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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Paul's Stake (12:7-10)
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 [1]). 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.

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