The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Callan’s Commentary on 2 Corinthians Chapter 12

Posted by Dim Bulb on December 1, 2018

A Summary of 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

St. Paul has just proved that he far excels his enemies in the way he has exercised his Apostolic ministry and in the tribulations he has suffered for the Gospel. But in a third particular he has still more surpassed them, namely, in the extraordinary gifts with which he has been favored by God. For the sake, therefore, of giving greater proof of his divine commission, and incidentally to confound his adversaries further, he now speaks of his visions and revelations. He might give many instances, but he prefers, out of humility, to give only one, which, however, is a very striking one. It is more pleasing to him to rejoice in his infirmities and to be judged by his labors and preaching, than to glory in his visions. And since it has pleased God to visit him with heavy crosses, lest he should be puffed up by the magnitude of his revelations, he will glory in his infirmities by which he merits the divine assistance.

2 Cor 12:1. If I must glory (it is not expedient indeed) : but I will come to the visions and revelations of the Lord.

Of the various readings of this verse the following is the most likely: “I must needs glory (Καυχᾶσθαι δεῖ, = kauchasthai dei): it is not indeed expedient, but I will come to visions,” etc. The first clause is also written by good authorities with an interrogation: “Must I needs glory?” The Apostle is forced to glory, although he knows that glorying as a rule is not good.

Visions and revelations may refer here to the same manifestations, although they are by no means to be identified, generally speaking. A vision usually takes place in a state of ecstasy or of rapture, and the one favored with it does not always understand the meaning of the things he sees. A revelation, on the contrary, always implies the unfolding of some truth in such a way that he to whom it is accorded not only sees, but understands the meaning of what he sees. Revelation, therefore, includes vision, but vision does not necessarily imply revelation (St. Thomas, h. 1.).

If (Vulg., si) should be omitted.

2 Cor 12:2. I know a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not, or out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up to the third heaven.

A man, i.e., St. Paul himself. Humility leads him to speak in the third person.

In Christ, i.e., a Christian, one united to Christ by faith and Baptism.

Above fourteen years, i.e., fourteen years previous to the time he was writing, which would be around 43-44 a.d., if this Epistle was written around 57-58 a.d.

Above is not expressed in the Greek.

Whether in the body, etc. St. Paul is certain of the fact of his having been transferred to heaven, but where his body was he does not know. Perhaps his soul was entirely separated from his body and transferred to heaven; or it may be that he was transferred both body and soul into heaven, or that while remaining in the body he was altogether abstracted from the senses. At any rate, it is certain that his senses had no part in the vision.

The third heaven doubtless means the abode of the blessed; but what is intended by third is only a conjecture. The Jews were accustomed to distinguish three heavens, of which the first was our atmosphere, the second the region of the stars, and the third the dwelling-place of the Almighty, where God is seen as He is in Himself. Probably St. Paul was accommodating himself to this mode of speaking, in order to say that he was in the actual presence of God.

2 Cor 12:3. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or out of the body, I know not: God knoweth):
2 Cor 12:4. That he was caught up into paradise, and heard secret words, which it is not granted to man to utter.

Some authorities, with Irenaeus, Tertullian, Gregory the Great, and many others think there is question here of another event entirely distinct from the preceding one. They say that St. Paul was elevated “to the third heaven, and thence to paradise” (Clement of Alex., Strom, v. 12). In this opinion “the third heaven” could not mean the presence of God, or, at least, not the actual enjoyment of that presence. The majority of exegetes, however, hold with St. Augustine and St. Thomas that the Apostle is speaking here and in the preceding verse of one and the same event, and that “paradise” is mentioned to express the delights which the Apostle experienced in the third heaven.

Paradise means literally a place of delights. Jewish ideas regarding it were not always uniform. Sometimes they applied it to the “Garden of Eden”; sometimes to the abode of the righteous below the earth; sometimes to heaven, the abode of blessed spirits with God. The last is certainly the meaning given the term here.

Secret words, i.e., unutterable words, things which the Apostle could speak, but which it was not lawful to speak (Vulg.). St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and many others teach that St. Paul actually saw God and the divine essence at this time.

That the present incident is not to be identified with that of Acts 22:17 ff. is clear (a) from the fact that there no word is said about being caught up to heaven, while we are told what the Lord said to Paul; and (b) from the fact that the incident of Acts took place much earlier than the present one, that is, soon after the Apostle’s conversion.

2 Cor 12:5. For such a one I will glory; but for myself I will glory nothing, but in my infirmities.

St. Paul speaks of himself at present as of two persons, not only out of humility, but also because “he who was caught up to the third heaven and heard unspeakable words is a different Paul from him who says, “Of such a one I will glory” (Origen). “He speaks of a divided experience, of two selves, two Pauls: one Paul in the third heaven, enjoying the Beatific Vision; another yet on earth, struggling, tempted, tried, and buffeted by Satan” (Robertson). Regarding this latter Paul he will not glory, save in his infirmities.

2 Cor 12:6. For though I should have a mind to glory, I shall not be foolish; for I will say the truth. But I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth in me, or anything he heareth from me.

For though I should have, etc. Better, “For if I should wish,” etc. It is not certain whether ἐὰν γὰρ θελήσω (= ean gar theleso)  is aorist subjunctive or future indicative. The Apostle means that if he should choose to boast about revelations which he has had, and which he has a right to disclose, he would not be foolish, because he would be telling what is true; but he abstains from doing so lest any should get a more exalted idea of him than their experience of his conduct and preaching would warrant: he prefers to be judged by his life and teaching, not by what he can truly tell of his privileges.

Anything (Vulg., aliquid) is omitted in the best Greek MSS.

2 Cor 12:7. And lest the greatness of the revelations should exalt me, there was given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me.

The text and the punctuation are uncertain here, but the general meaning is plain: Lest the Apostle should become proud on account of the extraordinary revelations granted him, there was given him some unusual bodily suffering of a very humiliating nature. Literally the verse should go somewhat as follows: “And by reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations—wherefore, that I should not be lifted up over much, there was given me a thorn in the flesh,” etc. The Apostle begins with the revelations, then suddenly breaks off with διό (= dio) wherefore (with B א A G). He is doubtless referring to the revelations, just spoken of, which he could truthfully disclose.

There was given me by God (St. Aug.) through the instrumentality of Satan. Naturally Satan’s purpose in afflicting the Apostle was not the same as God’s : God intended the repression of pride; Satan had some evil end in view.

A sting of my flesh. Literally, “A thorn in (or for) my flesh.” The word for “thorn” (σκόλοψ = skolops) here occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It is found four times in the LXX (Num. 33:55; Ezek 28:24; Hos 2:6; Sir 43:19), and always means a “thorn” or “splinter.” “There is no doubt that the Alexandrian use of σκόλοψ (= skolops) for ‘thorn’ is here intended” (Field, Otium Norvicense, III. p. 115). The idea conveyed is one of acute pain, looking back perhaps to Num. 33:55. Of course the expression is metaphorical; and hence what does the Apostle mean? The explanations have been many and various, but all, both ancient and modern, agree in this, that there is question of physical suffering of some kind. It is not certain, however, that the present passage and Gal. 4:13-14 refer to the same ἀσθένεια (= astheneia = infirmity sickness, etc.,), although this is commonly assumed.

That the “thorn” (Vulg., stimulus) here spoken of does not refer to temptations against purity, as most modern ascetical writers and many modern commentators believe, is proved beyond question by the following considerations: (a) Such a view was held by no Greek Father, nor by any Latin Father of the first six centuries; (b) St. Paul is speaking of something extraordinary, personal and permanent, which cannot be said of temptations to impurity; (c) he could not speak of glorying (verse 9), or of taking pleasure (verse 10) in carnal temptations. The “thorn in the flesh,” therefore, doubtless refers to some chronic physical malady, such as epilepsy, malarial fever, acute ophthalmia, or the like (St. Basil, St. Greg. Naz., St. Aug., St. Thomas, Cajetan, Corn., Le Camus, Light., Ramsay, Farrar, Plum., etc.).

An angel, etc., i.e., a messenger of Satan. The Apostle calls his malady a messenger or instrument of the devil very likely because it was inflicted by the evil one, with God’s permission, however.

To buffet me. Literally, “In order that he may buffet me” (ινα με κολαφιζη = hina me kolaphize) . The present tense is used to show the continual recurrence of the attack (St. Chrys.).

2 Cor 12:8. For which thing thrice I besought the Lord, that it might depart from me.

For which thing, i.e., concerning this foe, i.e., the messenger of Satan, thrice I besought, i.e., the Apostle asked the Lord, i.e., Christ (verse 9) three times to be delivered from his affliction before he received the divine reply.

2 Cor 12:9. And he said to me : My grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

And he said. Literally, “And he hath said.” The use of the perfect implies that the force of the reply continues.

My grace, etc. The request was refused, but something better was given, namely, grace, by which he could merit a supernatural reward.

Power, i.e., strength (δύναμις = dynamis), namely, of Christ. The power of God is most perfectly realized and appreciated when human strength is wanting, i.e., when weak human agents are made use of to accomplish great results.

Gladly therefore. Literally, “Most gladly therefore.” He means that he will most gladly glory in his infirmities rather than ask to be relieved from them, so that the power of Christ, sustaining and giving triumph by His grace, may continue with him. Thus the Apostle’s chronic illness would cause a continuous manifestation of divine power in him (MacR.).

2 Cor 12:10. For which cause I please myself in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ. For when I am weak, then am I powerful.

For which cause, i.e., because the power of Christ is continually manifested in his infirmities the Apostle is content with all his sufferings.

For Christ. The Apostle not only endures his afflictions and trials, but he takes pleasure in them for Christ’s sake. It is when he himself is weak and unequal to the task before him that the strength of Christ’s grace is particularly manifested, helping him to accomplish what would naturally be impossible.

 A Summary of 2 Corinthians 12:11-18

How distasteful to the Apostle it was to boast of his labors and of his divine gifts we are constantly reminded by the frequent apologies he makes for so doing. The fact of the matter is that he has been forced to glory by the silence of the Corinthians in not defending him against the calumnies of his adversaries. His deeds among them were a proof that he was a genuine Apostle. The only thing they could complain about was his refusal to accept anything from them ; but this same policy he will continue on his forthcoming visit, being solicitous only for the welfare of their souls. They know that neither he nor his disciples have imposed on them.

2 Cor 12:11. I am become foolish: you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you: for I have no way come short of them that are above measure apostles, although I be nothing.

Foolish. Reflecting on all he has been saying in his own praise St. Paul admits that he has been acting foolishly; not that his glorying was in reality folly (cf. 2 Cor 12:6; 11:16), but only that it seemed so. In not defending him against his adversaries the Corinthians have forced him to boast. And they are inexcusable in their neglect, because he was in no way inferior to his enemies when he preached at Corinth.

Above measure apostles. See on 2 Cor 11:5.

Although I be nothing. These words are most probably to be connected with what precedes. The Apostle considered equality with his adversaries to be mere nothing.

2 Cor 12:12. Yet the signs of my apostleship have been wrought on you, in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.

Yet the signs, etc. Better, “Indeed, the signs,” etc. That St. Paul is not inferior to his enemies is placed beyond doubt by the way in which the Church of Corinth was founded.

The signs, or characteristic notes, of true Apostleship, i.e., the visible proofs of the mission of a true Apostle, were wrought by St. Paul among the Corinthians. The first of these signs was patience in bearing all things rather than come short of the mission entrusted to him (2 Cor 6:4; 11:23 ff.); secondly there were the signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds, i.e., the various miracles, which God wrought through him in confirmation of his preaching at Corinth. All of St. Paul’s great Epistles bear witness to the miracles he worked to confirm his doctrine. “It is simply impossible that evidence of this kind for the special purpose for which it is adduced should be otherwise than true. It is given quite incidentally; it is not didactic, i.e., it is no part of an argument the object of which is to produce a belief in miracles; it refers to notorious matter of fact, to fact equally notorious for St. Paul himself and for those to whom he is writing; it shews that he could appeal to it without fear of being challenged” (Sanday).

2 Cor 12:13. For what is there that you have had less than the other churches, but that I myself was not burthensome to you? Pardon me this injury.

Another reason why the Corinthians should have defended the Apostle was that they had been witnesses and recipients of the same benefits as other Churches. He had exercised even greater regard for them by not burdening them with his support, but since they have been induced by his enemies to consider this as an injury done them, he sarcastically asks pardon for it. That he is speaking in sarcasm is clear from the following verse where he says he will continue this injury of taking nothing for his support.

2 Cor 12:14. Behold now the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be burthensome unto you. For I seek not the things that are yours, but you. For neither ought the children to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.

Irony now gives place to earnest affection. Being their spiritual father St. Paul will continue not to seek the temporal goods of the Corinthians, but themselves.

Behold now the third time, etc. Better, “Behold this is the third time,” etc. In view of 2 Cor 13:1 this can only mean that the forthcoming visit to Corinth would be his third. See on 2:1; Introduction, I.

That St. Luke does not mention St. Paul’s second visit “in sorrow” (2 Cor 2:1) to the Corinthians is no more to be wondered at than his failure to speak of the Apostle’s visit to Arabia (Acts 9:20-26; cf. Gal. 1:17).

2 Cor 12:15. But I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls; although loving you more, I be loved less.

So great is his affection for the Corinthians that he is willing to spend all he has, including his life, for their souls. This he will gladly do, in spite of their want of affection for him. Some critics make the second clause here independent, and read it interrogatively: “If I love you more abundantly, am I to be loved the less?”

2 Cor 12:16. But be it so : I did not burthen you : but being crafty, I caught you by guile.

The Apostle makes his adversaries speak. They will say: “Granted that you yourself did not take money from us, yet you were cunning enough to get it out of us through your legates. You did not burden us, but you got others to do so.”

2 Cor 12:17. Did I overreach you by any of them whom I sent to you?

This verse makes it clear that St. Paul had already sent several of his disciples to Corinth.

Overreach you, by extorting money from you.

2 Cor 12:18. I desired Titus, and I sent with him a brother. Did Titus overreach you? Did we not walk with the same spirit? did we not in the same steps?

What mission of Titus is referred to here? Perhaps we shall encounter fewest difficulties if we suppose three visits of Titus to Corinth: (a) an earlier one in which he and a brother, literally, “the brother,” started the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, to which the present passage and 2 Cor 8:6 seem to allude; (b) the visit following the painful letter (2 Cor 2:13; 7:6, 13); ( c ) the visit on which he and two brethren were to complete the collection (2 Cor 8:6, 17, 18, 22).

Did we not walk, etc., i.e., were we not the same in spirit and outward conduct?

A Summary of 2 Corinthians 12:19-21

At times St. Paul speaks to the Corinthians as if he were on trial before them, as if they were his judges (2 Cor 10:7; 11:1, etc.); but here he gives them to understand that such is not the case. It does not pertain to children to judge their father. Only God is the judge of the Apostles. He writes these things for their edification, that they may correct their vices.

2 Cor 12:19. Of old, think you that we excuse ourselves to you? We speak before God in Christ; but all things, my dearly beloved, for your edification.

Some authorities understand the conclusion of the Epistle to begin with this verse. But see Introduction VI 5.

Of old (παλαι = palai). A less probable reading has παλιν (= palin), again. The meaning, according to the better reading, is “All this time are you thinking that we are defending ourselves to you?” The sentence may be interrogative or declarative. The answer to it is: “No, for we speak before God, i.e., God is our judge” (1 Cor. 4:3), and in Christ, i.e., as ministers of Christ, to whom we are most intimately united. Therefore, in writing as we do, we seek not to excuse ourselves, but only to edify you, that you be not scandalized in us (Rick.), but that, on the contrary, you be strengthened in faith and grace.

2 Cor 12:20. For I fear lest perhaps when I come I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found by you such as you would not. Lest perhaps contentions, envyings, animosities, dissensions, detractions, whisperings, swellings, seditions, be among you.

The reason he has seen fit to defend himself with a view to their edification is now explained. It is because they are still so deficient in the first elements of the Christian life. He greatly fears that when he arrives both he and the Corinthians will be unpleasantly disappointed. Such surely will be the case if he finds among them factions and party spirits, together with all the evils that follow a wilful lack of unity.

Among you (Vulg., inter vos) is not in the Greek.

2 Cor 12:21. Lest again, when I come, God humble me among you: and I mourn many of them that sinned before, and have not done penance for the uncleannesss, and fornication, and lasciviousness, that they have committed.

The Apostle’s fears are aggravated by the thought that when he comes he may find that his previous admonitions against impurity have not been heeded, and that many of the Corinthians have lapsed back into their former pagan uncleannesses. It would thus be a great humiliation to him to have to mourn over those who saddened him on his previous visit by not repenting and doing penance for their sins. It would likewise be a grievous pain to him to see many of those that sinned before, i.e., before their conversion, or before his second visit, or before his previous letter, back in their sins.

Have not done penance, etc. This shows that, besides amendment of life, penance is necessary for those who have sinned (Estius).

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