The false teachers have been boasting of their abilities, their experiences, and their revelations to build themselves up in the Corinthians' eyes. Paul uses this section of the letter to boast as well, although he knows it is foolish.
Why is Paul boasting if he knows it is foolish? Well, as we get into this, we're going to see that Paul doesn't boast about things he's done well, but things he's done poorly. He's not going to be boasting about things that made him appear grand and glorious, but things that made him seem weak and wimpy. He's not going to boast about his blessings, but about his afflictions.
This section of scripture screams of sarcasm. There is a biting humor to it, a tongue-in-cheek quality that throws many people off. Some Christians even say that they don't like these chapters, and they don't like Paul. Those people are missing the whole point. Paul clarifies it here, saying,
2Cor. 11:17 ...I am not speaking as the Lord would, but as in foolishness...
That too is part of the irony here. He's boasting in mockery of the false teachers' boasting, and saying "Jesus wouldn't be boasting." And that is the whole point - to get the Corinthians to see that such boasting is ludicrous.
He continues with the sarcasm, saying, "I might as well start boasting, because you seem to love it from these false teachers so much." They were bearing with the most extra-ordinary abuses.
Today that is true as well - people endure so much from false teachers. Look at the things Paul lists:
2Cor. 11:20 For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face.
Gal. 5:1 It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
Why is it that people endure this?
Now Paul continues with the irony of his "bragging," listing his great "qualifications" for boasting:
He first lists heritage. The foolishness of bragging about your ancestry has never stopped. Each man is an individual before God, and it doesn't matter whether your great grandparents were slaves or slave owners. It doesn't matter whether your ancestors were royalty or peasants.
Then Paul continues with his great "qualifications" for boasting. He says, "Hey, I've been jailed, beat up, tortured, stoned, shipwrecked, sleepless, and hungry. How's that for gaining respect?"
Then he tells a story that certainly makes him seem like a great man, worthy of respect:
You can read this account in Acts 9. Paul escapes the city of Damascus by going over the wall in a basket - now that's going to command respect, isn't it? But that's just the point: he refuses to boast about the number of people who've been saved, or the number of churches he started, or the famous people he knows or anything of the sort. Instead, he boasts of a humiliating experience for the Lord - running away from the king's persecution by escaping in a basket.
Now, in order to make one more humiliating boast, he's going to have to lead up to it with a story that might glorify him. So he doesn't even lay claim to it personally, but says "I know a man..."
Now, how do we know he's really talking about himself, and not someone else? In verse 7, he admits that it was he.
2Cor. 12:7 And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh...
We'll talk about that in a minute, but first, Paul was caught into Paradise, the third heaven. Some people have gotten the idea here that there are different levels of heaven, like first place, second place, etc. for the rewards. But this expression , "the third heaven," is actually speaking of what we know of as heaven. You see, there are three different "heavens."
The first heaven is our atmosphere. It is that which God referred to at creation in Genesis 1,
Gen. 1:20 Then God said, "Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens."
The second heaven is what we call space, as God's Word says so many times:
Deut. 10:22 ...as numerous as the stars of heaven.
So the third heaven is what we think of as heaven, where God's throne is.
What did Paul see and hear? He can't say. He said it was inexpressible. For him to even try to put it into words would be a crime. People, that is how glorious heaven is going to be. In Romans 8, Paul tells us that
Rom. 8:18 ...The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
There are places in the state of Oregon that I have been to that just amaze you with their beauty. Trees and ferns so green they appear florescent. Mountains so high and imposing you'd think you were at the foot of Mt. Sinai itself. And yet, these things are describable. You can travel to see them. Heaven is going to be so glorious that the Bible hardly attempts to give us a preview.
An amazing thing to me is Paul's reluctance to glory in this story. He's been keeping this in for 14 years. When something like that happens today, people sign a multi-million dollar book deal and go on a 50-city book-signing tour.
Why bring it up at all? As an explanation for his next boast in another weakness:
Paul had what he calls "a thorn in the flesh." What was it? No one knows. It was something that afflicted him, whether pain, disease, or whatever else, we have no idea. But you know, that's actually beneficial to us. For this way, as we suffer with our own afflictions, we can identify with Paul's thorn.
Why did Paul have this thorn? Because the incredible revelations of Jesus Christ Paul was having would have been a stumbling block to him. He could have begun to exalt himself like the false teachers in Corinth were doing of themselves
In the Bible, thorns are always the fruit of sin.When Adam and Eve sinned, God said,
Gen. 3:17-18 "...Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you..."
In the parable of the soils, the thorns that choked the plants were the worries of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and desires for other things. When Jesus wore a crown of thorns, He was taking the sins of the world upon Himself. So Paul apparently struggled with pride in the area of the great visions and revelations that God showed him. That sin resulted in a permanent affliction.
Christians, hear me: Sin can and will bring about permanent affliction in your life. Forgiveness is always available, but some things are irreversible in this lifetime. I will forever live with the fact that my brain is less functional now because of heavy drug use. I've been forgiven, but the thorn will forever be with me. If you, because of sexual promiscuity, have contracted an incurable sexually-transmitted disease, you can be forgiven, but the thorn will be with you for a lifetime.
But one day, when the Lord calls you to heaven, those things will be distant memories. The Lord says in Hosea,
Hosea 13:14 ...O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting?...
Take heart, for death has no thorns. Your thorns will disappear when you go to spend eternity in glory with the Lord.
Now the interesting thing to me, is that this was allowed by God for Paul's benefit, to keep him from self-exaltation, yet it is called "a messenger of Satan." One thing we must remember is that every affliction, every attack of the enemy, everything that satan does to us is with God's permission and for God's purpose.
Col. 1:16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things have been created by Him and for Him.
Satan thinks he's doing a number on us when he attacks and afflicts us. But God is using it all for His glory and our benefit. Romans 8:28 says,
Rom. 8:28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
Nothing has happened to you that threw a wrench in God's plan. He's got it all worked out.
Paul says that he prayed three times for the Lord to take this thorn away. Why did he pray only three times? Is that our limit for prayers and petitions? No, he prayed until he got an answer. Remember the parable in Luke 18 that Jesus told...
Luke 18:1 ...to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart.
The basic message of it was that if an unrighteous judge will give a woman justice for her perseverance, how much more will the Righteous Judge of heaven and earth answer you when you persevere in prayer?
Pray without ceasing, and don't lose heart. Daniel fasted and prayed for 21 days before he got an answer. Always keep praying until you get an answer, and if the answer is no, stop asking. That's how Balaam got into trouble, isn't it? He kept asking after getting a "no." Paul got a "no," and stopped.
Actually, he didn't just get a "no." The Lord told him,
2Cor. 12:9 ..."My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness"...
The message here is huge - to much to even begin to scratch the surface this morning. But think about this answer - meditate on it. God's grace is enough.
"Lord, I want this woman to love me." God's grace is enough.
"Lord, please cure me of this fatal disease." God's grace is enough.
"Lord, please provide so that I can have the house of my dreams." God's grace is enough.
"Lord, please take this thorn in my flesh away." God's grace is enough.
You see, we're constantly praying that God will make us comfortable and happy. But He's never promised either of those things.
He wants us to be totally dependent on Him, but being comfortable doesn't fulfill that purpose.
He wants us to long for His appearing, but being happy in this world doesn't bring that about.
No wonder we are to pray, "Not my will, but Thine be done."