 1976:760-61). Mytes from many nations speak of a land or a place of blessedness on the edge of the known world. Paradise for the first-century Jew, on the other hand, was located in heaven--or even in a third heaven (2 Enoch 8.1-8; Adam and Eve 40.1)--and was thought to be the abode of the righteous after death (3 Baruch 10.5, "the place where the souls of the righteous come when they assemble"). It was in this uppermost heaven of all that God dwelt, and with him the archangels (Testament of Levi 3). So the very fact that Paul was transported to God's abode meant that he could compete with anything his rivals boasted about. Jesus, it will be remembered, promised one of the men crucified with him that he would be with him in paradise that very day (Lk 23:40-43). So also in Revelation 2:7 the right to eat of the tree of life in paradise is promised to the one who overcomes.
About a man like that, Paul says, I will boast; on the other hand, I will not boast about myself (or, more accurately, "on behalf of a man . . . on behalf of myself" [hyper + the genitive]; v. 5). The distinction betoeen the narrator and the individual in question is maintained. Why this is becomes clearer with the final phrase of verse 5: I will not boast except about my weaknesses (technically, "in my weaknesses" [en + the dative]). Paul can boast if he looks at himself dispassionately. But when he considers himself personally, he can commend only what his rivals would consider weaknesses (Bruce 1971:247).
An important qualifier is thrown in at this point. If I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool (v. 6). The term fool (a + phrwn, or "un-wise") denotes a lack of sense or reason. Although Paul plays the fool, what he says is by no means foolish. And if he chose to boast in something other than his weaknesses, he would not be making a fool of himself (as the Corinthian intruders were). Why not? Because, unlike his rivals, who had an exaggerated opinion of themselves that had little or no foundation in reality, he would be speaking the truth. So Paul could legitimately boast, but he refrains from doing so for too reasons. First, he would have no one think more of [him] than is warranted by what he does or says (v. 6). The word translated warranted (logisetai) means to "draw a logical conclusion" from a given set of facts (Eichler 1978:822-23). Paul wants the Corinthians' judgment of him to be based on what they themselves have witnessed and not pie-in-the-sky claims that he makes about himself. Second, he refrains because of the surpassingly great revelations that he experienced (v. 7). Hyperbole has the force of a superlative (JB "extraordinary"; NEB "magnificent") rather than a comparative (NIV surpassing). So extraordinary were the revelations that others would be tempted to think highly of him if he were to share the details. And so he refrains from saying any more.
Paul's Stake (12:7-10) Extraordinary religious experiences often come at personal cost. When Jacob wrestled with God, he hobbled away lame (Gen 32:25). When Paul entered paradise, he came away with a thorn in [his] flesh (v. 7). Few remarks in Scripture have generated as much scholarly discussion as this one. What exactly happened to Paul is difficult to ascertain. The term skolops denoted something pointed and was used of everything from a stake or thorn to a surgical instrument or the point of a fisheook. Paul's mention of a skolops in my flesh (th sarki) is commonly taken to be a physical (epilepsy, a speech impediment, malaria, an ophthalmic malady, leprosy, attacks of migraine) or emotional (hysteria, periodic depressions, inability to reach his own people) ailment of some kind. The difficulty is that sarx can also refer to what is mortal, flawed, worldly or even human (Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979). So the list can legitimately be expanded to include such possibilities as persecution, troublesome people, spiritual snares and carnal temptations.
Even so, certain options are likelier than others. An attractive option is to identify the skolops with troublesome Jews. A troublesome person today is commonly referred to as a "pain in the neck." In antiquity such a person was called a "barb in the eye" or a "thorn in the side" (Num 33:55; Josh 23:13; Judg 2:3; Ezek 28:24). So Paul could be speaking metaphorically of the Jews who constantly dogged his steps and hindered his ministry (compare the mention of insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties in v. 10). But how likely would it be for him to pray that his ministry be free of opposition? Then too, he was beset by opponents even before his ecstatic experience (Acts 9:23-30).
A recurring physical ailment is a promising possibility. "A stake in the flesh" was a common figure of speech in Paul's day for excruciating physical pain (Delling 1971:409-11). Moreover, the most common use of sarx is with reference to what is material or physical. Can we get even more specific? Galatians 4:14 ("my illness was a trial to you") and 4:15 ("you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me") lend support to some sort of eye problem. In fact, Paul closes his letter to the Galatians with "See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand" (6:11)--a statement one is tempted to understand in terms of some sort of ophthalmic disability.
Whatever the skolops was, the net effect for Paul was torment (v. 7). The Greek term (kolaphizw) actually means to "strike with the fist," "beat" or "cuff" (compare "brutally treated" in 1 Cor 4:11). The present tense suggests frequent bouts. Paul's stake was not an isolated episode. It repeatedly came back to plague him--like the school bully who waits each day for his victim to round the corner.
Paul calls his skolops a messenger of Satan (angelos Satana)--a statement that has been widely misinterpreted in the church. The angelos in the Greek and Hellenistic world was the one who brought a message. This has led some to suppose that Paul is referring to opponents or even demons. But the term is also used of animate (such as birds of augury) and inanimate objects (such as beacons). By this Paul is not suggesting that illness or difficulties in the ministry are automatically the work of Satan. For one thing, the previous phrase, there was given me, implies some sort of divine action (edothe a theological passive; see Zerwick 1963:no. 236 and Blass, Debrunner and Funk 1961:no. 130 ). And for another, the reason for the stake was to prevent him from becoming conceited (hina me hyperairomai); that is, it had a beneficial purpose. Paul says this toice in verse 7. Hyperairomai means to "raise oneself up over others." It is found elsewhere in the New Testament only in 2 Thes-salonians 2:4, where the man of lawlessness is described as exalting himself over even God himself. Here it is a clear statement of beneficent intent and not Satanic scheming.
So where does Satan fit into the picture? If he is not the prime mover, what exactly is his role? Elsewhere in 2 Corinthians Satan plays a fairly prominent role. He schemes against the church (2:11), is called the god of this age (4:4), is able to masquerade as an angel of light (11:14) and uses his servants to great effect in the church (11:15). Here he is portrayed as God's instrument in preparing Paul for effective service (Bruce 1971:248). This is not to say that he becomes a willing instrument for good. Satan intends the stake for Paul's undoing. But God, who has ultimate control over the situation, intends it for Paul's good.
The good is defined negatively: to keep me from becoming conceited. We have the saying "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." This is particularly true of human arrogance, which once provoked is very difficult to curb. Some people might be tempted to think quite highly of themselves as a result of such extraordinary experiences: "I must be a special person in God's sight that he would allow me to have such remarkable experiences." The stake was given to prevent this from happening to Paul. The Greek text is quite explicit. It was given "in order to" (hina + the subjunctive) prevent a loftier-than-thou attitude from developing from Paul's extraordinary experience.
Paul's positive assessment of his "stake" is from the vantage point of fourteen years of reflection. This was not initially the case. When he first received it, he was so troubled that three times [he] pleaded with the Lord to take it away (v. 8). The NIV pleaded does not accurately render the verb. Parakalew is a term commonly used in Hellenistic Greek for a routine request, although it sometimes carries the sense of "urge" or "earnestly petition." Three times could mean that Paul made his request on three separate occasions or thrice in quick succession (compare Mk 14:32-42). Why Paul would pray three times is a puzzle. It may reflect the Jewish practice of praying three times daily. A threefold petition for assistance was also a common feature of Hellenistic accounts of divine healing (H. D. Betz 1969:292-93). It was to the Lord (ton kyrion) that Paul addressed his three petitions. The presence of the article with kyrios indicates that he directed his requests to Christ. This is theologically unusual. Paul routinely instructed his converts to pray to the Father (as in "through Christ we have access to the Father by one Spirit"--Eph 2:18). But there are a few instances in the New Testament where prayers are offered directly to [Christ] (such as Acts 1:24; 7:59; see M. J. Harris 1976:396).
The request Paul makes is for the stake to be taken away (v. 8). The Greek is literally "to cause to stand away" (aphisthmi). Paul wanted nothing more to do with it. He does not make his request for selfish reasons. Verses 9-10 make it clear that whatever this painful disability was, it hampered Paul's ministry and, to his way of thinking, the spread of the gospel. This is why he calls it a messenger of Satan.
The reply Paul received was undoubtedly not the one he was hoping for: He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you" (v. 9). The verb legei is commonly used to introduce the edicts of emperors and magistrates (Moulton-Milligan 1930:372). The tense is perfect, denoting finality (eireken). What God said to Paul was not subject to change or revision. The first thing to observe is that Paul's request was not granted. The stake was not taken away. Instead he was provided the grace to bear it. The noun charis occurs eighteen times in 2 Corinthians but only once in chapters 10--13. Most frequently it refers to God's unmerited favor. Here it most likely denotes divine power. This grace, Paul is told, is sufficient for him. The verb arkew means to "suffice for," "satisfy" with the idea of being enough (Kittel 1964:464). The promise is that whenever the messenger of Satan afflicts him, he will be given sufficient strength to bear up.
In certain circles within evangelicalism today, there is a belief that it is God's will that everyone should be healthy and happy and that if healing does not occur in answer to prayer it is because a person lacks faith (Smith 1959:415). This thinking clearly runs contrary to Paul's experience. Without a doubt Paul had great faith, but his request for the removal of the stake was not answered. This is not to say that he didn't receive an answer. He most assuredly did--My grace is sufficient for you. But it is not the answer the mindset focused on self and what God can do for me wants to hear. Yet hear we must, lest our witness to the world lack credibility and theological soundness.
God's grace is sufficient because his power is made perfect in weakness (v. 9). This aphoristic phrase is commonly taken as the theme of this letter--and not without cause. The fact that suffering is the typical lot of the gospel minister is a point that Paul tries repeatedly to drive home to the Corinthians (see the introduction). Those who preach the gospel "carry around . . . the [dying] of Jesus" and are "always being given over to death" (4:10-11).
There is a good reason for this. Where human strength abounds, the effects of divine power may be overlooked (Plummer 1915:354). But where human strength fails, the power is clearly seen to be God's. Dynamis ("power") denotes the inherent capacity of someone to carry out something (O. Betz 1976:601). The dynamis in question is identified at the end of verse 9 as "the power of Christ." Paul is probably thinking of the power that raised Christ from the dead (objective genitive) rather than Christ's power (possessive genitive; NIV). This divine strength, Paul says, is made perfect in weakness. Weakness (astheneia and cognates) is a word that crops up frequently in these last four chapters (10:10; 11:21, 29, 30; 12:5, 9, 10; 13:3, 4, 9). It does not signify timidity or lack of resolve. Nor does it refer to humility or self-abasement. It is, rather, Paul's term for the frailties of human existence and the adversities of the gospel ministry, as the reference to insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties in verse 10 makes clear.
Paul's statement is a rather startling one: God's power neither displaces weakness nor overcomes it. On the contrary, it comes to its full strength in it (en + astheneia). At issue is how God manifests his power. Paul's opponents claimed that it is best seen in visions, ecstasies and the working of signs and wonders (12:1, 12). Paul, on the other hand, maintained that God's power is most effectively made known in and through weakness. Indeed, God's power is made perfect in weakness (teleitai "to find consummation" or "be accomplished"; v. 9). As one commentator notes, "There is a certain finishing and perfecting power in weakness" (Carpus 1876:178). Not that we are to cherish our infirmities. Weakness of itself will perfect nothing. But when the human vessel is weak, the divine power is especially evident, and the weakness proves to be a fine discipline (B. Hanson 1981:44).
So far from hindering the gospel, Paul's stake actually served to advance it. This is why he aims to boast only in his weaknesses (11:30; 12:5)--and he does it all the more gladly (v. 9). Hedista (from hedys, "pleasant to taste") means "with pleasure" or "merrily." Paul not only has accepted his weaknesses and learned to live with them, but he also takes pleasure in them. Why? Because these very weaknesses afford the opportunity for the power of Christ to rest on him (v. 9). The verb episkenoo, found only here in the New Testament, actually means to "make one's quarters in" or "take up one's abode in." So God's power not merely "rested on" (KJV, NIV, NEB, RSV) or "over" (TEV, JB) Paul but took up residence in him.
This is why Paul can go on to say, "I am content with my weaknesses" (v. 10; not I delight in as in the NIV). This time he adds for Christ's sake. The phrase hyper Christou is oddly placed in the verse. It can go with the verb--"I am content for Christ's sake" (RSV, NIV, NEB)--or, as is more likely from its terminal position in the clause, it can conclude the list of hardships in verse 10--"the agonies I go through for Christ's sake" (JB, TEV, KJV, Phillips).
Paul proceeds to list four examples of the troubles that he has endured for Christ's sake. Three of the four appear in the earlier tribulation lists. All four are troubles that Paul faced on his missionary travels. The first one, hybris, denotes a wanton act of violence. Paul uses it in 1 Thessalonians 2:2 of the "insult" that he experienced at Philippi when he was publicly whipped and imprisoned without cause (Acts 16:22-24; compare 14:5). Ananke (compare 6:4, "hardships") refers to that which compels, forces or necessitates such adverse circumstances as calamity, torture and bodily pain. Diogmos is commonly used of tracking a prey or enemy (compare 4:9, "persecutions"). Paul may well be thinking of how he was pursued from city to city by hostile Jews. Stenochoria (compare 6:4, "difficulties") refers to finding oneself in a tight corner or in narrow straits with no apparent way of escape--not unlike an army under attack in a long narrow pass with no space to maneuver or retreat (Barclay 1954:213).
Paul concludes with for when I am weak, then I am strong (v. 10). His statement has the character of a settled conviction rather than a rote repetition of God's answer. But what does it mean? How can one be weak and strong at the same time? The paradox is noted by all. It is sometimes suggested that Paul is saying that whenever God's servants humble themselves and acknowledge their weakness, Christ's power can flow through them (as in Martin 1986:423). But the point throughout has been that Christ's power is perfected in, not in spite of, weakness. It is likelier that Paul is asserting that the weaknesses themselves represent the effective working of Christ (Furnish 1984:552). How so? We often think that without human strength we are destined to fail and without personal courage we are bound to falter. Yet good as these are, such qualities tend to push us to self-sufficiency and away from God-dependency. Samson was superlatively endowed with strength, but in the end this very strength brought about his destruction (Judg 15:16; 16:18-30). Human strength is like the flower of the field that has its day in the sun but then shrivels up and dies. Enduring strength lies in God alone.