Stay humble, stay focused on Jesus, stay committed to the truth.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 2 Corinthians 12-13
There are really two separate lessons here. For Paul: stay humble and rely on Christ’s strength always. For the Corinthians: care whether or not their lives demonstrate being saved. If either lose sight of that, they fail to understand who Jesus is (God Almighty) and what He did (sacrifice Himself for the world).
Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Examine yourselves. 2 Corinthians 13:5
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
When You Were Smarter Than Your Parents
Just about every kid goes through a point when they think they’re smarter than their parents. Do you remember that stage as a kid? (Or have your kids done that?) Why is that? There’s actually some sound scientific reasoning behind this.
Kids’ brains begin a massive change about the time they reach puberty (we used to think that teens were angst-ridden due to raging hormones, but that’s only a small part of the story; there’s amazing research on this). Their neural networks begin to expand exponentially—a process that doesn’t stop until they reach 25—and they begin to process information faster and in more complex ways than they ever have before. They truly believe they see the world better than the people around them, including their parents, who haven’t been changing.
Kids learn things in school that their parents didn’t. Technology has fundamentally changed the what and the how of classroom learning, not to mention “advancements” in teaching techniques. This begins at different grades depending on the school, but generally by age 9, kids notice that their parents can’t answer every question they have from homework. This gets worse when you add on apps and websites that kids use for school that parents may not understand. Kids decide they are “smarter” than their parent in that particular area, and they extrapolate that to include lots of other areas.
In the preteen time, kids start to understand moral and ethical decision making. And its during that time that they observe everyone very closely to see what kind of “mistakes” people make. Well, they observe parents closest of all, and every mistake in judgment or deduction that a parent makes gets filed away in the child’s mind. As kids rack up the total failures of parents, their realization that their parents make a lot of mistakes is translated to the conclusion that they must be smarter than their parents.
Why bring this up this week? Because Paul is going to confront some church members who have the silly idea that they have Christianity figured out better than he does. (“Don’t make me come back there.”) Between parents and kids, how did that phase get worked out in your life? Well, kids eventually realize that being “smarter” isn’t always about what you know. And being in authority doesn’t mean you never make mistakes. But most importantly, kids realize that they are as deeply flawed as anyone else, and so they back down. Paul tells the church members that if they are truly Christian, they will realize that their attitude is ungodly. Their persistence in down-talking Paul is actually proof that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
When Is Aggravation Good?
Here's another idea. Paul was clearly aggravating members of the Corinth church, and they were clearly aggravating him. Can this ever be a good thing? Has aggravation ever led you to become better (like the oyster/pearl/grain of sand)? If aggravation causes you to take a harder look at yourself and grow beyond it, then it can be good. Paul confronting the Christians at Corinth would cause them to think long and hard about what was really important.
This Week's Big Idea: When Bad Things Happen to Good People
You’ve heard this before—we've talked about it in years past. Why does God let “bad things happen to good people”? Look up the profiles of the kids killed in the Parkland shooting or the Santa Fe shooting, and you’ll do a lot of soul-searching. It all seems so meaningless. Why would God let this happen? We have a faint shadow of the answers, none of which may be particularly comforting to a grieving parent or someone dealing with the shock of an unexpected cancer diagnosis. When I went to seminary for the first time, one of everyone’s favorite students was a young man named James. He and his wife were the picture-perfect couple for youth ministry. Teens flocked to them. Parents loved them. A good, steady influence with credibility and depth. In our second year of seminary, he got throat cancer and lost the ability to speak. He died within a few years. I still don’t understand it. And of course he’s just one of so many examples that we all know.
Well, in this week’s lesson, we get one of those answers: God allows things to happen to all people; it’s just part of being human. It’s not for us to decide if they’re “good” or “bad”; it’s for to decide how to respond. We’ll be talking about something that happened to Paul (a “thorn in the flesh”; see below for ideas about what it was) that was so significant that he prayed repeatedly for God to take it out of his life. But God said no. God would not “fix” Paul’s problem. (Remember, this is on top of all of the other things Paul suffered in the name of Jesus—unjust imprisonment, hunger, exposure, shipwreck, stoning.) We realize that when we suffer terrible things, we have superior company from the Bible. Abel was killed by his brother for reasons we will never understand. Noah and his family had to experience the destruction of the known world (deserved as it was). Hagar was sent into the desert to die by Sarah. Joseph—well, you know what happened to Joseph. You know there were good Jews who were killed by the Egyptians, by the Assyrians, by the Babylonians. You can read the painful stories of what happened to God’s prophets (like Jeremiah and Daniel). Why would God allow such things to happen to people who love Him and serve Him?
There’s a big difference between God allowing and God causing. Our world is broken by sin by our own choices and human failures. Every day we all suffer the consequences of people who have chosen selfishness and greed and violence. Our governments are a product of such decisions. Our environmental and food crises are products of such decisions. Our war zones are products of such decisions. Stress in people’s lives is compounded by their interaction with other broken people in their schools, jobs, and communities. But God is with us, and as we experience life, we realize that His strength is perfected in our weakness.
And there is a reason God does not magically prevent any problems in our world. God does not want us to be satisfied or comfortable with our current world. If we lived in a utopia, we would lose sight of the fact that all is not right and that we need a Savior. We would fail to depend on Him, we would fail to see our need for Jesus, and we would end up in a much worse situation than we’re in now (i.e. hell). The truth is that God does not “play favorites” when it comes to the sufferings of this life; He gives His children the strength to respond well and use our experience to help others. And He will reward us with eternal joy in heaven.
Our Context in Corinthians
Try to put both letters into context as we come to the end of our time with the Corinthians. Here was a group of Christians who had way too much of the world left in them. They believed in power, prestige, and comfort. They believed that success and blessing could be measured in money and influence. They responded to displays of power and were swayed by sweet-talk. In other words, they weren’t displaying the behavior of Christians.
So Paul spends two (really more than that) letters correcting them. And here at the end, he drops a few hints that if he wanted to come to them in a display of power and put them in their place, he could. He could humiliate them and own them. But that’s not how God works; that’s how the world works. At the very end of the letter, Paul says that God gave him his authority “for building you up, not tearing you down.” And our passage this week, just like the very beginning of First Corinthians, focuses on the one thing that these Christians completely misunderstood: weak and strong. It’s a common error for humans. That’s why Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount with the teaching that “blessed are the persecuted” “blessed are the meek” “blessed are the poor in spirit”. As long as we think we are strong, we will always fail (“pride goeth before a fall”). But when we realize that we are weak, then we can truly rely on God’s strength. Until the Corinthians understood that, they would always fail. So Paul ends this letter on the same theme.
So before you read the first passage, ask “What does our culture consider weak and strong? Which one is better and why? How do those who feel weak respond?” Sadly, too many people who have been the subject of bullying (one display of “strength”) decide to respond with violence, or they respond by withdrawing into a shell that they never emerge from. Of course, we know that those bullies aren’t “strong” at all, and that’s exactly Paul’s point. None of us is as strong as we think we are. That humility is what God wants us to remember.
Part 1: Paul’s Weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so that I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it would leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
These are amazing words, words that fly in the face of our culture. See below for more about “thorn in the flesh” (note that in this context “flesh” means physical body, not sinful nature). God allowed Paul to suffer whatever it was so that he would not fall into spiritual pride. Have you ever prayed for patience—how did God respond? Paul surely had prayed that God would keep him from pride, and this is what he got. This thorn was so bad that it interfered with his life and ministry. Why would God do something like this to Paul? Well, read carefully: did God cause this? No. Paul says it was a “messenger of Satan”. This could refer to a demon (and we know demons are always active).
Or it could be one of those consequences of living in a broken world (like I described above) that was so horrible that Paul felt it was as if Satan himself was attacking Paul. “Torment” literally means to “strike with the fist”. God did not take any pleasure in Paul’s suffering! But God, in His perfect wisdom, found it best to allow Paul to endure it, and God gave him the strength necessary to endure it well. Look at the loving way God responded to Paul. Ask if they’re ever had a “this hurts me more than it does you” conversation? And I’m not talking about corporal punishment; I’m talking about allowing your child (or your parents allowing you) to endure the full measure of a bad consequence. Blessedly, those times are few and far between, but sometimes the parent just knows that it will be for the best for the child to endure it. Maybe they come out stronger on the other side; maybe they learn a valuable lesson; maybe they gain invaluable credibility. Every situation is different. But every decision is made in love.
Because Paul got this validation from God, his perspective on his thorn in the flesh changed dramatically. It ceased to be a hindrance and became a source of hope. So here’s your big application: what do you do when God doesn’t answer your prayers the way you want?
(Btw: do you feel like Paul was actually humble-bragging in those words? It sounds like it today, but remember Paul's audience. They would have understood exactly what he meant.)
Aside: Messenger of Satan
Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul referred to Satan as “the god of this world” and as “Belial” (which means “worthless”). This is noteworthy because Greeks didn’t have an equivalent for the devil that Jews did. They had Hades, the god of the underworld, and hated him, but nothing quite like Satan. And so Paul, instead of just mentioning Satan in 2 Corinthians, would also describe him. Here, when he mentions the “messenger of Satan”, he seems to be tapping into the pagan background of Greek culture, that there were malevolent spirits at work everywhere, and they answered to a supreme Satan. But this would mean that anything in Paul’s life could qualify as this thorn in the flesh because that culture saw everything in life as a function of the spiritual battle happening unseen between good and evil. Paul had something specific in mind, but the cultural and linguistic context could let it mean anything.
Bonus Aside: Thorn in the Flesh
Defending his apostolic calling, Paul mentions a vision of the “third heaven” (12:1-6), but in order to keep him from getting a big head about it, God also gave him a “thorn in the flesh”. The word for thorn can mean “thorn” or “splinter”. For a long time, scholars thought Paul was talking about either persecution or temptation. In recent times, scholars have adopted the original interpretation of this thorn, a chronic physical problem.
There are four common theories proposed today.
An eye disease (in Gal 4, he says they would have given him their eyes if they could).
Malaria (or another common ailment of that era, like gout or a dental infection).
Great sorrow to the point of pain (stress and poor diet leading to ulcers or kidney stones). Or
an actual messenger of Satan (see a later sidebar)—a spiritual tormenter.
And of course there are many other proposals out there.
I lean toward the eye disease. He brings attention to writing with “large letters”, and eye trouble would be catastrophic in his line of work, traveling to strange places over great distances. Things like ulcers or kidney stones were certainly common and very troubling, but they don’t last very long (if either of those would lead to an infection, it would kill you). Other ailments that could be debilitating but not fatal include mental illnesses like hypochondria or hysteria, but those don’t line up with Paul’s profile from his letters. And besides, “thorn” implies pain (if you’ve ever gotten one, you know it). Some sort of eye disease checks all of the boxes.
Bonus Bonus Aside: My Grace Is Sufficient
What exactly does this mean? We think of grace as a gift we don't deserve; but in this case, God wasn’t granting Paul release from his suffering, so what grace is Paul talking about here?
We could be fully correct if we decided that God was saying, “My acceptance of you and the salvation I have given you in Jesus Christ is enough to keep you from complaining about your circumstance.” That’s true—our momentary suffering is nothing compared to the glory we will enjoy for eternity! But perspective (as most people understand “salvation”) makes Paul entirely passive, and Paul immediately goes on to pair grace with “power”, a very active thing.
Here’s what we do with it: “salvation” meant a lot more to Paul than we often think today. Salvation isn’t just something that happened when be believed on Jesus, it is something God does in our life right now. We have been saved; we are being saved. For Paul, being saved meant being changed by the Holy Spirit, and part of being saved (for him) included his calling as an apostle—both of those were the grace of God.
In other words, when God told Paul that His grace was sufficient, He did mean that salvation was sufficient, but salvation included God’s ongoing work in Paul’s life from the inside: “My presence with you, My superintending of your life, that is sufficient for your every need.” Key point: those things are true of every Christian, whether or not we have a thorn in the flesh that bothers us as much as Paul did. No matter what happens to us, God is with us and will empower us to overcome toward His purpose for our lives.
Part 2: Christ’s Strength (2 Corinthians 13:2-4)
I gave a warning when I was present the second time, and now I give a warning while I am absent to those who sinned before and to all the rest: If I come again, I will not be lenient, since you seek proof of Christ speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but powerful among you. For he was crucified in weakness, but he lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by God’s power.
This sounds tough, doesn’t it? I put some information about church discipline on the back page. But even if you choose not to go into detail about proper church discipline (what a fun topic!), make sure you catch three things.
(1) Paul gave them ample warning. Paul did not just show up and blow up.
(2) Church discipline is not about being right or “winning” a debate. It is about honoring Jesus Christ.
(3) And this is in the next part, Paul puts it on the people involved—examine yourselves. Be responsive to the Holy Spirit.
With those three truths established, this harsh passage should make a lot more sense. Remember that Paul made an impromptu visit to Corinth after he heard how poorly things were going there. It ended up being a dust-up, and apparently Paul warned them that if they didn’t get their act together, he would “drop the hammer”. Consider this line: “when the cat’s away, the mice will play”. What did you do when your parents were out, or when the boss was home sick, or when there was a substitute teacher? Why do we do that? For whatever reason, people think that the rules apply less when the authority figure is not present. That’s not true, and it implies severe immaturity. Paul was upset. People in the church had behaved very badly (massive sin), and the rest of the church hadn’t done anything about it. Well, now Paul would have to come in and deal with those sins and confront the rest of the church for their failures. Ironically, this was one of the complaints against Paul, that he was too meek (unlike the bold-talking “super apostles” they liked so much). They didn’t understand that real strength isn’t winning a shouting match—real strength is the power of Christ changing a person from the inside. As we’ve said several times, you can win an argument and lose a relationship. Which is more important? Paul was going to share the truth with the Corinthians, and Jesus would deal with them from there. (Note: if they decided to reject the truth, Paul would sever their relationship; relationships require both parties to make an effort.)
What’s the best illustration of this? Jesus being crucified. That was the moment of ultimate seeming weakness; He let His enemies win and walk all over Him. But that’s not what was really happening. In dying willingly, Jesus won eternal victory. So here is the question: have you ever been so broken-hearted over a friend who did not see how wrong they were? What did you do? What should you have done? How does Jesus fit in here? According to Paul, Jesus gave Paul the strength to do what was right, regardless of how opposed he would be by the Corinthians.
Part 3: Our Choice (2 Corinthians 13:5-8)
Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Examine yourselves. Or do you yourselves not recognize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless you fail the test. And I hope you will recognize that we ourselves do not fail the test. But we pray to God that you do nothing wrong—not that we may appear to pass the test, but that you may do what is right, even though we may appear to fail. For we can’t do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.
The solution is painfully simple. A Christian would not willingly continue in sin after being confronted by friends in the faith. He or she might have a painful repentance process, but it will be steps in the right direction. So Paul flips the script on them: are you sure you’re a Christian? There’s nothing more important than that. If you’ve been brokenhearted over a friend gone astray, your primary prayer needs to be that that person is made right with Jesus. Forgiveness and remuneration are fine, but nothing is more important than that person’s soul.
And note the role pf personal credibility. Paul tells them to consider his behavior. They will realize that he has always tried to do the right thing the right way—that’s his proof that he is a Christian. And if they realize he is in the right, then they should listen to his warnings. His motivation is their good (something that the false leaders couldn’t say). Paul makes it clear that he is not interested in “being right” or “winning”; he is interested in all of them following Jesus together. He doesn’t want to say “I told you so”; that doesn’t help anybody. Bring up public reaction to major news stories. It’s pretty scary how vitriolic people are getting. People want to prove a point at all costs; they want others to get what’s coming to them; they want to show what a hypocrite everyone else is; they want their viewpoint to be vindicated. It’s about tearing others down. Our worldly tendency is to do just that. What is the motivation behind that approach? I don’t always know; I don’t always understand why people want to be so destructive (or at least why professing Christians would participate in that behavior). Make sure to understand Paul’s motivation: the truth. Look at what he says: “I want the truth to prevail, even if that means I’m proven wrong”. That’s the attitude we should have in all of the personal conflicts and situations involving moral failures. We want the truth to come out, and we will support the truth. Why? Martin Luther put it this way: truth is unkillable. Truth is associated with God and Christ and the gospel; lies are associated with Satan and death. If the truth is that you have been immoral and need to repent, then you should admit it. If the truth is that Paul has been right in his approach and goal, then you should acknowledge it.
So you have two different wrap-ups here. (1) Focusing on Paul, the lesson is the continue to trust God and do the right thing, even when you have a “thorn in the flesh”. (2) Focusing on the church, it is to humbly follow Jesus.
Closing Thoughts: What Is Proper Church Discipline?
Paul drops the gauntlet with, “If I come again, I will not be lenient.” That sounds threatening! And of course the Corinthians were practically requesting Paul to take that hard-line stance. How well do you think something like that would go over in our churches today? Not well. On the one hand, people do not like being confronted these days. They would rather retreat than deal with that. (And we have a huge number of other churches around where people can retreat to.) And on the other hand, the people who are willing to address personal failures often have plenty of mistakes in their own past. And most importantly, they don’t understand how Jesus has told us to handle church discipline in the first place.
First, realize that Paul—while using tough talk—is ultimately asking the church members to test themselves, to look into their own hearts to see if they are in the wrong or not. That’s a different kind of confrontation, isn’t it?
In Matthew 18:15, Jesus gives the pattern for proper church discipline. First, the person directly involved tries to work it out privately. Second, if that doesn’t work, the person brings along two or three trustworthy Christians to try to work things out—still in private. Third, if that doesn’t work, then it comes before the church with the clear testimony of the individuals involved in step 2. The point is to give the wrongdoer every opportunity to recognize his error and repent, and to do that respectfully and privately. You don’t push things into the public sphere until you have no choice, and even then the purpose is redemptive (not punitive). Church discipline fails today because (1) it is inconsistent, (2) it is often driven by agendas, and (3) it is waged as a PR battle, not a quest for truth.
There is absolutely a place for church discipline today, but it must be done the right way and for the right reasons.