Setting

In the face of opposition from false apostles, Paul has been compelled to defend his apostolic ministry to the Corinthian believers. In the present lesson we see that Paul continues the theme of boasting and being foolish. In no way is Paul inferior to those who claim to be super-apostles. While Paul seems to intend to boast in a worldly manner as his opponents do, his boasting will turn out to be boasting of a very different nature.

Key Verse

(12:9)

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Outline

  • Boasting about Weakness
    (11:21b–33)
  • Visions and Revelations
    (12:1–10)
  • Paul and the Corinthians
    (12:11–13)

General Analysis

  • 1.

    In what ways has Paul demonstrated that he is not inferior to the super-apostles?

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    Paul is not inferior to the super-apostles in at least four areas, according to this passage:

    1.He has suffered much more for the sake of the ministry and of the believers (11:23–29)

    2.He has had a most extraordinary revelation in his visit to paradise (12:1–5)

    3.He has performed the signs of a true apostle among the Corinthians, namely signs, wonders, and mighty works (12:12)

    4.He has not burdened the Corinthians by receiving their support (12:13)

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  • 2.

    How is Paul’s boasting fundamentally different from the way people of the world boast?

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    When we read this passage initially we may think that Paul is going to boast in the same way that others do, i.e. boasting about his capabilities, his knowledge, his eloquence, or his accomplishments. But as we continue reading we realize that Paul’s boasting is of a very different kind. Instead of boasting about his strengths, he chooses to boast about his weaknesses (11:30; 12:5). Even when we expect him to speak about the great visions and revelations he has received, he makes a deliberate point to refrain from magnifying himself (12:6) but extols the power of Christ through his weaknesses (12:7–10).

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Segment Analysis

  • 11:21b–33

    1a.

    Go through the list of sufferings Paul enumerates and try to group them by type.

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    1.Wrongful punishment

    2.Hardships on journeys

    3.Oppression from various groups of people

    4.Enduring extreme physical conditions

    5.Anxiety for the churches and for the weaker members

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  • 1b.

    How are these sufferings a testimony that Paul is not inferior to his opponents?

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    They are evidence that Paul has served Christ with utmost dedication and diligence. At the same time, they are part of Paul’s boasting about his weaknesses. Like a jar of clay in which a treasure is stored, the ministry of Christ displays great power despite the oppressions from without and the pressures within (cf. 2 Cor 4:7–12).

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  • 1c.

    What does the fact that Paul remembers the exact number of times he has encountered some of the hardships tell us?

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    Even though Paul seldom writes about the details of his sufferings for Christ, the fact that he remembers the exact number of times the suffered some of the hardships reveals that he remembers each event vividly. They have left such a deep memory in Paul because of the great sufferings they inflicted.

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  • 1d.

    What can we learn from Paul’s list of sufferings in terms of serving Christ

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    Serving Christ is not just being in a position of honor or carrying around a title. It inevitably involves suffering for His sake. Each faithful servant of Christ has a mark of sufferings on him. We should not be surprised to meet hardships while doing the will of Christ, since they are a necessary part of the ministry.

     

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  • 11:21b–33

    2a.

    What does Paul’s anxiety for all the churches reveal about him?

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    The believers are in Paul’s heart all the time, and he cares about them deeply.

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  • 2b.

    Do you often feel the same kind of anxiety over the weaker members in the church? If not, what can you do about it?

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  • 11:21b–33

    3.

    Why does Paul choose to boast of the things that show his weakness (v. 30)?

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    Even though Paul feels compelled to boast as his opponents do to show that he is not inferior to them, he knows clearly that man has nothing to boast before God. As we can see in 2 Cor 12:6, Paul refuses to boast in a way that would exalt himself above the work of God in his ministry. So he chooses to boast of his weaknesses instead in order that Christ’s power shines forth through his weaknesses (cf. 2 Cor 12:9–10). By reading about Paul’s weaknesses, we the readers may see how Christ has accomplished great things through what man may deem as weak. It is God, not His servants, who deserves all the glory and praise.

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  • 4.

    What is it about Paul’s narrow escape at Damascus that you think Paul is boasting (vv. 32–33)?

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    In verse 30, Paul states that he will boast of the things that show his weakness. Paul used to be a man of authority whom Christians everywhere feared (cf. Acts 8:3; 9:13). But after accepting Christ and becoming a servant of Christ, he has suffered great humiliation as a result of pervading slander and persecution. In Paul’s own words, he has become “like the scum of the word, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor 4:9–13). The vivid image of Paul being let down in a basket through a window evokes such a sense of humiliation. He cites this narrow escape to illustrate his weakness as a minister of the gospel.

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  • 12:1–10

    5.

    Who is the man in Christ that Paul is referring to? How do we know?

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    In 12:1, Paul says that he must go on boasting and he will go on to visions and revelations. The account of the rapture to heaven expands on this boasting. Later, he reveals that a thorn was given him in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations (v. 7). Thus, the context makes it sufficiently clear that the man he writes about is himself.

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  • 6.

    Explain the elusive language Paul uses, such as “I know a man in Christ” and “whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows” (vv. 2–3).  

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    In Paul’s elusive language we sense his reluctance to exalt himself. Paul seems to hope to focus on the extraordinary nature of the experience and the fact that the experience was from God rather than the identity of the man.

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  • 7.

    What does Paul’s experience in paradise add to his credentials as a true apostle?

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    What Paul has experience is a rare spiritual encounter. Being caught up to the third heaven and hearing words that man may not utter is an exceedingly great revelation (cf. v. 7). Such a revelation from God and personal experience with God is something the false apostles cannot claim to have received.

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  • 8.

    What is Paul refraining from doing according to verse 6?

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    What others see in Paul and hear from him refer to God’s work in Paul and the gospel that God has entrusted Paul to preach. Paul only wants people to see the greatness of God’s deeds rather than the greatness of Paul the apostle. For this very reason he would rather boast about his weakness.

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  • 9a.

    How does the thorn in Paul’s flesh keep him from being conceited?

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    The thorn in Paul’s flesh is a persistent reminder that he is but human.

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  • 9b.

    Although Paul does not state so explicitly, we may infer that it is God who gave him the thorn in the flesh. What does the fact that God makes use of even a messenger of Satan for His purpose say about God and His servants?

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    God is sovereign over all things. Nothing is outside of His control, not even the work of Satan and evildoers. Although Satan and evildoers may intend to bring us harm, God works in all things for the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28). God may turn hardships in our lives into opportunities for us to grow spiritually (cf. Rom 5:3–4; Heb 12:3–11). Such hardships also help us learn to depend on the power of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 12:9–10).

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  • 12:1–10

    10a.

    God did not do as Paul had earnestly asked. What has Paul learned from this?

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    Paul has learned to accept that the thorn in his flesh has a good purpose. He has learned to boast gladly in his weakness and be content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities (vv. 9–10). He now knows that He has God to lean on in his sufferings, and that he can experience God’s grace even more as he endures the sufferings.

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  • 10b.

    What can you learn from God’s answer to Paul’s prayer?

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    It is natural for us to ask God to remove the pain in our lives. But sometimes God does not grant our request because He has a higher purpose that is ultimately for our good. Even though our hardship remains, we may experience God’s grace and power through our weakness the way Paul has. God’s presence and His comfort are more than sufficient to carry us through in our moments of utter helplessness.

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  • 12:1–10

    11.

    Explain the truth that when we are weak then we are strong.

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    It is easy to become self-confident and proud when everything goes well. We forget to turn to God and rely on Him. As a result, we become distant from God. But when we are keenly aware of our vulnerability and frailty and turn to God for strength, we begin to see what God can do in our lives. The weaker are, the more we can witness God’s great power. In our moments of weakness, we can also personally experience God’s profound love toward us.

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  • 12:11–13

    12.

    Observe the transition to a different point in this segment via the pronoun “you.” What is Paul’s point in this segment?

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    In this segment, Paul addresses the Corinthians with the pronoun “you.” With a tone of disappointment he tells the Corinthians that he should not have had to boast and made a fool of himself. They have seen Paul perform the signs of a true apostle among them. Whereas Paul receives support from other churches, he has not burdened the church in Corinth. They really have no reason to question Paul’s integrity as an apostle. Yet here he is, being forced to defend his apostolic authority because the Corinthians have failed to trust him.

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