LESSON NINE: 2 CORINTHIANS 12:1-13:4
ENCOURAGEMENT REGARDING THORNS
What would it be like to hear God speak audibly to us? Does He ever do so? How can we expect to hear Him? Scripture gives us answers.
Romans 1:19-20 tells us that throughout human history God has spoken to all mankind in all places in the world by general revelation. Creation reveals that there is a God and reveals some of His attributes. To the person who “listens” and seeks to know more about God, He gives the promise of Jeremiah 29:13: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Anecdotal evidence tells us this is true.
Hebrews 1:1-3 tells us of a more specific way God has spoken to mankind. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being,” The Old Testament includes many of the prophets’ words. The New Testament tells us about the Son, Jesus, who was the living Word of God. (John 1:1-14)
Today, we have the written Word of God against which all other voices must be compared. While Scripture doesn’t tell us everything we want to know, it does tell us everything we need to know. In John 5:39, Jesus said about the Old Testament Scriptures: “…These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” At the end of the New Testament, the apostle John wrote: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life…”
Throughout history, there have also been times when God spoke to selected people through dreams and visions. Many of these are recorded in Scripture. He continues to do this today in selected cases. But because not all visions are from God (Jeremiah 14:14; 23:16; Ezekiel 13:6-9) and because God pronounces serious consequences for those who proclaim false messages from false visions, we must always view visions in light of Scripture to determine whether they are from God or from another source.
DAY ONE: PAUL’S VISION AND THORN
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 12:1-10
In Paul’s day, apparently some of his opponents, in particular the Judaizers, claimed to have received their teaching in visions from God. However the message these false apostles claimed to receive was contrary to the true gospel of Jesus Christ. (Suggested by Galatians 1:6-12)
God had spoken to Paul in visions a number of times which we read about in Acts. (Acts 9:3-5, 12; 16:9; 22:17-18) But there was one vision which Paul had not spoken of before. To have such a vision was not necessary to prove his apostleship, but now, to silence false apostles who claimed superiority because of their visions, he speaks about that early vision.
A. PAUL’S VISION
Paul’s supernatural vision was overwhelming and also humbling! To speak of it in first person would be unacceptably prideful boasting, so he only speaks about it in the third person. The vision was so all-consuming that he didn’t know whether he was transported bodily to heaven or whether it was an out of body experience.
Rabbis had different descriptions of heaven and the number of “layers” it contained. A common understanding today is that the first heaven is the atmosphere we breathe, the second is outer space, and the third is the place where God dwells. Paul was taken to the place where God was.
- Paul describes himself as a “man in Christ.” What does that suggest is necessary to have true communion with God?
- The term “paradise” (12:4) was used by Persians to describe a lovely walled garden. In that usage it suggested a place such as the Garden of Eden where God and man walked together in close fellowship. It might also mean the place where God lived. What does Luke 23:42-43 say about paradise?
- Paul’s vision was a gift God gave him fourteen years earlier. Because this is the only place it is mentioned, we don’t know when it occurred except that it was sometime between his conversion and his first missionary trip. When do you think it occurred?
- Why do you think Paul was given this vision but then not allowed to speak about it?
- What is important is not that Paul had this mystical vision, but that he was obedient in service to God in spite of hardships that came later. (12:10)
B. PAUL’S THORN
- What did God give Paul following this vision?
- Why did God give him this thorn in the flesh?
There is much speculation about what this “thorn” was. Some think it was the opponents who undermined his ministry. Most believe it was something physical since another translation of the word thorn is “stake” as in a pointed stake driven painfully into one’s body. Some conjecture an eye disease, but a more likely possibility is malaria. It appears the pain was frequent and severe, but intermittent rather than continuous as Paul was able to persevere in ministry. Probably it is better that we don’t know the specifics so we can apply the principles Paul learned to ourselves and the “thorns” we live with.
Whether or not you and I have had visions from God, we are the recipients of the indwelling Holy Spirit through our faith in Christ. What are some of the benefits we have gained as a result which we can share about? (John 14:16-17; 14:26; 14:27; Romans 8:26-27; Ephesians 1:13-14)
DAY TWO: PAUL’S PRAYER REGARDING THORNS
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 12:7-10
A. TYPES OF THORNS
- Although this thorn is described as a “messenger of Satan,” who gave it to Paul?
- What two purposes does Paul mention as reasons why he considers this thorn to be a gift given to him for his good?
- What are some other “thorns” Paul mentions in addition to physical suffering? Which have you experienced?
B. GOD’S “NO”
- When we have a thorn in our lives, our first response should be to go to God. How many times did Paul pray? Does this mean we can only pray three times, or does it suggest that there comes a point where we are confident that God has heard and we trust Him with whatever answer He chooses to give?
- It is interesting to note that Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane to be spared the “cup” of suffering. What was His overriding prayer? (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44)
- Describe the intensity of Paul’s prayer. Do we plead with God in this way only for our own personal needs, or do we also plead with Him for the souls of those He has sent us to?
- Sometimes God says “yes” to our requests. When He says “no” what is our response?
- How was God’s “no” truly a gift to Paul?
- How was God’s “no” also a gift to those watching Paul? (1:3-7; 4:7-11)
- Thinking back over Paul’s suffering listed in chapter 11, did the thorn hinder Paul’s ministry? Did God keep His promise of 12:9?
- Although Paul also said he groaned (5:2), here Paul said he delighted in weaknesses, problems and suffering. Why? What did he mean by that? In what other ways is this benefit described? (Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4)
- Are you dealing with thorns in your life or your family’s life? What are they?
- It is not in our strength, but in our weakness that God can best use us. The Lord’s answer to Paul in verse 9 is His answer to you regardless of whether He chooses to remove your thorn. Do you believe it? How have you experienced this?
DAY THREE: PAUL’S PASTORAL PARENTING
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 12:11-18
Having presented his credentials, Paul makes a last appeal. He wants all questions dealt with before he makes his third visit to Corinth so it won’t have to be a painful visit.
A. PAUL’S APOSTLESHIP
Paul calls himself a fool for stooping to the level of the false “super-apostles” (as he sarcastically calls them) who bragged about themselves. Contrary to the “super-apostles,” Paul says, “I am nothing” because the power in his ministry is not his own but from God. The Corinthians were also fools for allowing themselves to be fooled by the false apostles. They should have defended Paul rather than requiring him to prove himself, because they themselves were the result of his apostolic ministry. (See 1 Corinthians 9:2)
Perhaps the Corinthian culture, like ours, caused them to look for superficial traits in their leader: someone who was good looking, dressed well, had a pleasing voice and was an interesting speaker. Paul did not fit those criteria, but Paul had all the marks of a true apostle. Paul had done signs, wonders, and miracles among the Corinthians just like the other apostles. There should have been no doubt about his authenticity. (Acts 5:12)
Christians in every age need to be discerning when they see miracles. Miraculous signs on their own are not proof that God has sent a person. Satan himself empowers some of his followers to do miracles. (2 Thessalonians 2:9) More important than the signs is the message, which must be in line with the Word of God.
- In what way did Paul differ from the false apostles? (11:7; 12:13)
- Rather than being grateful, the Corinthians were offended. And they were deceived into thinking that Paul’s offering for the Jerusalem church was actually a way for him to exploit them. (7:2; 12:14-18) What is the obvious answer to the rhetorical questions Paul challenges them with in verses 17-18?
- If you are a parent, you know it is a joy as well as a responsibility to provide for your children. After one’s children are grown, it continues to be a delight to give them things that will make their lives easier and more pleasant. If possible, parents also like to make provision for their children in their wills. Paul is a spiritual father. It is he who originally brought the gospel message to Corinth. Rather than profit from the Corinthians, what would Paul, like a good father, prefer to do? (12:15) Is he speaking only of finances? In what other ways has Paul already spent himself?
- Beginning with your parents, who has spent themselves in any of these ways for you?
B. PAUL’S SPIRITUAL PARENTING
The false apostles had warned the Corinthians that Paul wanted their money. We know from our experience in our day that tragically there are people who are in public ministry for that reason, if not when they begin, then certainly as they continue to gather a following. This is another area where we need to be discerning. Paul was not like that, however.
- Why has Paul willingly spent himself for the Corinthians? With what attitude has he done so?
- How can it be that this proof of his love was so badly misinterpreted? Had they been taking Paul for granted? Had they misunderstood his role and seen him as an employee or something else rather than a spiritual parent?
- Why might a person, either consciously or unconsciously, reject such love?
- Rather than their money, what does Paul really want? (12:14) What does that mean?
- What is it that God, your heavenly Father, wants from you?
Have you been fooled into thinking that God is satisfied with your money, your talent, or your time when He really wants you?
DAY FOUR: SPIRITUAL PRUNING OF PEOPLE AND THE CHURCH
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 12:19-21
Perhaps another reason the Corinthians had been deceived by the false apostles into not respecting Paul and his apostolic authority was that they had been holding on to sins both as individuals and as a church.
A. PRUNING OF CHURCHES
- Paul says he is not defending himself because he is lacking in some way, because the reality is that they are the ones who are on trial. However his goal is that they be strengthened. (12:19) Why is Paul willing to discipline them? (1 Corinthians 11:32; Hebrews 12:10-11)
- How loving it is of our God to discipline us gently now so He doesn’t have to do it with harshness later! One metaphor for this is pruning. (John 15:2) What might He need to remove from your life or mine which distracts us or deflects us from wholeheartedly loving and serving God?
- God often uses family, friends or leaders to discipline us for our good. What does Scripture say about our attitude toward our leaders? (Hebrews 13:17)
- Sometimes He uses circumstances. An example is described in Amos 4:6-11, when God speaks to unbelieving Israel.
B. SINS NEEDING PRUNING
We tend to divide sins into big sins and little ones. Here Paul divides them differently. But all sin is sin, and pollutes us and mars our fellowship with each other and with God.
- The first four sins (quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions) are ones which have caused division in families or churches. Are any of these problems for you or your group?
- The next four sins (slander, gossip, arrogance, disorder) seem to be current problems among the Corinthians. Which ones might be present in your fellowship group? Do you see them being as serious Paul does? How might you prayerfully repent and reconcile before each other and before God? What difference might that make both within your group and for those outside who are observing you?
- What is Paul’s attitude toward the ongoing “big sins” of the body in verse 21?
- Why would Paul say God would humble him before them because of the unrepentance of many?
If Jesus were to return today, would He find your church and mine the way He wants them to be? Are you or I hanging onto any “minor” sins thinking either that they are justified or that they are of no consequence? If so, will you follow Paul’s heart and repent of whatever it is God points out to you?
DAY FIVE: PAUL’S WARNING OF JUDGMENT
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 13:1-4
The next time Paul visits will be his third time in Corinth. He has warned them about the problems in their church through his second “painful” visit and a couple of letters. There is a time for warnings and then there is a time for judgment. When he comes next time, he will be done issuing warnings and will put those who have sinned “on trial”. This may also include those who by their “tolerance” allowed sins in the church to flourish. Those in the church who are obedient will stand with him.
There is also a time for warnings and a time for judgment for you and me regarding our relationship with God. As He warns us both through parables and through direct teaching in the New Testament, the time is coming when we will stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. This is not about our salvation. That issue is settled for believers at the cross and for unbelievers at the Great White Throne Judgment. The Judgment Seat of Christ is where we receive what we have earned based on our lives here on earth.
- Every matter must be established by testimony of 2 or 3 witnesses. If discipline is needed, it won’t be done on the basis of here-say but of facts. What does 1 Timothy 5:19-20 say about discipline of a church leader?
- What guidelines did Jesus give for discipline of church members? (Matthew 18:15-17)
- What are some possible methods of discipline for individuals? (1 Corinthians 5:5, 11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6)
- What are some methods of divine discipline? (1 Corinthians 11:29-32)
B. TOUGH LOVE
Paul warns that he will provide proof that Christ is speaking through him when he exercises discipline against those who have refused to repent.
- Although unusual, describe the warning followed by the judgment exercised in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. (Acts 5:1-10)
- What is one way God sometimes disciplines believers to refine and purify them? (1 Peter 4:17-19)
- What is another kind of discipline God may bring? (Revelation 2:5) What warning is given so the problem can be corrected and discipline be avoided?
- Up until now, Paul had been seen as weak by the Corinthians, and thus they had discounted his warnings. The Corinthians didn’t recognize power the way Paul exercised it. Paul reminds them of the apparent weakness of Christ which proved to be the most powerful and wise strength the world has ever seen. (13:4; 1 Corinthians 1:18, 25)
- God doesn’t let His servants bypass the type of weakness that Christ displayed on the cross. In what way is the “weakness” of Paul a reflection of his intimate relationship with and trust in Jesus? How is this kind of weakness transformational? (Galatians 2:20)
- How is Paul’s warning of discipline to come actually a service to the Corinthians?
Discipline is never easy, but it can sometimes prevent a minor problem from mushrooming into an uncontrollable one with dire consequences. Will you ask the Lord for wisdom to know when and how to exercise discipline in your family and in your fellowship group?
- Do I know and trust God well enough to DELIGHT in weaknesses?
- Do I submit to the godly discipline of my leaders?
- If I am a leader, is my training and discipline done in the power and authority of Christ and His Word, with the Christ-like goal of training in righteousness and peace?
You and I will likely never have a vision on the level that Paul had; nor will we likely face suffering on the level he did. But along with Paul we have the promise that God’s grace is sufficient for us because God’s power is made perfect in weakness. So as we receive God’s “parenting” of us through His Word, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and sometimes the input of others, we are enabled to parent well those who are under our influence. Sometimes parenting is a joy. Sometimes parenting is painful when “tough love” is required in order to prune sin from the lives of our “children.” But what joy when there is repentance so that judgement and punishment is avoided and sweet relationships are reestablished. Be encouraged that it is worth it to persevere!
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