2 Corinthians 12:2–10 (NRSV)
2 I know a person 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 such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.
In every culture there is some form of pursuit of greatness. In some, this might be reflected in the size of the family, how many children they have, or possibly how many grandchildren. Other cultures may put an emphasis on age, education, property, or other forms of wealth. Then within every culture there are sub groupings that have a variant code to determine status or greatness. These status symbols or variant signs of greatness change over time but if you were to look deeply into a culture you would be able to find what they deem important to determine the value or level of respect to give to an individual. As much as we would like to say that we do not have prejudices we do use these culturally determined norms to judge those around us. Every culture, and every sub-culture has these markings. I do not care if a person is a hipster, gothic, in business, or in church there are ways we determine status and we are very hesitant to modify our ideals.
The church has some very interesting way of doing these things. Often it is multifaceted looking at age, gender, spiritual gifts, education, and years of service. We add fancy titles to our positions such as deacon, elder, pastor, or bishop. Within each of these there are greater statuses as well, an arch deacon is a more respected deacon or a pope is just a more respected bishop. Many of these statuses are scriptural, many are based solely on traditions within an organization. Friends have set aside many of these status qualifications because we believe that all people are equal, giving no preference to gender or race, but even among friends there are elders, and people whose word carries more weight than others. These status identifiers are not necessarily sinful, but we must be aware of their existence.
In the first century church, commonly known as the apostolic era of church history, relied a great deal on these identifiers. The greatest level was that of Apostle because that meant that they were an eye witness to the events of Jesus’ life. We commonly think of these apostles as being the eleven people who walked with Jesus throughout his ministry, at least they were considered the lead apostles. But then there were the others apostles, people like Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Steven. These were not in the list of Jesus’ closest associates but they too were eyewitnesses to the ministry and life of Jesus. But as time advanced and these original apostles became few due to the various form of persecution, and other factors began to emerge as the cultural status identifier. Spiritual gifts, prophecy and visions began to rise in importance and in some case replaced the apostolic office.
This is what Paul is speaking about, these cultural ideas of status used to determine the value of people. Clearly the people of Corinth a great deal of emphasis on the value of visions. The greater the vision the more important that person became. Paul is writing to these people about a man he knows, most biblical scholors throughout the ages of church history believe that this man he knows is actually himself. Well this man was taken to the third heaven.
We need to stop there just for a moment to explore this idea of a third heaven. The language used by Paul is one that is very connected with the Greek readers of this letter. Corinth is a prominent city within the Greek culture. A site of one of the most important ceremonial athletic events to entertain the people and the pantheon of gods. This concept of a third heaven is not necessarily degrees or levels of heaven, but a way to explain a concept to a culture that does not have a link to the historic background of Jewish faith. He is speaking to them in a language that they will understand. In Greek mythology there were three levels of heaven: the sky, above the sky (space), and beyond the sky or the abode of the gods. So when Paul speaks of the third heaven he is referring to this area beyond what can be seen in the sky or space, the area where God dwells in full glory.
So this man is taken to the third heaven, seeing things that mortal men cannot speak of, things beyond our ability to comprehend, and things our vocabulary cannot fully express. Then he says that it is either in body or out of body he does not know, God knows. This is what I want us to really reflect on. This is where Paul begins to speak to us about our cultural ideas of status. Corinth was beginning to put increasing emphasis on fantastic testimonies of visions and transportations. They were mystified by these stories of people seeing and getting revelations from God that were only being given to them. Cult like oracles were being formed around individuals that received these unique messages from the divine. Paul is saying this is unreasonable, we cannot know if this is from God or just some factitious tale. Only God knows.
That being said Paul himself is one of those people that received one of those visions that words could not fully explain. He could boast about this vision but it would be foolishness because even he could not even fully tell if it was real or imagined, in his body or out of his body. It was something that was profound in cementing his faith, but only God knows fully what went on.
Paul then says if I am going to boast it is not about the miraculous but the weaknesses of my life. He had seen visions of the very realm of God, but those visions can only do so much for the church. It provides some thought provoking discussions of the hope we have beyond the vail of life, but does little to help with life today. But the testimony of weaknesses hold greater weight.
It is the testimonies of God’s grace in this life that bring hope to the hopeless. The stories that we know fully, because we know they were and are real. It is the story of our lives that have power, the power that will assist those around us listen to the visitation of God in their own lives. The pain, the joy, the heartbreak and the rapture we experience through our daily lives are the testimonies we can verbalize and explain. These testimonies of weakness keep us grounded in the present, keeping our eyes focused on the more important aspects of faith. Paul then testifies about his weaknesses.
Paul speaks of a thorn in his side, a thorn of which he pleaded with God to remove three times. This thorn is the subject of many debates, I have personally heard that the thorn is poor vision due to the blinding light at Paul’s conversion. Or that the thorn deals with Paul’s sexual struggles. While others, and the one I find strongest, is that this thorn deals with Paul’s failed marriage. But those debates are about as helpful as the boasting of visits to the third heaven, because Paul does not elaborate. This is where translation does not give us the fullest effect of what Paul is saying. Our bibles say thorn, but as time has progressed and our grasp of this ancient language improves we can begin to feel just what Paul is speaking of. The word translated as thorn is much more violent than a splinter causing irritation.
This word we translate as thorn is actually a military term that refers to a massive pointed stake that is used to impale the enemy. This thorn is not just a mild irritation it is something that is literally ripping Paul apart, cutting into him deeply and threatening his ability to proceed. He is impaled on this thorn, unable to move by his own will or might. He is dangling at the end of a spear clinging to life. This very thing, this thorn, this issue within Paul’s life hinders his witness, even causes people to question his authenticity. They look at him and question how he can be a follower of Christ with that in his life. This is why the debates are fruitless as to what the thorn is, because it could stem from anything. I like the idea of a failed marriage most mainly because he speaks so often about the importance of staying single so you can minister more freely, why he says if the unbeliever leaves you are not guilty of any sin, and strongly urges that people avoid being unequally yoke in marriage because it will pull you away from God instead of encouraging you to deepen your faith.
Whatever this thorn is this stake that has cut him deeply, it often hampers his witness. People see this weakness in him and at first look they write him off, looking instead to those that have great visions of blessings. Yet Paul says I will boast about the pole sticking out of my side, this beam that has cut me deeply, because as I walk with you in life and as I speak with you and share my testimony it is this beam that reveals the greatest hope of grace. It is through the grace of God that I can move forward even with a spear sticking out of my chest. It is that weakness and hope of grace that allows those of us also impaled by the devil’s snares to consider faith.
Why exactly does Paul include this testimony in this letter? It is because the church in Corinth was focusing on the wrong things. They were puffing themselves up, they were getting excited about the spiritual gifts and becoming outwardly holy people but failing to recognize the most important things. Jesus called out the religious leaders in Israel for the very same things, in Matthew 7:1–5 (NRSV)
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
Why do we judge others? They are sinning, we must hold them accountable for that sin, and we must force them to be righteous. What Jesus is saying is don’t be a hypocrite. We all have thorns, we all have planks gouging us in various places, our eyes, our sides, maybe it has pinned our foot to the ground. I don’t know or really even care, it is not my place but God’s. What I do know is that I am weak in myself, I need God’s grace because so often I am stuck.
Paul tell the people of Corinth. I boast of my weakness because God revealed to me that his grace is sufficient, that his power is made perfect in my weakness, not in my strength. I also say the same God took me a man that was running from God pursuing honor from the world, a man that turned from God to follow the lusts of the world who was impaled and caught. His grace brought me here where I am today. I am far from perfect, but God’s power is perfect and his grace is sufficient. My life could have been so much worse if I continued down that path I do not know where I would have been. But I have a wonderful wife, two amazing sons that fill my life with joy and I have a community of Friends that I can encourage and that encourage me. No I do not have fantastical stories, because I do not need them, I have a thorn that pierced my side that Jesus himself removed and buried in the grave. What was once place to ensnare me no longer has power but God instead does. He has saved me and set me on a different path, a path devoted to loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. It is the path that Jesus himself walked down while he lived among mankind, and it is the path he is calling us all to. We are not the judge but we can bear witness to his grace.