What does 2 Corinthians chapter 12 mean?This chapter continues refuting the attacks of false apostles, who were working to lead the Corinthians away from Christ. Judging by the context, these deceivers may have captivated their audience with tales of wild supernatural experiences. In the previous chapter, Paul wrote that he would foolishly boast about his service to Christ—his intent being sarcasm, to mock the self-promotion of those men. Instead of claiming to be better than the false apostles, he mostly just described his suffering for Christ. Now Paul says he will "boast" about visions and revelations of the Lord.
Paul insists there is nothing to be gained by this and finishes by declaring himself foolish for doing so. Though his sense of "boasting" is still satirical, his words here are true, and are meant to make a valid point. He is very careful not to make the story of this extraordinary experience about himself, as much as is possible. He initially describes it vaguely as happening to "a man," though it becomes clear he is speaking of himself (2 Corinthians 12:1).
The experience occurs fourteen years before writing this letter, around AD 42–44. Paul says a man he knows—himself, as later verses show—was caught up to the third heaven or paradise. This was either his physical body or an out-of-body experience; only God knows exactly which. Paul's readers would have understood the third heaven or paradise to be the dwelling place of God and of angels. While there, Paul heard things he was not allowed to reveal on earth (2 Corinthians 12:2–4).
Paul refused to brag about any personal connection to this astounding experience, though he says he would be telling the truth if he did boast about it. Whatever it was Paul saw, God was concerned Paul would become arrogant because of these profound visions. So, He gave Paul a "thorn" or "stake" in the flesh. Scripture never defines what this malady is, or even whether it's something purely physical, spiritual, or both. Paul describes this constant struggle in his life as "messenger from Satan" intended by God to keep him humble (2 Corinthians 12:5–7).
As one would expect, Paul pleaded with God to remove this handicap from his life, repeating that prayer at least three times. God refused, insisting His grace was enough for Paul even with this traumatic presence. God declared that His power would be made perfect in Paul's weakness. For this reason, Paul declares once more that he will boast in the weaknesses which prove Christ's power in him. Paul is content in all manner of suffering because his weakness is his strength when Christ is working through him (2 Corinthians 12:8–10).
After describing his supernatural experience and its consequences, Paul returns to make one final plea with the Corinthians to change their hearts toward him and to remove any sin from their lives before he comes to visit them. They should have defended Paul against the deceptive "super-apostles." After all, they saw with their own eyes the supernatural signs and wonders God performed through Paul to establish his credibility as Christ's representative. Paul wonders if they still resent him for not taking money from them for his personal needs and once again insists that he will not burden them in this way. He states that as their spiritual father, he is the one who should provide for them and not the other way around. He will gladly be spent for their souls (2 Corinthians 12:11–15).
Paul rejects one final accusation, likely from the false apostles, that his refusal to take payment from the Corinthian church for his service was a crafty attempt to trick them out of money in some other way. Paul asks if they have any evidence at all that he or Titus or any of his messengers ever took advantage of them. Of course, they do not (2 Corinthians 12:16–18).
Finally, Paul reminds them they are not his judge. Realistically, Paul is in a better position to judge them, as an apostle of Christ. He is concerned that when he comes to visit them, he will find some still participating in ongoing and unrepentant sin (2 Corinthians 12:19–21).